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Digital death 

Where does your data go when you reach the end of the road?

I don't plan to live past 50. If I keep this pedal pinned to the floor, even that might be pushing it. Death is something that I ponder daily, usually between my morning blunt and Burger King breakfast run.

Yet for all my morbid musings, I've never thought much about my digital legacy — the only significant asset that I have. In addition to all the articles I've written that exist online, I've got more photos, profiles and social-networking accounts than the average Web junkie, and a whole lot of enemies who would flame my wall in the event of my demise. I don't care about my body; like comedian David Cross, I'm donating my dead meat to necrophiliacs (if possible; there's no check box for that). It's my virtual soul that I wish to preserve.

What would happen if I logged off for good, and took my passwords to the grave? Will spambots devour my blogs even as maggots chomp my corpse?

"You're delusional if you think everything you put on the Web is going to be there forever," said Adele McAlear, who founded the site Death and Digital Legacy, at a recent lecture I attended at SXSW. Her statement shook me. A top social-media consultant and seasoned lecturer on these matters, McLear says the U.S. Supreme Court will inevitably have to determine how companies handle data belonging to dead users.

In the absence of meaningful state or federal regulation regarding post-mortem rights in cyberspace, a so-called digital death industry is booming. Sites like DataInherit, a "Swiss bank for data," have tens of thousands of users in 100-plus countries. MemoryOf, which allows survivors to build tribute pages, is approaching the 100,000-memorial mark, while the comparable 1000Memories recently became the first company of its kind to attract a seven-figure capital injection.

There's been some notable coverage of digital death; business publications are especially enthralled by the potential of this relatively uninhabited marketplace. But I chose a more practical approach to probe the phenomenon, and decided to write out my own Web will.

Counting the cloud

To that end, of the dozen or so services I could have used for digital asset management, I picked the Madison, Wis.–based Entrustet, which has emerged as an industry leader. The three-year-old company's co-founder, Jesse Davis, is a young healthy dude who I think will be around for a while, and who says his company has taken serious safety precautions, going "above and beyond" standard security measures to deeply encrypt information.

The first thing Davis advises me to do is "cloud count," or take an inventory of every site and service I belong to. Aside from the basics — Twitter, YouTube, Gmail, Tumblr, Facebook, and an interminable MySpace — there are several other accounts that I want closed, or at least maintained, after I pass. There's the eBay profile that I use to sell old comics for beer money, and the Adult Friend Finder account from my truly degenerate days. (In some sort of sick metaphor, hookup-site memberships are a major pain to get rid of.) I also have a few WordPress blogs, SpringPad for my field notes, and online Bank of America access.

After I die, my relatives can contact these companies directly, and follow procedures to get into my accounts. But the process can be difficult. Even mega networks have policies that experts say are inadequate for the age we live in; Facebook, which loses three users every minute to the Farmville in the sky, has yet to implement a setting that allows users to decide their page's fate. According to the Digital Beyond, the go-to forum for e-death news, Twitter makes the bereavement process easy — all they require is a link to a public obit or news article and they'll promptly delete an account; they'll even provide mourners with a backup.

On the other hand, Yahoo!, which owns Flickr and other popular services, buries "no right to survivorship" and "non-transferability" clauses in their sign-up-box legalese. Apple deals with the deceased on a case-by-case basis, but don't expect to inherit your uncle's iTunes library. Until a court decides differently, that's copyright infringement.

Executor privilege

To make my eventual dirt nap easy for everyone around me, I had to choose a digital executor to entrust with all of my passwords and uploaded files. I could have gone with mom or dad, though I don't think either would agree to run my Tumblr if I croak. None of my close guy friends are responsible enough to tackle such a major task, and as for my girlfriend — I considered it, but there's no safeguard to protect me in the case that I'm executed by my executor.

I finally got my editor to agree to Entrustet's e-mail asking him to serve as my keeper. It was time to make decisions regarding my digital properties. For everything from Gmail to Facebook, Entrustet prompts me to enter my user name and password, and to choose an appropriate action to carry out in case I drop. The basic service is free, and allows me to transfer accounts to my "heir," who can then follow my instructions to curate or delete my profiles. For $30 a year I can upgrade to premium, which permits Entrustet to "incinerate" accounts I want terminated, wiping all traces of their existence from the Internets.

As a bonus, Entrustet allows me to upload documents for my executor's eyes only. Since most of my work is already online, I have just a few files for Carly to manage: some chapters of my books-in-progress on hip-hop and the Red Sox; a short story I've been trying to sell to McSweeney's for a decade; an autobiographic screenplay that I'd like hand-delivered to Darren Aronofsky. I'm also including a short list of songs to play at my wake: "Dead Letter" by Royal Flush, Biggie's "You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Kills You," and "Dead Body Disposal" by Necro.

Finally, I turned to another service, the relatively simple If I Die (ifidie.org), to assist with delivering goodbye salutations to my friends and family. With a few keystrokes, I sign up to store farewell notes, which will be sent to designated e-mail addresses if administrators determine, through various checkpoints, that I have kicked the bucket.

At first I planned to agonize over virtual daps to everybody from my mom to my high-school English teacher. But that exercise triggered an awful panic attack — sweats and shakes — so instead I went with something more generic. You might say it's the last auto-response message that I'll ever write. It's something like:

Subject: 'Out of office until ...'

If you're reading this e-mail, it means I either died, or found out where Tupac was hiding. Please don't cry for me, though — I had a kickass life, from meeting Daniel Ellsberg and every member of the Wu-Tang Clan, to toasting the 100th anniversary of legendary Boston bar J.J. Foley's with Jerry Foley himself.

I went to more than a few ballgames and concerts, and had friends who loved me back. Somehow I got a master's degree — almost two of them — and one time I even changed a car tire. Christopher Hitchens once stole a joke from me without knowing that I stole it from an episode of Dr. Katz.

I'm sad to say that I don't have any children or sperm that's banked somewhere. However, if you look around my futon, you'll probably be able to scrape up a little something. And if you have luck engineering my offspring, please tell the kid that he or she can read about me on the Internet, where my legacy will live on. My status may be "I'm Dead, Bitch," but I'll be on Facebook forever.

Chris Faraone is a staff writer at the Boston Phoenix, where a version of this story first appeared.

  • I've recently written something akin to the last auto-response message I'll ever write.

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