Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Friday, November 1, 2013

Are you aware of your digital afterlife?

Do you have a blog? Are you on Facebook? Twitter? Google+? Do you store your genealogical data in the Cloud? Do you correspond by email? Do you have photos stored on Instagram or Picasa? How much of your life and work are online? What will happen to that online legacy when you die? How much of what you have online is password protected? How would your heirs discover your passwords? But more importantly, how much of what you have online do you want to survive you after you pass away?

Not all of the concerns that involve our online legacy have to do with our digital estate plan or the probate laws, some of the evolving concerns relate to online memorials and post-mortem email notifications. New businesses are arising to fulfill these anticipated needs. For example a website called the Digital Beyond, listing dozens of businesses catering to the idea of preserving some form of digital perpetuity. 

Now let's think about this for a minute. Is this something that we need to be seriously concerned about, or is it just another innovative way to make money and make us all worried about nothing important? I will go through each of the areas mentioned above and see whether or not there is a problem.

The vast majority of our email traffic is junk and not even interesting junk. There are companies that archive emails for businesses and other similar organizations, but the process of preserving personal email is pretty well left up to the individual. Google has an email archiving function, but moving email from one online storage area to another does not really address the problem. A rather simple solution is to keep an archive copy of any personal emails that you think contains family history pertinent information on a local hard drive. In this regard, my practice is to write all such emails in a word processing program and then save the word processing copy and copy the content and send that as an email. This procedure does not address the greater issue of preserving emails from family members and other relatives that may contain significant historical information along with photos and videos. 

One issue with email is the format of the files created by the email service you use. If you save off an email as an email file, you will likely be dependent on the permanence of the email provider in being able to access your saved files. Some saved emails end up with rather limited file extensions that are not recognized by any word processing program. There are ways to change the files so that they can be recognized, but that process is individual to the format of the email program being used.

Social Networking
It would take a truly dedicated family historian to try and capture the day to day drivel of the social networking world. But unfortunately, today's younger computer users depend on venues such as Facebook for communicating their most public and private communications. I have seen everything from wedding and new baby announcements to death and funeral arrangements being conducted on social networking sites. Other than copying the posts and archiving them in word processing format or some other file format, there is nothing the individual can do easily to preserved the stream of communications. One option is a series of screenshots, but again, that would take a huge amount of time and considerable storage space. We are almost totally dependent on the permanency of the online companies and their policies concerning dead users to be able to use this information in the future. 

Online Family Trees
The simple solution for saving online family tree information is to refrain from putting anything online unless you have a local copy. Again, we have at the mercy of the providers in this regard if the local copy is missing or defective. Collaborative family trees such as that on partially solve this problem, but there is still a lot of information in notes and other places that does not get included online.

Images online are really only a separate issue if the user makes the Web the primary and only storage place for family photos. In most respects, the considerations for preserving email and other transient online communications apply to photos. 

These are only a few of the considerations concerning what happens to our online digital legacy when we depart this world. But as time goes on, this will and should become a subject of vital interest to everyone who is interested in preserving their family history beyond the present generation. Any scheme or plan that merely moves the digital information from one online provider to another is not a real solution to the problem. 

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