eSther Earl never wanted to tweet after she died. On August 25, 2010, the 16-year-old Internet vlogger died after a four-year battle with thyroid cancer. In her early teens, Esther had gained a loyal following on the Internet, talking about her love for Harry Potter and her illness. Then, on February 18, 2011 – six months after her death – Esther posted a message on her Twitter account, @crazycrayon.
"Today is Friday, January 14, 2010. I just wanted to say: I seriously hope I'm alive when this post is published." She wroteand added an emoji from a smiling face in sunglasses. Her mother, Lori Earl from Massachusetts, tells me that Esther's online friends were "freaked out" by the tweet.
"I'd say they thought their tweet was jarring because it was unexpected," she says. Earl does not know what service her daughter used to schedule the tweet a year in advance, but believes that he was meant for her and not for relatives after her death. "She hoped she would receive her own news … [it showed] their hopes and longings to live, to live. "
Although Esther did not intend her tweet to be a posthumous message for her family, a number of services are now encouraging people to plan their online afterlives. Want to post on social media and communicate with your friends after death? There are many apps for that! Replica and Eternime are artificially intelligent chatbots that can imitate your language for loved ones after your death. With GoneNotGone you can send emails from the grave. DeadSocial's Farewell Tool lets you "tell your friends and family that you died." In the second season, Episode 1 of Black Mirror, a young woman recreates her dead friend as Artificial Intelligence – what was once the subject of a dystopian 44-minute fantasy approaches reality.
But although Charlie Brooker is a dodgy digital life after death, online legacies for the bereaved may actually be comforting. Esther Earl used a service called FutureMe to send herself e-mails stating that her parents should read them when she died. Three months after Esther's death, her mother received one of these e-mails. "They were seismically strong," she says. "This letter made us cry, but also brought great comfort – I think because of his intent, the fact that she was thinking about her future, the clarity with which she accepted who she was and who she wanted to be."
Because of the power of Esther's messages, Earl knows that if she died, she would also schedule e-mails for her husband and children. "I think I would be very clear on how many messages I wrote and when I can expect them," she adds, noting that they might scare relatives and friends.
While the terminally ill think about their digital heritage, most of us do not. In November 2018, a YouGov survey found that only 7% of people want their social media accounts to stay online after they die. According to estimates, there could be 4.9 billion dead users on Facebook alone by 2100. Planning your digital death is not really about planning family status updates or creating an AI avatar. In practice, it's a series of dirty decisions about deleting your Facebook, Twitter, and Netflix accounts. Protect your emails from hackers. Give your friends your music library; Enable your family to download photos from your cloud; and make sure your online secrets are hidden in their digital niches.
"We should think very carefully about everything we entrust or store on a digital platform," Dr. Elaine Kasket, psychologist and author of "All Spirits in the Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age". "If our digital stuff were like our material stuff, we would all look like extreme hangers." Kasket says it's naive to assume that our online lives are dying with us. In practice, your digital assets can cause endless complications for your loved ones, especially if they do not have access to your passwords.
"I cursed my dad at every turn," says Richard, a 34-year-old engineer from Ontario who four years ago became the executor of his father's estate. Although Richard's father left him a list of passwords, none was valid at the time of his death. Richard was unable to access his father's online government accounts, his e-mail address (to inform his contacts about the funeral), or log on to his computer. For privacy reasons, Microsoft denied Richard Richard access to his father's computer. "Because of this experience, I will never call Microsoft again," he says.
Compare this to the experience of Jan-Ole Lincke, a 24-year-old pharmaceutical chemist from Hamburg, whose father left passwords on a sheet of paper when he passed away two years ago. "Fortunately, access was very easy," says Lincke, who downloads images from his father's Google profile, closes his email address to prevent hacker attacks, and deletes credit card information from his Amazon account. "It definitely got me thinking [digital legacy]"Says Lincke, who has now written down his passwords.
Despite the growing awareness of the data we leave behind, very few of us do anything about it. In 2013, a Brighton-based company called Cirrus Legacy made headlines after it started keeping passwords safe for a nominated loved one. However, the Cirrus website is no longer available, and the Guardian could not reach its founder for comment. Clarkson Wright & Jakes Solicitors, a Kent-based law firm offering their customers the Cirrus service, said this option had never been popular.
"We've known for some time that the big problem for the next generation is the digital footprint," says Jeremy Wilson, head of the CWJ's will and estates team. "Cirrus made sense and clicked on a lot of boxes, but to be honest, not a customer mentioned that to us."
Wilson also notes that people do not know about the laws governing digital assets such as music, movies, and games that they download. While many of us assume that we own our iTunes library or a collection of PlayStation games, most digital downloads are licensed only to us, and this license ends when we die.
