A Will for Your Digital Self?

I recently read articles in North American and European publications about companies offering a service of storing your passwords and other information relating to your online life, together with your instructions about their disposition if you die. Is this a good idea?

Your last will and testament is where you tell your family and others how you want your estate (your money and possessions) to be distributed.

People often include with their will some messages to their heirs — people of the Jewish faith have a long tradition of leaving so-called “ethical wills” in which they impart ethical and religious instructions to their children and examples of these go back to at least the 12th century. Modern people often write a letter (or letters) to be given to specified individuals by the executor of their estate; the letters are most often addressed to their children as a positive message of the parent’s hopes and wishes for each child.

The Virtual World

The Internet has created a new world in which people may “know” each other without ever meeting. For example, I have frequent online conversations with people scattered around the globe, discussing topics of mutual interest or collaborating on software development projects. One is in a suburb of London, another in Pardubice, another in Hamburg, a fourth in Kota Kinabalu, and a fifth in Cape Town. I have never met any of them face-to-face; we communicate via email, via online chat rooms, and on a few occasions, some of us have spoken over VOIP connections.

If you use the Internet, you probably have accounts which require you to log in, typically with a user name and a password. Those accounts can range from your email to your blog or web pages. You may have other accounts on social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn, or MySpace.

If you are a heavy user of the Internet, you have a lot of accounts! I know that I do. I have so many (more than 300 at last count) that I need and use special tools to keep track of them. Some are subscription accounts; others are service accounts (for examples: server space I rent for websites, blogs, “cloud” storage); and others are free.

When I Die

I do not like to think about this too much, but I need to be realistic: like everyone else, I will eventually die.

So what will happen to my accounts? How will those virtual world friends of mine learn that I am no longer going to show up in a chat session? I doubt my passing will be noted in the media in Kota Kinabalu, and I am not even sure my friends there read print media any more. What about the materials I have stored on my cloud server space? Should I let it be erased when the account expires?

Now that I think about it, I own some property in the Second Life virtual world and it has a commercial value which should be realised, so I need to deal with that and with the distribution of the proceeds.

Extending my Will

The sensible thing for me to do is invest a little time in dealing with this now. I can:

  • Make a list of my accounts
  • Scratch off the list those that are not important
  • Decide who should deal with the remaining accounts
  • Write out notes for how each account should be dealt with
  • Make a list of my virtual friends and how each may be contacted
  • Draft a short note to be sent to each of my virtual friends
  • Perhaps arrange for a final message to be posted on my websites, Facebook page, and in similar locations
  • Draft an “I get the last word!!!” message to be posted to that guy with whom I have argued online for nearly two decades

I am sure I could get all that done in a single rainy afternoon. Then I would add the materials to my Will.

Why Not Use an Online Service?

Recall it was the articles about online services offering to store all these instructions which started this. I see problems in using such services:

  1. They are expensive, quickly running into the hundreds of dollars.
  2. If I live another 20 years, will they still be around? The Internet is a pretty impermanent place for start-up companies, which these are.
  3. I want my last will and testament to be complete — I do not want to say, “check with these folk on the Internet for more information about my wishes.”
  4. I review my will each year when I’m paying my taxes (I prefer to do all the depressing stuff at one time), and that is another reason I prefer that my will is one complete entity.
Your Thoughts? Have you thought about these issues? Have I missed something you think is important? I would love to hear your ideas. Please post your comments below and let’s start a conversation!

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