The tombstone has proven a reliable enough marker of a person’s existence. Solid. Substantial. (Sometimes even monumental) And a half-life measured in geologic time.
But what does it tell us, truly, about the dear departed? Born, died, name and maybe an epitaph unlikely to do justice to the measure of a life.
Perhaps there’s a better, online way to preserve our journeys on the mortal coil.
LiveOn, a Kansas City-based start-up, is among a growing group of companies that are looking to make a business of your virtual afterlife. LiveOn sees itself as more than a Facebook for the dead. Rather, it hopes to build a narrative of the things that mattered in your life that will stick around on the Web when you’ve passed to that big hard drive in the sky.
“If Facebook and Ancestry.com had a child, that would be us,” said Jonathan Whistman, LiveOn’s founder and chief executive.
The idea came to Whistman while he was going through photos and other keepsakes after one of his grandmothers died. He wondered: When I die, what would my son have to remember me?
So he set to making an online service that would preserve the photos, videos and other markers of a life. LiveOn, still fledgling with fewer than 5,000 members, puts the detritus of a life into context. The hope is that members will arrange tight social networks of their “tribes,” family and closest friends to build portraits of themselves that aren’t distorted by memory or the misplacing of digital artifacts. Then when a member dies, that online profile remembers accurately and contextually what was significant in that person’s life.
“Here’s how my story lives on past me,” Whistman said. “People think, ‘I’m nobody special.’ But there are people in their lives who think they are and want to remember.”
His company is making a bold promise. It will offer the profiles for free, but it aims to make money by charging to digitize the online artifacts and sell users online templates that put memories in artful focus.
With that revenue, LiveOn says it will preserve the profiles “in perpetuity.” It hopes to raise enough to establish an endowment to pay for formatting and storage of the material.
Planning is key
Care or not, if you’ve traveled the Internet much at all you will leave footprints there after you die. But without planning, they are likely to be errant peeks at who you were — and not the part of yourself you want most to be remembered. They could easily fade into oblivion. And they could be locked up behind passwords that, deliberately or not, you took to the grave.
“The thing with the digital world is that it’s very transient,” said Adele McAlear, a social media marketing consultant who blogs at DeathAndDigitalLegacy.com. “You may not care about what happens after you die. After all, you’ll be dead. But your family will. Your friends will.”
And so an industry is popping up to keep alive those digital things that you won’t be around to cultivate. Companies such as Legacy Locker, Entrustet and I-Tomb are fighting for the “digital estate planning” business.
Even companies that for generations have dealt with your physical remains now recognize that how we remember someone online is part of how we remember them, period.
“It’s a way to accommodate people who want to pay their respects but can’t be there,” said Patrick McGilley of McGilley State Line Chapel in Kansas City. The funeral home, like many others, posts obituaries and guest books online. Amos Family Funeral Home in Shawnee has experimented with streaming video of memorial services online, including one for a man stationed in Iraq who wanted to see his father’s funeral.
“Some people have negative thoughts about having (a service) on the Internet, because they’re worried about people not showing up in person,” said Gregg Amos, who owns the funeral home. “But it can be really worthwhile.”
Digital life is fragile
Longer term, the prospects of keeping your Internet-cached identity alive can get trickier. By one estimate, about 400,000 Facebook users die each year in the United States alone. So what happens to their profiles? It depends. There are forms to report a death to Facebook and freeze a profile as a memorial. The deceased can’t add friends, and some personal information, such as phone numbers, can be removed, but it provides a place for people to post their remembrances and condolences. Families can deactivate profiles through a similar process.
But there have been problems. Hoaxes have led to people being declared dead on Facebook even as they continue to draw breath offline, and families have wrestled for control of lost loved ones’ accounts.
Oklahoma in 2010 passed a law giving executors the power “to take control of, conduct, continue or terminate any accounts of a deceased person on any social networking website, any micro-blogging or short message service website or any email service websites.” Idaho, Indiana, Connecticut and Rhode Island have similar laws.
We all need to account for our Twitter accounts and PayPal controls the way we allot custody of the kids and decide who gets that broken-down motorcycle when we buy the farm, said Evan Carroll, a co-author of the book “Your Digital Afterlife.” He said that somehow, somewhere, we need to leave our passwords with our wills or insurance policies. It is not only about access to our social networks, but sometimes about the keys to our online bank accounts.
What we leave undone, we leave to chaos, said Carroll, who sees the greatest business potential in services that automate the preservation by tapping into existing accounts such as Facebook or Twitter.
“There’s the potential to have remnants of yourself out there, and we don’t know who will discover them or what they’ll do with them,” Carroll said. “We’re living in the first period where you’ve had to think about your digital persona.”
Experts also say it is important to adjust the caretaking of our sundry memorabilia to the digital age. As a way to preserve things, the move from the printed page to the Internet cloud has been a blessing and a curse.
Our stuff can’t burn on the Web. It can’t get soaked in a flood or tossed to the next county by a tornado. By uploading computer files — letters, pictures, movies — to the scattered servers that make up the electronic cloud, we have found ways to store things far better than a shoebox or photo album stuffed in a closet.
But those virtual keepsakes have a particular vulnerability. Imagine you had put something on a floppy disk or a Zip disk a few years ago.
Recovering them today isn’t impossible, but it’s not simple. And there could come a time when it would be lost forever.
By comparison, consider the wax cylinders used in the earliest days of sound recording. They still work. Even if they are scratched, the gist is still there. But a DVD recorded yesterday could be lost completely by just a tiny computer error and be worthless tomorrow.
“The fragility of digital stuff just can’t be overstated,” said Bill LeFurgy, the digital initiatives project manager at the Library of Congress. “Technology is constantly moving ahead.”
The trick to preserving keepsakes is redundancy. Keep multiple copies of things in multiple formats. For example, it’s not enough to copy family pictures to a CD or DVD. Back them up on a flash drive or a portable hard drive, and upload them to an online storage service. The Library of Congress suggests that every five years you move materials to a new technology to avoid being locked in an obsolete format.
LeFurgy is dubious of services that guarantee to keep your digital things alive for all time.
“No commercial company is in the forever business,” he said. “They’re in it today because it fits their business model. It may not be part of their business model forever.”
Still, LeFurgy sees great potential for the Web as a way to preserve who we are, who we were.
“You could imagine something out in the distance that uses all those things out there about us,” he said. “It could be a fuller picture.”
An enduring memorial
Think of the life, now past, of Mac Tonnies. He served coffee at a Starbucks in Kansas City until he died in fall 2009 at age 34. Two years later, The New York Times Magazine published a story largely based on Tonnies and a blog he cultivated about science fiction, pop culture and a range of other musings. Through that blog, the article contended, part of Tonnies lives on.
Even today, his Posthuman Blues blog remains online. His last post, simply three artsy photographs, went up just shortly before he died. It drew comments, first wondering why his posts stopped, then speculating that he might have died and then memorializing him. The post has drawn 390 comments. People still were commenting on his blog last weekend.