Alistair Fairweather

Dead man clicking

2010-04-16 09:20

No one enjoys the thought of death, but most responsible adults plan for it. We write wills, we buy life insurance and funeral policies, all to ensure that our loved ones don’t suffer additional pain when we are gone. But how many of us include the internet in our plans?

Think for a moment about all the places you “exist” online. Over a billion people have profiles on social networks of one kind or another, and nearly twice as many have online accounts such as email. Many people have profiles on several sites. I am on Facebook, LinkedIn (a professional network) and Twitter, to name just a few.

Yet how many of us ever share our usernames and passwords with our spouses? Or our parents? Without those vital details it’s extremely difficult to put the dead to rest online. Many people now keep vital information locked away in email accounts or online document services.

On social networks the issue can become absurdly macabre. Loved ones may be plagued by automated reminders each time they use a service: “Your daughter hasn’t logged on in 6 months - why not send her a message?”

This problem became so acute that late last year Facebook launched a memorialisation feature. It allows the bereaved to convert an account into a virtual shrine without having to know the person’s login details.

Once memorialised, they no longer appear in automated reminders but a limited version of their profile remains active to allow friends and family to leave messages.

It may seem odd to post comments on a dead person’s profile, but carving that person’s name into a stone tablet isn’t exactly logical either. The urge to pay homage to the departed is present in every human culture, so it’s inevitable that it would follow us into the virtual world.

And online memorials are hardly a new idea. They’ve been around since the mid-90s when the internet first reached mainstream popularity.  But with the social media boom in the middle of the last decade, such memorials became almost de rigeur.

This was driven by the shift towards using real names online - a cultural watershed for which Facebook is largely responsible.

Few people would bother to mourn CuteGirl765 on Friendster or DaB0mb11 on MySpace. But thousands flocked to the Facebook profiles of Reema Samaha and her slain classmates after the Virginia Tech massacre in August 2007.

What this whole mess needs is a virtual undertaker. Someone discreet to help put things in order. Entrustet, which launched earlier this year, aims to do just that. You provide them with a list of all your “digital assets”, plus all the details necessary to access them and a list of instructions on how they should be dealt with.

Since the service is currently free, it’s unclear what they get out of the deal. Although the frequent mention of their “lawyer directory” is probably a good clue to where the money is coming from.

And while the idea might seem thoroughly morbid, this is only the start of what will grow into a whole industry. After all, the internet, like death, is now just a part of life.

: This is my last column at News24. Thank you to all my readers for the support and criticism I’ve received over the last two years. It’s been a privilege.

- Follow Alistair on Twitter: @afairweather or read his blog.

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