The Problem With Digital Death, And The Future of Dying (Online)

A tech figure's final request is fulfilled when his wife publishes his post-mortem blog post - just days before the Digital Death unconference, provoking emotions and questions about death, mourning, data storage and fragility in the digital age.

A tech figure's final request is fulfilled when his wife publishes his postmortem blog post - just days before the Digital Death unconference, provoking emotions and questions about death, mourning, data storage and fragility in the digital age.

When Derek K. Miller (Penmachine) died on Tuesday, his wife pushed “publish.” After a long battle with cancer, he’d prepared his final blog post with the knowledge that it would be the last thing he would say to his loved ones and the world.

The Last Post began,

Here it is. I'm dead, and this is my last post to my blog.

As his post climbed on social sharing sites, was bombarded with traffic. It went down intermittently. There was no one to fix it.*

The error page on Penmachine suggested contacting Derek if problems continued.

It was upsetting to realize what was happening. This reminder of the transient nature of life, the Internet, and everything was difficult to cope with.

I met Derek briefly in August of last year. He attended Gnomedex 2010, as he had missed previous years while battling cancer. Derek did a spin onstage that had everyone laughing and even singing, and then came to sit with me after my talk.

My boyfriend said it was great to see him back, and Derek quietly told him that he was not “back” but was actually on his way out, for the final time. He’d wanted to spend some time with his extended tech family, dear friends like Chris Pirillo and the whole ragged lot of us.

What happened surrounding The Last Post brings up interesting questions about what will happen with our online belongings when we die.

It’s a strange coincidence that Digital Death Day 2011 is today, May 6, at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

Digital Death Day is an unconference on the social, cultural and practical implications of death in the digital age – it looks at “how death, mourning, memories and history are currently being augmented in our technologically mediated society.”

More and more bloggers are going to be doing what Derek has, the final resting post. We can perfect our last words. If you read Derek’s post, then you know the emotional immediacy of this is powerful.

His post ended by directly addressing his wife, saying,

Airdrie, you were my best friend and my closest connection. I don't know what we'd have been like without each other, but I think the world would be a poorer place. I loved you deeply, I loved you, I loved you, I loved you.

The recent - and beautiful - Google Chrome commercial "Dear Sophie" has everyone’s eyes teary and, for me, raises similar types of questions. In the video, a man sets up a Gmail account in his daughter’s name, and emails her throughout her young life, creating a book of memories a la digital message in a bottle.

It’s a nice (and hopeful) fantasy. But the problem is, we're still talking about the fragility of data storage, and companies.

And all companies get sold, or shut down; people leave, and companies change.

There is a site (among many others) I’m reminded of that claims they will maintain memorials for loved ones "forever." 1000Memories was widely featured in the news and was a Silicon Valley echo chamber darling around this time last year. Their tagline is, “Remember a loved one together. It’s free and forever.”

The site offers a variety of answers to tough questions, but my first question while looking at the site was, “How do you guarantee forever?”

I especially had this question in mind when I saw that Caterina Fake is one of the advisors to 1000Memories, a Y Combinator startup. She helped create Flickr, and then sold it to Yahoo! - where now longtime members face constant threat of removal with little or no recourse, on a site that has become notorious for unwarranted deletions and a graveyard for customer care.

Your memories are certainly not safe on Flickr.

Giving 1000Memories a chance, I found their page on social media and death to be helpful.

In the Tough Questions section, there is a subsection called “Close online accounts.”

They answer the following questions:

How do I manage social media when a loved one passes away?

What can I do with a loved one's Gmail after they pass away?

What can I do with a loved one's Hotmail after they pass away?

What is LinkedIn's policy on death?

What is Twitter's policy on death?

What is Facebook's policy on death?

But I still wanted to know why I should trust 1000 Memories, or any site like it. Everyone – everyone – knows there are massive risks, pitfalls and problems in the data storage industry. To pretend the opposite is irresponsible at the least.

How does a startup avoid death, exactly?

Clicking on the question “Why should I use” and finding this blank, unfinished page didn’t help.

I’m reassured that Derek’s site, even if wobbly, is his own and left to his family.

I knew Derek for a split second. It’s beautiful to look at all the Last Post's comments (now that the site’s back up) and see how he touched so many with his last words; words that will live beyond him, for however long that may be.

Image by Kevin Dooley, under Creative Commons 2.0 Generic license, via Flickr.

* Update: It only appeared on the outside that there was no one to fix Derek's site when the heavy load hit. Alistair Calder was working diligently on it, but when sites like Hacker News (and individuals like myself) were struggling to save and share the content, the behind-the-scenes work was not readily apparent. Bravo to Calder for being amazing and solid behind the curtain during a crisis and unexpected magnitude of traffic. Many hearts are with you, and we thank you for being there.