What will happen to your online identity when you die? That depends entirely on the actions you take now.

Jenna Ness wasn’t ready to die. No one that young ever is.

But she did, on June 29, 2010, by injuries suffered from a fall a few days before. Soon after—maybe a few hours even—her Facebook went from being how she presented herself to the world to how it remembered her. Friends and family flocked to her page to say goodbye.

I spent part of the end of 2011 working on a story for the Daily Dot about mourning in the age of Facebook, talking to friends of Ness as well as experts in the field. Yet surrounded by all that data and all of those stories, I never once thought about my own digital demise—what would happen to my own Facebook, Twitter, email, and even Words With Friends accounts when I die.

But Evan Carroll thinks I should. He runs The Digital Beyond, a blog that provides legal and technical insights into preserving your online legacy. Carroll believes preparing for such an event will become crucial, especially as more of our important memories live only as files in the cloud.

“We use to document our lives with tangible things like photos and family films,” said Carroll, who started the project with John Romano after meeting at a South by Southwest panel in 2009. “These are things we used to remember our lives and because they were physical and in our home, our family had access to them.”

Today that’s not the case. For me personally, most of the images I take of friends and family are all on my iPhone, Instagram, or Facebook, and when I’m gone, as it stands now, most of those pictures will be gone too.

Carroll said that shouldn’t be the case and that programmers should be able to “design for death” or make it easier for us to prepare for such an end. A driving question for him has been, “Will it be possible for my grandson to see my Facebook 60 years from now?”

He’s hopeful. But Carroll also stressed that digital information is “fragile.” And who knows, he added, if Facebook will even been around six decades from now?

For Carrol, the preservation of data on the Web isn’t just for the sake of memories—but for history.

A recent study by Old Dominion University revealed that 10 percent of the photos and videos about the 2011 Egyptian revolution shared online have already been lost, due to corrupted links and server failures. Carroll said with all of the advances we’ve seen in technology, it would be a terrible shame if this generation lost much more of its online history.

“The unfortunate fact is that most people aren’t even thinking about a digital afterlife, much less preparing for it. But those who do prepare often don’t keep their plans up to date.”

In some regards, preserving our digital past and preparing for the future are of the same importance. Carroll is ready for his own digital demise, with his account information stored in a location that his family knows and has access to.

Maybe I should get on that.

  • SXSW Panel: Digital Immortals: Preserving Life Beyond Death
  • Sunday, March 11, 5 pm
  • Austin Convention Center, Room 9ABC

Photo by Mourner

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