What we want and what the law allows us to handle our digital heritage can therefore be very different. At the moment, however, it is not the law that dominates our digital death decisions. "Regulation is always very slow to keep up with technology," says Kasket. "That means that platforms and companies like Facebook ultimately write the rules."
In 2012, a 15-year-old German girl died after being hit by a subway in Berlin. Although the girl had given her parents her online passwords, they could not access her Facebook account because she had been "remembered" by the social network. Since October 2009, Facebook has made it possible to turn profiles into memorial sites that last. No one can then log in or update the account, and it remains frozen as a place for loved ones to share their grief.
The girl's parents sued Facebook for access to their account. They hoped to see if their death was suicide. They had originally lost the case, although a German court later gave their parents permission to come into their own account six years after their death.
"I find it disturbing that any major technology company that has not proven to be the most honest, transparent or ethical organization, writes the rules on how we should grieve and make moral judgments about who should have access or not sensitive personal information", says Kasket. The author is worried about how Facebook will profitably use the deceased's data and argues that live users keep their Facebook accounts because they do not want to be "locked out of the graveyard" and lose access to relatives' souvenir pages. As a psychologist she is also worried that Facebook dictates our grief.
"Facebook has created reminder profiles to prevent them from being called" pain points, "such as birthday reminders for the deceased," she says. "But one of the mothers I talked to about my book was upset when her daughter's profile was remembered and she did not get those memories anymore, saying," This is my daughter, I gave birth to her, it's always still her birthday. "
While Facebook users now have the option of appointing a "legacy contact" who can manage or delete their profile after death, Kasket is concerned that there are very few personalization options when it comes to things like birthday memories or whether Strangers can post on your profile wall. "The individuality and peculiar nature of mourning will captivate Facebook every time it comes to finding a unified solution," she says.
Matthew Helm, a 27-year-old technical analyst from Minnesota, says his mother's Facebook profile has worsened his grief after she died four years ago. "The first year was the hardest," says Helm, who felt some relatives spelled out her grief on his mother's wall to attract attention. "At the beginning, I definitely wished I could just erase everything." Helm hoped to delete the profile but could not access his mother's account. He did not ask the tech giant to delete the profile because he did not want to give him his mother's death certificate.
Conversely, Stephanie Nimmo, a 50-year-old writer from Wimbledon, took the opportunity to become her husband's contact after he died of colorectal cancer in December 2015. "My husband and I shared a lot of information on Facebook. It almost became an online diary, "she says. "I did not want to lose that." She is pleased that people continue to post on the wall of her husband, and she enjoys marking him in contributions about her children's accomplishments. "I'm not a chaot or a shrine, I just admit that her father lived and he played a role in her life," she explains.
Nimmo is now excited about encouraging people to plan their digital legacy. Her husband also left their passwords for his Reddit, Twitter, Google and online banking accounts. He also deleted Facebook messages he did not want to show his wife. "Even in a marriage, there are certain things your other half should not see because they are private," says Nimmo. "I am a little worried that there are things my children should not see if something happens to me."
When it comes to enabling relatives to access your accounts or allowing a social media company to use your data indefinitely after your death, protecting privacy is a fundamental problem. Although the former makes us sweat, the latter is probably more dystopian. Dr. Edinja Harbinja is a lecturer in law at the University of Hertfordshire, and believes that we should all have a right to post mortal privacy.
"The deceased should have the right to control what happens to their personal data and online identities when they die," she explains, adding that the 2018 Data Protection Act defines "personal information" as referring only to a living person. According to Harbinja, this is problematic because rules like the EU Data Protection Regulation do not apply to the deceased and there are no provisions that allow us to voluntarily disclose our online data. "There can be a lot of problems because we do not know what would happen if someone is an older contact on Facebook but the next of kin wants access." For example, if you want your friend to delete your Facebook pictures after you die, your husband could challenge this legally. "There could be possible lawsuits."
Kasket says people "do not know how much preparation they need to make to make plans that can actually be executed". It's clear that if we do not start making decisions about our digital death, someone else will hit them for us. "What a person desires is what horrifies another person," says Kasket.
Esther Earl tweeted a year after her death. Automated posts from the music website Last.fm updated their followers about the music they liked. There is no way to predict the problems that we will be letting online when we die. Lori Earl would never have thought of depriving Last.fm of the right to post on her daughter's side before she died. "We would have turned off contributions if we had been able," she says.
Kasket says "the basic message" is thinking about how much you store digitally. "Our devices without us having to try to capture so much," she says. "We do not think about the consequences if we are not here anymore."
• The fifth season of Black Mirror will start on June 5th on Netflix.