Devisable Digital Immortality?

There is a fascinating piece on webpages that “outlast” their creators in yesterday’s Star-Ledger. The article mentions several recently deceased individuals whose families decided to keep up their sites as a tribute.

The practice reminded me of Mike’s recent post about the permanence of one’s online presence, and the difficulty of managing it. There is little doubt that the unfortunate individuals profiled in the article had no idea they were about to die. . . . certainly they could not have planned their sites accordingly. The article mentions the growth of an online memorial industry, which might assist people in thinking this through.

I think such a development is a good thing, even though it partakes of types of “negative immortality” I criticize in this article. I have worried that individuals will aspire to “download their consciousness” in its entirety. But these sites seem a much more benign form of remembrance, and may even spark a sort of secular kaddish where people can regularly visit and remember loved ones.

In any event, the following quote got me thinking about the legal implications of the practice:

“Digital immortality comes through these remnants of a person’s online life, but that immortality terminates piece by piece when some tech person somewhere shuts down an account,” said Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley technology forecaster and professor at Stanford University. Saffo . . . said people will achieve different levels of permanence depending on their Net presence: “The difference is: Are you a pharaoh who just built a digital pyramid to stand for all time, or are you one of the laborers whose immortality is that you wrote your name on one of the bricks?”

I wonder–is there any way that one can devise a site via a will? Or do the terms of sites like MySpace or Friendster make it clear that any page on it is the property of the company? The article seems to indicate that site decisions on how to deal with family requests are quite informal…it may be in the interests of everyone that they get a little clearer.

2 thoughts on “Devisable Digital Immortality?

  1. At Epinions, we specifically said that our payments were not devisable because we didn’t want to get embroiled in post-death contests. I’m not sure if such clauses are enforceable. Otherwise, at minimum we know that domain names are “property” so they should be devisable. I would think other online presences would be devisable as well, or treated consistently with executory contracts. Eric.

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