The digital afterlife and the lies we’ll leave behind

Salem Cemetery for digital afterlife postAlison Garwood-Jones wrote a lovely piece a while ago on her blog about the wisps of life we leave behind on the internet. To add to the unmade bed, the book half-read, the phone call never returned and conversation never finished, is now the digital alter-ego, never finished. And, somehow lacking the poignancy of finding a letter that didn’t manage to get mailed or an old voice message.

Into the “what if I died tomorrow” conversations that we all (occasionally) have with ourselves, the “what will happen to my Facebook account” has now interjected itself.

Social networking has catapulted the issue into the forefront (has someone started a Tumblr yet of things we blame on social media?). Like Facebook, with its automated reminders that you and so-and-so haven’t talked for a while. I like to quip that perhaps Facebook knows something I don’t about the man I already share bed and child with when I keep getting reminders that we need to connect, but it’s less funny when you haven’t connected in while because the other person is physically gone but digitally stuck in a permanent state of present-ness.

But here’s the part I’m stuck on—we’re not leaving our digital persona behind. We’re really leaving behind a digital projection of our real selves.

she will write about Leta . . . but not really. She will tell readers something is going on . . . but not what. She will let strangers feel as if they know what she is going through . . . but not completely. It’s a sleight of hand that seems a necessary part of this evolution from online diary to online business. Queen of the Mommy Bloggers, New York Times

Yeah, so privacy isn’t dead. But if our digital lives are really going to become our memorials, what’s being left out? How many of my Twitter followers (and even some of my Facebook friends, who at least have the distinction of having shared a beer with me at some point), know that I have a child? You’d have to be paying close attention (what, you’re not?) or know me personally for that minor detail to come up. But as far as Facebook is concerned, I’m a single woman, sexual orientation and religion unknown.

Is that a problem? And whose fault is that? Mine for neglecting to post endless photos of my precious offspring? Or yours for assuming everything to be known about me can be found online?

By most measures, the people you’re leaving behind are the most salient points about you. Top billing in the obit. But online, all we have is Obit 2.0, where, as it turns out, privacy still very much exists. It’s just, we don’t see it.

Perhaps it’s a little disingenuous, this fretting of mine—a citizen of the modern world, I’m already leaving far more behind, and making it far more available, than has ever been possible before for the average person.

And in another hundred years, will anyone care? Or will our online memorials turn out to be the digital equivalent of the dusty attic? Or perhaps, the vintage shop where you might stumble across a cache of old photos, briefly flip through, walk away.

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