News Column

Weekend: And the beat goes on: Who's going to tweet for you when you die?

June 7, 2014



Lawrence Darani is dying. Two years ago doctors told him his lung condition was incurable and gave him only two years to live. But the day I meet him, he's completely at ease, drinking tea, sitting back in the armchair of his bright south London living room, his black cat curled in his lap. He's perfectly calm, because he's going to be immortal.

Like thousands of people, Darani has made plans to be kept alive in the digital world after he leaves the real one. He's signed up to DeadSocial, a free online service that lets people live on through their social media accounts. Users can upload an unlimited number of photos, video, audio and text messages which will be sent out on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the DeadSocial website after their death. They can schedule the messages to be posted at any time, up to 999 years into the future. With this kind of service, Darani could wish his descendants all the best on the turn of the next millennium.

We meet shortly after he has recorded the first video to be sent out after his executor - his wife, Lucy - informs DeadSocial that he's passed away. "As I was looking at the camera, I thought, gosh, I'm not only talking to my kids, I'm talking to my grandkids, and all my generations for years to come. It's always going to be out there, in the cloud. There's something comforting about that." His sky-blue eyes gaze out from behind heavy-rimmed glasses, out of the window, towards the Thames, where generations of his family once worked on the docks. "Through DeadSocial, you can make sure the essence of who you are remains on the internet. It cheats death."

The uploaded version of Darani is the curated, carefully managed version of himself that he wants to give eternal life. In the flesh, he has an air of studied casualness - his shirt collar is unbuttoned, his sleeves are rolled up and there is several days' worth of stubble on his cheeks - but his luminous white moustache has been assiduously waxed into two sharp curls.

A community worker and former counselling teacher, he loves to read philosophy, and has been thinking about how his descendants will remember him since before his diagnosis, aware that memories are as ephemeral as bodies, and subject to the distortions of whoever is doing the remembering.

"We all want to leave some legacy, so in future someone will say, 'That was a decent man'," he says. "I saw on Who Do You Think You Are, these celebrities were fascinated by looking at their relatives from 100, 150 years ago. All they had was a photograph of the person - they could only guess what type of character they had. They went on a journey to discover something good in their forefathers and mothers, in some sort of hope that they've still got those genes. So I thought, wow, with the technology now, you could actually do this properly for yourself."

Whether or not we've considered it, our social media presence will outlive us, either in carefully managed memorial packages or stuck poignantly in limbo, like Peaches Geldof's Twitter account. Our heirlooms and mementoes are increasingly stored in the cloud, rather than in shoeboxes. This is where we've left wisps of our personality that might one day be used to reconstruct us, Black Mirror-style. And just as our social media profiles are an idealised reflection of ourselves while we're alive, some people want to sculpt the identity they'll leave behind when they die.

DeadSocial is the latest in a host of services catering for the digital afterlife. Some, like Legacy Locker, Cirrus Legacy and Secure Safe, store users' passwords and important files and release them to executors on the deaths of their owners. This isn't the same as handing over the keys to the safe: officially, much of our digital property can't be inherited. Your iTunes music, for example, is only yours on licence and can't be transferred to anyone else. If you want to bequeath your record collection to your children you'd be better off spending your money on vinyl.

The services that manage your relationships posthumously are a bit more, well, creepy. LivesOn (slogan: "When your heart stops beating, you'll keep tweeting") will keep your Twitter feed alive by analysing your old tweets, learning your syntax and favourite topics, and using them to predict what you'd say. You don't have to be dead to use it: it was originally designed for people who were too busy to write their own tweets. It's quite hit and miss at the moment - the showcase tweets retweeted by the @-liveson account are largely gibberish - but its makers promise the service will improve.

Of course, you don't need an app to have a digital afterlife: you could just ask someone you trust to carry out your wishes online after you're gone. Roger Ebert, the Pulitzer prize-winning Chicago Sun-Times film critic and Twitter pioneer, had been battling thyroid cancer for more than a decade when he asked his wife, Chaz, to become the manager of his digital estate. More than 100,000 people were signed up to his Facebook page at the time of his death at 70 in April 2013, and he had more than 850,000 Twitter followers. He wanted to make sure those relationships didn't die with him.

"Roger was the great communicator," Chaz beams. "After he lost his physical voice, he kept his voice alive online. It was important to communicate with his readers because he was good at it - that connection is one reason he remained popular and relevant for so long. He trusted me to continue it."

A few weeks before his death, Ebert made his wife promise to nurture his Facebook and Twitter accounts, to keep them active and update them frequently, and to make the messages personal, even though he knew she was naturally a very private person. She had no idea the end was so close when he handed her his passwords. "In my mind, it wasn't in anticipation of death, but when I think back, in his, maybe it was."

Being her husband's digital executor has given Chaz some solace. "Maintaining that connection with Roger and the people he communicated with has helped the grieving process." But it has come with a sense of duty: she initially planned to pass the accounts on to another writer after a few months at the helm, but when the time came, she found she couldn't do it.

