Solving the Digital Afterlife Problem

Almost weekly I learn about a new service seeking to help solve the digital afterlife problem. More often than not, I learn about a new password or file vault. Some are designed to last until death, and others are focused on perpetuity. All of these services rely on one premise: advance preparation. For them to be successful, an individual has to create an account, gather their digital assets or accounts and input them into the service.

For those who tend to prepare in advance, these services are exactly what they need. A significant number of people, however, do not tend to plan ahead. In fact, they often procrastinate, benignly neglecting tasks like digital estate planning knowing that they’ll “get around to them” someday.

This isn’t a surprising fact. I often say that everything we do as humans must pass a “laziness check.” That is, when a task comes up we ask ourselves, “is there any way I can not do this and still get what I want?” I believe that digital estate planning, lacking a direct and immediate benefit, often fails the laziness check.

At the present time, creating a digital estate plan is the best way for all of us to ensure our digital legacies will be accessible (or hidden) from our heirs. In an ideal world, every digital account would allow users to specify who should gain access to the account once they’re gone, as is the case with Google’s Inactive Account Manager. We’re not there yet, but hopefully we’ll be someday. Until then, we have three problems to solve:

  • Awareness – do our heirs know about our digital assets and accounts?
  • Access – do our heirs have the authentication information and technical ability to access our accounts?
  • Ownership – do our heirs have the lawful right to access our digital assets?

Creating a digital estate plan will solve all of these problems for the most part, but taking the time to create that plan often won’t pass the “laziness check.” Therefore, I’m inclined to question the viability of any service that seeks to have a user solve these problems by planning ahead. But what if we tried to solve these problems with the realization that advance planning isn’t going to get the job done?

If we know a user won’t tell us about their online accounts, what if we had a service that could provide a list to their heirs? Or if we know users don’t curate their online collections, what if we created a metadata-rich platform that automatically created archives? Or, as I suggest above, what if digital inheritance was built into the product itself? In my opinion, these are the problems we should solve.

The good news is that we’re seeing progress on these problems. WebCease has a service to help heirs discover accounts. Recollect has a beautiful interface for organizing and archiving social media posts. Google, PasswordBox and SecureSafe all have inheritance built into their services.

Let this be my free advice to digital afterlife entrepreneurs: focus on solving the problems that have an direct and immediate benefit to your customer and you’ll likely enjoy greater success.


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