Who Inherits One's Digtritus?

Just saw a tweet from Michael Arrington and it made me think. When you or I or someone we care about dies, where does our digital legacy go? This Arrington article speaks mainly about a new company, 1000Memories that provides a place for people to memorialize someone that will remain in place 'forever'. That is a great idea... a common gathering place for memories and recollections. A sort of "Tombstonebook" where The Wall has no participation from the subject. (Now that I think about it, I wonder what Facebook's policy is on the death of a FB participant?)

What his article really made me think about though, is the other stuff that comprises one's digital life. Word documents, spreadsheets, online email accounts, Outlook pst file, digital photos, digital movies, accounts and passwords, virtual money in Second Life or FarmVille.

Think about it. Most of this stuff is now virtual. I mean, it is not tangible, but is it any less valuable?

When my grandmother died 20-some years ago I somehow ended up with a tattered paper bag full of a few photos and a bunch of old negatives. These were old Brownie and 620 black and white negatives, scratched up and piled together. Back when I used to do darkroom work, I made some contact sheets to see what was on these negatives. It was mainly blurry pictures of old friends and family. I never did a full catalog, but I still have the bag.

When my wife's father died several years ago, we ended up with some of his 35mm slides, some negatives and some 16mm home movies. We even ended up with an old Silvertone wire recorder and a collection of old recordings.

Here's the deal. I am the only person in the world that has access to and possession of these memories. If I do nothing with them, they really don't exist, do they?

Now think about today. We photograph and record EVERYTHING. Sure, some of it gets posted to YouTube but that is only a sliver of a fraction of what gets recorded. What about all of the gazillions of snapshot pictures that people take with a variety of cameras, phones, Flip cameras, etc.? They collect on computers, external hard drives, iPads, iPhones, SD cards, old CF cards, even Iomega ZIP drives (remember those???) We used to be frugal about pictures (I doubt that I have more than 20-30 photographs in existance that I took when I was a teen.) Now, since digital film is so cheap, we snap away.

Beyond photographs, movies and audio, what about our Evernote files, our Pulse Smartpen recordings, our NEAT scans, our MobileMe, our Dropbox, our JungleDisk and on and on? Do we know where it all is? Does anyone have our passwords to get to it? Does anyone even care?

I call this our digital detritus or digtritus (Pronunciation: \dij-trī-təs\). It is everywhere. It has become our footprint in the sands of time. Will that footprint be blown away in the next sandstorm or washed away with the next crashing wave? Or will it become solidified like a fossilized footprint in Pompeii, remaining forever for all to see? If you want it to live on, who will be responsible for deciding what is to be seen and not seen? Will it become public or remain private? Who actually gets to be the one to gain access in order to do the dividing?

Is there anyone out there that doesn't have something that is so private that they don't want anyone they know to see it? Conversely, would you want everything that you have squirrelled away in your digital world... all of your digtritus... to disappear upon your demise?

I do not know the answer to these questions, but I think that we need to discuss this with our attorney or our family members so it can be addressed in our Last Will and Testament before we pass on. It will be one less thing for families to argue and fight over after the death of a 'loved one' and may actually be a legacy to be proud of.


Kathleen said…
I really enjoyed reading your blog, you're one of the first to talk about this growing problem. I work with a company called Entrustet that addresses exactly the things you are talking about. They allow you to securely list all your digital assets (everything from facebook accounts and email accounts to personal photos and computer files) and choose what you would like to happen to them upon your death.

Did you know that over 185,000 facebook users will pass away this year? Therefore, you are completely justified in wondering how facebook will deal with this problem. Our digital executor toolbox (http://blog.entrustet.com/digital-executor-toolbox) helps explain how to delete certain accounts when someone passes away. However, most of these sites require knowledge of the deceased's username and passwords, which are not often attainable without a service such as Entrustet.

For more information on this issue, check out our blog at blog.entrustet.com


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