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People's writings here in Eugene go into a digital limbo state after they die

EUGENE, Ore. – Most people in the Eugene area do more online writing than back in the day when letters made of paper and sent with a U.S. postage stamp were the norm. One can keep a paper letter after someone dies, but what happens to all those things you've written on line?

"I guess they sleep with the fishes or something. I'm not thinking of dying, at least not anytime soon," says Skip, a Eugene college student who adds how he "only writes stuff online these days."

As for what will happen if Skip does die. "Who cares," he quips, "becuase I'm dead, right."

However, others may care what will happen to their digital lives after they pass from this Earth.

Digital afterlife asks what happens to your digital assets after death

Facebook now has more than 750 million users – and given death rates for a population that size – that means more than 300,000 U.S. Facebook users will died in 2011; thus, presenting the looming topic of dealing with death an online identity.

Almost without realizing it, “we have shifted toward an all-digital culture. Future heirlooms like family photos, home movies, and personal letters now exist only in digital form, and in many cases they are stored using popular services like Flickr, YouTube and Facebook.

These digital possessions form a rich collection that chronicles our lives and connects us to each other,” states a marketing brief for the new book “Your Digital Afterlife,” by Evan Carroll and John Romano. The book’s thesis is a popular topic here in this university town of Eugene where computer science classes and forums frequently explore the importance of planning ahead for the disposition of digital assets.

What to do when Facebook, Twitter and other social networking is your estate?

“The problem with our afterlives – where ever they may be – as zombies know too well, is keeping our Earthly remains intact, recognizable and resting in the right places,” says Paul Jones, director, ibiblio.org, at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, in a talking paper discussed recently at the University of Oregon and other computer think tanks across the nation.

Jones and other digital communities’ gurus also ask the billions of online users “have you considered what will happen to your treasured digital possessions when you die?”

In turn, John Romano and Evan Carroll discuss the importance of planning ahead for the disposition of digital assets in their new book “Your Digital Afterlife” that “is especially appropriate for blogs that have gained a following and serve as a community for others.”

For example, Romano and Carroll point to “Lisa Kelly from Clusterfook.com who died of ovarian cancer in February 2009. She gave her friend Karl administrative access to her blog so that he could notify readers of her death and publish her final post. He also posts periodic updates from her family. From the comments on her site you can tell that her readers deeply cared for her and her family. Karl’s work to keep everyone connected is a wonderful tribute to her legacy.”

Also, Romano and Carroll say “awareness” is the key when trying to sort out someone “digital estate.”

“You need to make your digital executor aware of your digital assets so he or she can carry out your wishes,” write Romano and Carroll. “The dame is true of the content you stores in social sites. The good news is that many of your friends and family members may already be aware of these accounts because you created them so you could connect with – you guessed it – family and friends.”

Despite that fact, University of Oregon computer science student Howard said “I never thought my brother would just up and die. It was sudden, and we didn’t have an inventory of his social accounts. We didn’t know his wishes, and the family came to me because of my background in computers. They were not savvy about what to do and frankly this subject is not really taught in school.”

Taking action after a “digital death” is already a big topic in California and England

The website thing.co.uk noted that forums – with experts in social networking, data management and bereavement – have been meeting over the past few years to discuss the ways and means for sites such as Google, Facebook and My Space to “agree on a common policy for dealing with users’ data after death.”

For instance, thing.co.uk pointed to a recent “Digital Death Day” meeting at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, that brought together “authors, lawyers, funeral directors and digital activists to discuss what should be done with the billions of pages of content held by social networks, blogging sites and online games after the users had created them have died.”

"There's no standard practice across the industry yet," says Kaliya Hamlin, aka blogger Identity Woman. The organizer of Digital Death Day explained the thinking behind the conference in a recent BBC News report, stating, "There are no norms for how digital assets are passed on to heirs."

