Stages of the Digital Afterlife

Graphic showing three stages

When researching the various services that deal with the digital afterlife, a certain pattern started to emerge.  I call this pattern the three stages of the digital afterlife: missed, remembered, forgotten.  I’ll address each in that order, naturally.

Missed

This is the stage that occurs right after death.  You’ve left a void and your survivors need to step in and handle your final affairs.  Things like closing accounts and distributing assets.  Online services exist that allow you to share vital information that your survivors will need and send final messages to them.

Remembered

Once your affairs are in order, your survivors will remember you.  Tangible items like photographs and your headstone will help them do so.  This stage lasts from the time your affairs are in order until those who knew you have also passed.  A few online services help you or your survivors create an online memorial, but there are much fewer than those which address the first stage.

Forgotten

At this point, your identity, both online and offline has passed.  Nobody remembers you first hand and what remains of your existence is a relic of a former time.  Online content lacks context, is stored in legacy formats and hasn’t been curated in years.  As far as I’m aware, there are no services addressing this stage.  This is where the real potential exists in this industry.  Imagine being able to examine the online content of your ancestors and know who they were and what they thought.  I’m not sure how this will work, but we’re here to talk about it.

    About Evan Carroll

    Evan Carroll is an author, speaker and UX strategist who works to make digital experiences more personal, more emotional and more effective. A leader in the developing digital legacy and personal archiving arena, Evan is author and co-founder at The Digital Beyond and co-author of the book, Your Digital Afterlife: When Facebook, Flickr and Twitter Are Your Estate, What's Your Legacy?. Evan has appeared in numerous media outlets including The New York Times, NPR’s Fresh AirObit magazine, NPR’s Here and Now, Fox News, CNN and The Atlantic. A frequent speaker on both marketing and digital legacy, Evan has presented to audiences at SXSW Interactive (2010-2012, 2014), the Library of Congress, and the Internet Archive, among others. Evan holds BS and MS degrees in Information Science from UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science. He can be contacted by emailing or via Twitter @evancarroll.  Evan's personal site is www.evancarroll.net.

    10 Responses to Stages of the Digital Afterlife

    1. John Romano August 26, 2009 at 10:02 am #

      It’s fascinating to me how short a time it has taken for the Internet to be used to memorialize and mourn the dead. We’ve seen memorial Web sites, Facebook profiles as memorials, and mobile phones being buried with their owners so that mourners can TXT the dead.

      But it’s that last phase, “Forgotten” that I find to hold the greatest opportunity. Imagine a digital archive of every human life. Billions of stories. Billions of love affairs and children. Amazing.

    2. Dave Sill September 1, 2009 at 10:27 am #

      Seems like a service that addresses the Forgotten stage is really just attempting to prolong the Remembered stage, perhaps indefinitely. Or is the distinction that in the Forgotten stage, nobody remains who knew you when you were alive? In that case, maybe Forgotten isn’t an adequate label. Preserved? Archived?

    3. Evan Carroll September 1, 2009 at 10:36 am #

      Dave,
      The distinction is indeed that nobody remains who knew you when you were alive, and thus cannot “remember” you. I agree that preservation or archiving is the intention, but the labels and thus the graphic were designed to reflect the analog world. The notion of being forgotten is exactly what these services are trying to prevent.

    4. Jesse Davis September 8, 2009 at 1:08 pm #

      Evan,
      What about the cases in which we may WANT to be forgotten? I can think of a few types of accounts people would prefer to never be uncovered by family/friends.

      Jesse

    5. ailec September 10, 2009 at 1:36 pm #

      Do you read http://www.zefrank.com/ ?

      He had an interesting column today “An email I received about death and Facebook” http://www.zefrank.com/zesblog/archives/2009/09/an_email_i_rece.html

      I’m guessing it might get some interesting comments in time (just posted yesterday.)

    6. Evan Carroll September 10, 2009 at 7:56 pm #

      Jesse,
      I agree with that. I believe that part of planning for your digital afterlife, is choosing the disposition of your online accounts. My main point above is that we have the opportunity to provide our online identity for posterity, but that doesn’t mean we necessarily have to do it. I’m all for deleting or hiding some accounts/content. You’ll notice in this post (http://www.thedigitalbeyond.com/2009/07/selecting-a-digital-executor/) about selecting a digital executor, I talk about just that, saying that you have to select someone who will actually carry out your wishes, even if that’s deletion.

      Aliec,
      Thanks for the link. Looks like a fair number of comments have rolled in already.

    7. Jesse Davis September 16, 2009 at 2:30 pm #

      that’s a valid point and a good article by you, Evan. I look forward to watching this whole topic evolve and adapt over time, as it is certainly a poignant sign of the times…

    8. R.Brian Burkhardt October 15, 2009 at 12:35 am #

      So who has the domain digitalancestry.com? FYI this will be hot, the forgotten ones-

      One of my recent posts had relevant info on the net from 1928!
      http://www.yourfuneralguy.com/2009/10/funeral-cost-usa-problem-for-a-long-time-yourfuneralguy/

    9. Steve Wiggs November 21, 2009 at 9:48 am #

      Some time ago a friend passed and his picks and info are still out there.
      It got me to thinking about how my global network of friends could find ot that I was gone one day.
      I have chosen a relative, (young one lol) who has my access codes in order to say bye for me.
      I wonder if in the future there will be digital arkelogists. That do papers on our spelling errors.
      I wonder also if places like Mesenger have a time limit on non active users and they can remove them from their system.

    10. Jeff March 16, 2010 at 6:53 am #

      This a good way of classifying “Death 2.0″ services–thanks! I started a website about a year ago to attempt to address the Forgotten stage (http://inetself.com). I think services like that need to become community-owned at some point to assure they outlast any vagaries of business; the community becoming mostly digital descendants at some point.

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