Thursday, April 19, 2007


When Online Life and Real Life don't connect: in death

The latest Willamette Week article about one family's difficulty in accessing their deceased son's Facebook page reminded me of a problem too many people who are active on the Internet ignore: how death will impact their Online circle of friends and acquaintances. Many people, who have built up a network of online relationships, will stop participating one day, without notice. This happens for many reasons. Sometimes it's because she/he simply has grown bored and decides to stop participating. Sometimes it's because she/he moves or loses her/his internet connection. And sometimes it's because that person has died.

In that case, where someone has died, the people who knew her or him only from online interactions often never know why that person has fallen silent. Because it's not uncommon for someone to take a break from Online Life for a few days or a week without any notice, at least a week might pass before anyone asks the question, "Whatever happened to so-and-so?" Often all we know about someone online is only what that person shares, so it is entirely possible that why a person has vanished from the online world will ever be known: no one might know where to start looking for her or him. People who can write fluent English can be found in almost every country, not just the US, the UK, Canada, Australia or New Zealand. There are a large number of native speakers of English in India, for example. And even if one knows the real name and location of a given person, even a determined search may fail to uncover what happened to that person.

This can have more of an impact than simply leaving a number of Internet users with a mystery. Keith Lofstrom came to rely on the Open Source package Dirvish to backup and restore his business and personal computers, and when its maintainer, Jonathan Schultz, stopped answering emails or provide updates to Dirvish, it took Keith almost three months to find out that Schultz had died. Although skilled with computers, he admits that he is not a programmer but was forced to should the task of maintaining Dirvish. Keith discussed these problems as part of his presentation to the Portland Linux/UNIX Group on Dirvish. (While he had challenges, Keith pointedly notes, "Think of what a furball this would be if this was closed source, and the company producing it stopped supporting it!")

While it's hard enough for people to plan for the Real World repercussions of their own death, less people have given any sort of thought to the repercussions online. A while back, when I was faced with my own potential mortality, I did ask Yvette that if I die would she contact someone at Wikipedia to let them know. I hope that more people who do have significant online relationships or responsibilities make appropriate plans. (Now I need to deal with my lack of a will.)


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