The business of digital graveyards

Some time ago I wrote about digital graveyards Diaries of the Dead – a Forgotten Babyon – the email addresses, blogs and online presences that continue long after their creator has passed from the real world. I speculated that these pixel ghosts would soon outnumber their flesh-and-blood counterparts. Well its seems there is now a…

Some time ago I wrote about digital graveyards Diaries of the Dead – a Forgotten Babyon – the email addresses, blogs and online presences that continue long after their creator has passed from the real world. I speculated that these pixel ghosts would soon outnumber their flesh-and-blood counterparts.

Well its seems there is now a burgeoning industry in taking care of afterlife business. J. Scott Orr’s article in The Times Picayune “The digital afterlife goes on … and on” says:

“We need to increase awareness of the way we leave digital traces and then try to take an active role in managing those pieces such that our wishes are reflected in our digital imprint left after we die,” he said.

“What to do with this stuff — which might be very valuable — is a very real problem, but a solvable one. We’re just waiting for the right kind of products and services to help us manage these decisions,” he said. At the very minimum, Kirsch recommended that people leave loved ones with instructions and a list of passwords to allow them to access sites and accounts.

Bill Pfeiffer was certainly not prepared when he died in a car crash in 1999 near his home in Milwaukee. The death of the moderator of the Usenet news group and the webmaster of left his fellow radio enthusiasts wondering what would become of their online community.
“During the first few days after he passed, the servers were still working and we collaborated as a group about what to do, knowing that it was only a matter of time before the unattended system started to break down and split the group,” said Sean Dougherty of Clifton, N.J.

Pfeiffer’s online legacy persists, through the help of friends who were able to maintain the Web site, complete with Pfeiffer’s posts dating back years. It remains as a tribute to Pfeiffer and the thriving online community he helped to build.

David Blatner of Seattle is an author and executive director of, an outfit that has been offering free preservation of Web sites, using donated server space.
“There is a lot of important work that is worthy of being preserved, people’s writings, research, all kinds of things,” Blatner said. “By important work, I don’t necessarily mean relevant to a large number of people. Would I like to look at the Web site of my great-grandmother? Imagine how valuable that would be to me or my sisters.”

Another solution is software called the Dead Man’s Switch. Once installed, the software takes a number of steps for you if the switch is not reset within a certain period of time. The software can send e-mails with instructions and passwords to survivors, make posts to Web sites to alert online communities of your demise and even encrypt or delete files you’d rather your loved ones never saw.

Coming perhaps closest to developing a functioning online ghost is David Sullivan, a New Orleans digital artist who invented “The Ego Machine” as part of a recent exhibition in which artists designed their own memorials.

The Ego Machine scours the Web for mentions of Sullivan. When he is mentioned frequently, a digital picture of him becomes younger and better-looking — and when there are fewer mentions, the picture makes him appear older. In practice, the Ego Machine could gauge the length of time between Sullivan’s real-life death and his online demise.

“When there are no longer any mentions, I turn to dust and disappear,” he said.

I looked up Dead Man’s Switch on Wiki – not the software mentioned here just a general description. The software section said:

Software uses

Software versions of dead man’s switches are used generally only by people with technical expertise, and serve several purposes, such as sending a notification to friends or deleting and encrypting data. The non-event triggering these can be almost anything, such as failing to log in for a week consecutively, not responding to an automated e-mail ping, a GPS-enabled telephone not moving for a period of time, or merely failing to type a code within a few minutes of a computer’s boot.

Motivations vary, depending on the individual’s needs. For example, somebody in a police state may be concerned about locking up his or her data securely (or deleting it), while others may just wish to alert friends or the authorities by e-mail that something undesirable might be going on.

Dead man’s switch devices have also been used in suicide bombing, to trigger the explosive if the bomber is shot or overpowered. This is a fail-deadly mechanism, rather than a fail-safe mechanism.

This is not something that large companies ever consider but for us, well – online communities have their own tribal rituals and ceremonies that arise spontaneously during times of need. A simple guestbook may take thousands of messages in a few hours.

Check out MemorialsOnline for another example of a businesses springing up amongst the tombstones.

Memorials Online is a funeral home web site portal dedicated to providing world-wide access to permanently posted obituary listings, death announcements and memorial tribute web pages. As funeral arrangement and memorialization trends change, we are here to assist funeral directors and families to easily and instantly create meaningful Memorial Tribute websites. We are continually developing partnerships with funeral homes, newspapers and funeral arrangement software companies, to make available the most complete Obituary and Memorial web site creation and preservation service available.People around the world may come together to here to preserve memories which include stories, poems, verses, biographies, midi & mp3 music files, photos, and other meaningful, personal remembrances.Create a Memorial for Your Loved One Now.

Forgive my flippancy: business for profit and/or a necessary service to the community? I talk about integrating offline activities with online communities – I guess this is another natural outcome of that function.

I’m a member of a community hosted by a nice guy who is semi- recovering from a major illness. None of us have discussed openly what we will do if something happens to him. Fairly soon, I will make a grab of the webpages and store them, and make a mental note to do so on a regular basis. Copying the pages to a new community site is easy, keeping the spirit is hard. But as long as its all ready to go during the mourning phase, I think we will keep the community together. I hope so. In his name.

On that rather grim note, enjoy your (sunny) Sunday.

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