“At present, policies vary widely between sites. MySpace provides no means by which heirs can 'inherit' a deceased user's page, while Facebook has enabled the creation of 'digital memorials', providing friends and family with administrative rights to manage tributes on the user's profile, but freezing the addition of new friends. Google has been notoriously difficult about handing over login details to G-mail accounts and other information to the families of the dead,” reported thing.co.uk.

BBC News in England also reported “the lack of any clear guidance also raises some thorny legal issues over potentially valuable digital assets. Domain names can change hands for large amounts of money, and even Twitter accounts with large numbers of followers can attract high prices. Even virtual assets from online games can be valuable. A virtual space station that had become a popular destination in online game Project Entropia recently entered the Guinness Book of Records when it sold for $330,000.”

Also, thing.co.uk pointed to Jesse Davis, co-founder of “Entrustet,” an American based company that acts as “an identity broker for social networking sites,” who said it’s vital that people today “create wills for their digital assets.”

"There are two types of value stored in your online accounts," says Davis, "economic and sentimental... both types of assets need to be considered carefully in building a proper digital estate plan."

Facebook’s social networking creates fake friends and more digital dirt, say experts

Maggie Jackson says in her new book “Distracted: the Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age” -- that’s become a bestseller and sort of cult classic here in Eugene at the University of Oregon bookstore and other alternative paper book outlets – the “digital life” that we want to protect after our deaths is important to users because “it’s a whole lot friendlier and more interesting than real life.”

“We’re almost always within reach of something to fill our brains,” states Jackson, while also pointing out that “since this is the water we swim in, it’s hard to notice it unless some artificial condition interferes.”

For Howard, the “artificial condition,” was the recent death of his brother.

“My brother’s death was a gift because it awoke me out of this almost constant virtual world of these people I was e-mailing and following on Facebook. I don’t think one of them really cared about my mom’s death. I found social networking to be very cold,” Howard said.

In fact, many other computer experts such as Howard think “cyber relationships and living online and in a ‘digital reality’ makes for cold souls.”

Likewise, Jackson writes that “a dictionary defines real as ‘actually existing’ and virtual as ‘being so in practice or in name.’ Nowadays, our communication systems offer us a world in which reality is so immersed in simulation and make believe that what’s on line that ‘appearances become the experience.’”

The outcome is what Jackson calls a view by many youth today making “virtual as real.”

“It’s an online first love affair by two teenagers who have never looked into each other’s eyes, and don’t want to. It’s a dead boy’s AOL account that still gets mail,” writes Jackson about a new upside down reality where all this strange living in a virtual world can and often occurs.

At the same time, all this time spent on Facebook and other social networking sites leads to a lot of “digital dirt” that often comes back to bite the real people who are living in this upside down cyber world reality.

Digital dirt says on the Internet for almost forever

Another threat to the Internet is called “Digital dirt,” that more or less means everything you’ve written on line can come back to haunt you one day.

“We’re seeing more and more government and corporate agencies checking out the social media accounts of job applicants to see if there’s any dirt in their past. This ‘digital dirt,’ as it’s called, can be found easily on line be it on MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and your personal blog page or web site. It’s all out there for the world to see and do with as they please,” says Jon Brunton, a corporate technology consultant here in Eugene.

What’s alarming, says Brunton, is that “Big Brother – whoever he or it is – can demand the Internet history of job applicants. They will ask for your private passwords, Net pseudonyms and even your text messages. They will say it for ‘security purposes,’ but we all know they want to get into your business and check you out real deep.”

According to congressional testimony records, more than half of government and nearly a third of police department now “review social media activity” of job applicants during their “regular background checks.”

At the same time, Brunton notes that what you write on the Internet “will stay on the Internet.”

What’s your legacy online, asks experts, who point out “you’re going to die”

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others,” wrote the Greek thinker Pericles.

Have you considered what will happen to your treasured digital possessions when you die? Asks authors Romano and Carroll in their new book “Your Digital Afterlife.”

“Unfortunately the answer isn’t as certain as we might presume,” states Romano and Carroll. “There are numerous legal, cultural and technical issues that could prevent access to these assets after your death.”

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