"Roger used to tweet like a teenager. In the short time that Twitter was in existence and he was on it, he tweeted about 32,000 times. I'm not as good at keeping up. My heart's in it, I'm engaged, I don't have as much time to answer things as he did, and that bothers me. During the first year I was very much in grief, so I couldn't."

Getting a person rather than a piece of software to carry out your digital wishes isn't as straightforward as it might seem. While Chaz was given special permission from Twitter to maintain Ebert's account, it's technically against both Facebook and Twitter's terms of service to let another human being take over. Facebook prefers a dead person's profile to be converted into a "memorialised" state: once it is notified of the death, Facebook will remove status updates and contact details from the page, and will stop asking friends to reconnect with the deceased, or wish them happy birthday.

Your legacy will last only as long as your executor is prepared to keep it alive. What if they run out of things to say on your behalf? What if it's 30 years since your death, or they have a new partner? For those who are serious about maintaining their digital immortality, it makes sense to use a dedicated service.

I don't expect Darani to tell me what's in the videos he's filmed for his DeadSocial account, but he's surprisingly forthcoming. He says he's approached the messages like an ethical will, where he lays out what's influenced him and what he stands for to his wife, his three children (aged 26, 19 and 16), and the Daranis of the future.

The Darani who exists in these messages is the man who ran three marathons and has the medals to prove it, who campaigned to free Nelson Mandela and got to shake his hand, the first person in his family to get professional qualifications, who quotes ancient philosophers and brilliant contemporary thinkers, who once commissioned a professional artist to paint his own coat of arms and who keeps his moustache carefully waxed.

This is the man Darani is proud of, a person who can be edited, updated and honed from the comfort of his armchair. It's not a real person. "There's a danger you can inflate yourself," he concedes. "I've got my weaknesses, but I've gone into great depths about who I am and what motivates me, what I need to improve upon. Life's about being truthful about yourself, and allowing others to be truthful about you, too. I'm sure my wife would say so!"

Lucy has just come home from work as a receptionist at a local GP's surgery. They've been married for eight years, and she's stepmother to his three children. "I'm intrigued to know what's in the videos," she smiles as she crosses her arms on the sofa. "I didn't really ask because I respected the fact that it was something destined for people after he's passed, like a financial will."

She turns to Darani, gently. "Is there something for me?"

"Of course, but it's not in the same vein. With your children, you want to influence them more and get them to think about things more."

But why do they have to wait until your death until they get to hear those messages? "That's a very good question," he says. It seems he's thought more about what it's like to leave a digital legacy than what it might be like to receive one. When his family logs on to hear him, it will always be a one-sided conversation. He will always have the last word.

"It's very rare as a family that you find the right time to say these things," he replies, eventually. "And this lets you have time to think about it, and be thoughtful and skilful about what you want to say. This is a way of stating your values and passing them on in a direct way."

His children are uneasy about his plans. "They know about the videos, but when I try to prepare them for my death, they seem a bit like they don't want to look at it," Darani sighs. "I'm hoping the videos will be a comfort to them in the future, even if the idea isn't comforting now."

"Would I do it?" Lucy says. "No, I wouldn't. I don't see the need to publicise myself in that way. With me, I'm focused on the present. I'd like people to recognise and see me while I'm around. I'd rather be remembered when I'm here."

I meet James Norris, DeadSocial's founder and CEO, in the boardroom of his office in Camden, north London. It's a shared workspace for designers and web entrepreneurs, with whitewashed brick walls and a ping pong table at reception. In his white shirt, with black buttons and black collar, and a puff of dark hair, Norris looks younger than 30. The boardroom feels too big for the two of us.

"Before, we would try to immortalise ourselves with a gravestone," he says. "If we were rich we'd get a bigger gravestone, or if we were really rich, a hospital wing or a football stand. Your gravestone would erode, or the hospital would be knocked down and your wing would be lost. But the internet is not going anywhere. All your digital content and archived information will be there."

Norris won't tell me exactly how many people have signed up for DeadSocial, but he says they've had a lot of users since it launched in March 2013, and numbers are growing every day, both among twentysomethings and people like Darani who know they're nearing the end of their lives. He tells me they've released several messages from users who have died.

"There are two ways that we've defined people using it: the first is as an end-of-life tool, where they say goodbye in their own way. The other way is more futurist, where you live on virtually and rather than your friendships ending when your life does, you get to extend those friendships. You elevate them, in a way: although you can't receive messages, you've taken the time to think about how you want your friendships to continue."

I wonder, isn't it a little self-defeating to use so much time in your real life to create and schedule all the messages, photos and updates that you'll need in the monologue of a digital afterlife?

"Now we're spending a substantial part of our lives online, the amount of time you invest in your friendships, your communities on Facebook, that becomes - especially for those born into the internet, now known as Generation Z - hugely valuable," Norris replies. "When we pass away, our digital footprints become our digital legacy. This is a way of organising and taking ownership over your digital content, and altering it to how you'd want to be remembered."

He had the idea for the service after seeing Bob Monkhouse in an advert for the Prostate Cancer Research Centre, first broadcast four years after he died from the disease. It was made using archive and a soundalike voiceover, but it was convincing enough to appear that Monkhouse had filmed it when he was alive, standing in a graveyard, to spur people into supporting the research that could have saved him. "The message was magnified tenfold because it appeared it was created in the context of it being shown only after he'd passed away," Norris says. "I thought, if you can pass on some words of wisdom like that, in the celebrity sphere, why can't we do that within our own social network?"

Messages certainly have more gravitas when they come from the grave, be they in a letter from a fallen soldier, a note buried in a time capsule or in a scheduled Facebook message. It's a power that could be abused: if you were inclined to, you could use a service like DeadSocial to haunt someone, harassing and tormenting them for years after your death.

Norris looks uncomfortable. "These messages are public, and they inform what people will see of you. You wouldn't want to be seen as a horrible person." He shifts in his seat. "You can't stop someone from saying something on Twitter and/or Facebook. We wouldn't monitor and vet everybody's communications. If somebody wants to get something off their chest then they can do it. If that's part of their legacy, it's up to them."

In the increasingly crowded market of digital afterlife services, DeadSocial's closest competitor is If I Die, an Israeli-run application that launched in 2011. Its free service lets users record a single message that will be published on their Facebook wall on notification of their death, and for $25 they can make five videos. Its creator, Eran Alfonta, says it has "hundreds of thousands" of users, and expects to have a million this year.

"Our analysis shows these are people with family. People who have kids are more open to understanding the importance of the service," Alfonta says. "In the last few months we've seen a surprising increase of people using it from Syria."

Once you start thinking about your digital afterlife it can be difficult to stop. "I'm one of the most addicted users - not because I think of death all the time, but because I travel a lot, and I'm afraid of flying. Each time before I fly I check my messages to see if anything needs changing," Alfonta says. "I'd recommend everyone try and record just one message, because it has a very strong positive effect on the way you behave, on what you think is important."

We selectively cultivate our public identities. For Alfonta, it's only a matter of time before everyone is using a service like his. "People are on Facebook before they are born, on an ultrasound picture. They are born on Facebook, grow up, get married and divorced on Facebook, and we also die on Facebook. I think this is a very natural complement to our real lives."

What if you don't want a digital afterlife? Even those who want to disappear from social media as soon as they die need to plan for it. Wayne Dean, 33, has a pounds 15-a-year subscription to Cirrus Legacy. Cirrus holds his passwords and instructions for his wife to shut down his social media accounts as soon as he passes away. "The last thing I'd want is to leave a Facebook account open. That part of me is for when I'm here," he says.

But even an apparently self-effacing wish like this can be motivated by voyeurism and pride. Dean started thinking about his digital afterlife when he witnessed the fallout on Facebook after a friend took her own life. "I went on to her Facebook profile and saw the comments. Some people were angry about it and they got to leave their opinions, which I didn't think was fair." His friend hadn't left her passwords with anyone, so no one could remove the comments. "I thought it was an open-ended way to leave this earth."

Paul Golding, who runs Cirrus Legacy, has made his own plans for his wife to administer his Facebook profile - but he wants his page memorialised, not taken down. He can't understand why people might want to disappear from Facebook when they die. "It's almost like saying, 'When I'm dead, can you burn all the photographs, don't put a memorial, don't put a gravestone up for me.' I think that's a little bit strange. People inherently want to be remembered. I want there to be some form of trace of what I was and what I achieved."

No matter how carefully some might plan, no one can control the persona who gets to live on. Even if your profiles are left exactly according to your wishes, you can't stop other people from leaving conflicting memories of you online, or control how you'll appear on the Google of the future when your descendants look you up. As curated packages, the plans we make to live on might end up saying less about who we really are and more about the values of the society we live in now.

Darani's family didn't have to wait long to find out how he wanted to be remembered. Six months after our first meeting, I hear that he has died. Even though he knew it was coming, it came suddenly. For Lucy, it was a real shock. She held on to Darani's first set of videos for two weeks before steeling herself to watch them. "I didn't have the courage to open them," she says. "The one where he says goodbye made me really breathless. I had to go outside and take some fresh air after I saw it."

His most personal messages - made specifically for Lucy - are still to be released through his Facebook page. Is she glad he made them? "I am," she says immediately. "It's helping me to carry on. I don't feel desperate, that now he's gone, everything is gone. I want to keep on doing things I would do as if he were alive. In some ways, he's kept himself alive for us. It's very comforting."

?

?

?

*


For more stories covering the world of technology, please see HispanicBusiness' Tech Channel



Source: Guardian (UK)


Story Tools






HispanicBusiness.com Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters