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Ghosts in the Machines

What Happens to Your Online Self When You Die?

Illustrations by Autumn Whitehurst

By Ryan Boddy | Posted 6/30/2004

More than a year after his death, Aaron Huth continues to haunt those who knew him. His profile on the behemoth six-degrees-of-separation Web site Friendster.com still lets people know that in May of 2003 he was listening to bands like the Birthday Party and the Postal Service and reading Nietzsche. His likes and interests were frozen for posterity on May 26, 2003, the last time he logged into the site. While Huth’s 12 listed Friendster friends haven’t heard from him since May 29, the day he passed away, each time they log on to the site they are simultaneously reminded of his life and his death. They are greeted by pictures of the Harford County native playing guitar and sporting the dark, wild, curly hair that accompanied his outgoing personality.

Twenty years old at the time of his death, Huth had made no preparations and left no instructions with regards to how his worldly affairs should be dealt with, much less his online presence—how the people he knew only in the virtual sense should be notified. He is far from being alone in that regard.

“At my son’s age, and the age of young people in general, their lives are in turmoil,” Dawn Thompson, Huth’s 44-year-old mother, says. She sits at a table in a White Marsh coffee shop, her dark hair and dark, expressive eyes bringing to mind her late son’s. “To be in the position where you have all these life-altering decisions to make and then to also have to realize that you’re mortal? That’s a hard thing to do.”

ün a few short years, Huth, who was a member of defunct local postpunk band Annihilate Now!, built an online presence that covered English-speaking North America, in large part due to his membership in indie-culture message board LipstickandCigarettes.com. Like other such boards, Lipstick and Cigarettes allows users to create a profile including means of contact (e-mail address, AOL Instant Messenger screen name, etc.), a photograph, and personalized information about themselves. Members also gain access to a set of public and private message boards in addition to the main community board where users discuss topics as broad as music, their work lives, movies, and, most prevalently, meeting members of the opposite sex with similar interests. Huth had developed a contact list that numbered in the hundreds through his use of various such message boards. Upon his death, the duty of notifying his online friends fell to those who were closest to him locally and also frequented the various online communities he did.

Some of Huth’s online acquaintances learned of his death through a thread posted on Lipstick and Cigarettes by a close friend of his here in Baltimore. Brett Roberts, an online-only acquaintance from Portland, Ore., says he read about Huth’s demise on the thread only to witness the passing on of the information devolve into backbiting and dramatics.

“It seemed like no one really cared about him dying,” Roberts says via AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), “more that they wanted to seem ‘in-the-know’ by finding out about the events surrounding his death. People wanted to play the victim, throwing claims of being close to him around while probably not knowing anything more than his screen name.”

Some of Huth’s online contacts reacted with anger at being notified in such an impersonal way. One Lipstick and Cigarettes user who had met Huth once on a trip he had made to New York reportedly requested a whole week off of work to grieve.

But for every genuine distraught reaction, Roberts, a longtime L&C user says, there were many who seemed to be overreacting. “It was kind of hard not to laugh at all the idiots who claimed they knew him best when they couldn’t even recall his last name,” he says. “It was mostly just confusing, because you couldn’t tell if it was a hoax, someone just trying to be funny, or if it was true.”

As the response to the news poured in, the anonymity and flat affect of the Internet made it difficult for mourners and mockers not to clash. “There is no intonation when you type,” Roberts says. “Sarcasm and concern come off the same way.” Referring to the less sincere posters who weighed in on Huth’s demise, he adds, “You can’t get away with such shitty behavior at a bar or someone eventually would knock your teeth out.”

Although the niceties of Internet society are still a little raw, people in their teens and early 20s have grown up with it, literally, and the lives of many are increasingly lived in part online. Statistics complied by Nua (www.nua.ie/surveys), an Internet usage survey firm that spots trends in Web use, indicates the average age of Internet users is 40, but these particular statistics don’t take into account the age of people who use technologies such as AOL Instant Messenger, nor the fact that the average Internet user, according to the same statistics, also has 2.8 children who are using the Internet as well. Numbers from January 2004 provided by the usage-tracking company Comscore show that the vast majority of combined instant-messenger users (AOL IM, ICQ, Yahoo Instant Messenger, MSN Messenger) are younger than 25.

According to the National Vital Statistics Report, people between the ages of 15 and 35 years of age are most likely to die in accidents, most often motor vehicle-related. Their passing is unexpected by their families, and most of all themselves. (Huth’s death was accidental; his family declined to offer further details for publication.)

As such, young people are unlikely to think about the things that go into cleaning up their online presence after they have passed away. With acquaintances all over the country, if not the globe, multiple e-mail accounts and messenger screen names, various message-board and profile-site accounts, mailing lists that flood in boxes, PayPal accounts, e-banking accounts, and online video-game accounts, those who die with well-developed online presences can have far more of an effect on the lives of those who survive them than do those without a computer at all.

 

 

When you accept the user-terms agreement and join the more than 7 million people to date who have signed up with Friendster, you enter into a legal agreement that prohibits the provider of the site’s services from removing your profile without your express consent. If you die, the agreement specifies, only an immediate relative can request removal or modification of the profile; the relative must, in fact, provide written proof that you are deceased. Providing convincing proof would likely involve scanning and e-mailing your death certificate to Friendster administrators—not an easy process for a grieving family to contemplate. Smaller online communities, such as Lipstick and Cigarettes, which has a membership in the hundreds, can afford more personal attention to the needs of their users than giants like Friendster. Huth’s L&C profile was removed at a close friend’s request within a day of his death.

With millions of profiles placed on the Friendster site since its launch in March 2003, it seems plausible that users of the site die all the time. But Lisa Kopp, spokeswoman for the Mountain View, Calif.-based company, says it hasn’t come up much. “In the event that one of our users dies we can erect a memorial to the person in place of their profile,” Kopp says. “Admittedly, we haven’t had many people request this yet, maybe four or five.”

Given the usual surprise and shock involved in a young person’s death, perhaps that’s not so strange.

“I didn’t have the time or the emotional wherewithal to deal with all of that when Aaron died,” says Thompson, 44. “You’re in such a frenzy when something like that happens. You are thinking about the key people that need to know and you call as many people as you can, but someone is always forgotten. Aaron had a big Internet presence, he had such a broad magnitude it’s hard to begin informing people and doing all of this in the right way.”

Thompson, her mother, Marilyn Rizzolla, and Aaron’s brother Daniel Huth made a point of signing onto his AIM screen name periodically after his death, using the saved password Aaron left on his friend Amy Waller’s computer, hoping that friends who may not have heard about his passing might message him to ask why they hadn’t seen him online in a while. People responded with immediate concern for who might be using Huth’s identity.

“People would message us back, asking, ‘Who is this?’” Thompson says. “And in a way I know it was therapeutic for my mother, who spent the most time doing it. I would get on, and when someone would message me I would say, ‘Talk to me, please. Tell me how much you miss him, too.’”

Because Huth’s family gained access to his AOL IM account, they were able to contact people he may have known. Most other families are not as fortunate. It is difficult to gain access to the various accounts and addresses that people acquire during their online lives. Password retrieval is a process that more often than not requires legal action between the person seeking access to a decedent’s account and an Internet service provider or a service such as Friendster.

“Without a power of attorney, it would be expensive and time consuming for even an administrator or executor [of a will] to get access [to passwords],” says John Dozier, principal of the Glen Allen, Va., firm Dozier Internet Law. “And very little chance anyone else could. Unless there is some financial reason to do so, I doubt if a grieving family would typically pursue this information. A minor cannot sign a power of attorney typically, whereas an adult can. Assuming there is no such agreement, it would be difficult to get access to the minor’s password.”

But despite the small stroke of luck in stumbling across one password, Huth’s friends and family are still struggling with the administration of his remaining affairs. While his online activities are of a lesser priority than the more physically present task of dealing with his records, clothes, and car, dealing with his virtual personal effects hasn’t proven any easier.

“I still haven’t been able to get a lot of the things done that I should, and it’s been almost a year,” Thompson says. “Closing his e-mail account or his bank account is like letting another piece of him fade away.

“Beyond that, I don’t entirely feel comfortable looking into his e-mail accounts. There are a lot of things that no one should be able to do. It’s not our life, and some of these things we shouldn’t be delving into it all.”

Since Huth had been using his friend Amy Waller’s computer a lot before he died, she has access to his passwords but has refrained from modifying or investigating the contents of his various accounts.

“I haven’t changed his Friendster profile because it’s comforting to me to have something up that Aaron did himself,” Waller says.

Other friends of Huth’s have expressed unease at the fact that his Friendster profile remains untouched.

 

Friendster’s willingness to transform the profiles of its deceased members into memorial pages may go largely untapped, but other online communities have scores of such pages. Web log and journal sites like LiveJournal.com and Blogspot.com host many profile pages devoted to dead members. LJöRemembers (www.livejournal.com/userinfo.bml?user=ljers4eternity) is a LiveJournal community dedicated exclusively to the deceased whose family members or friends had access to their passwords and accounts. In general, the journals’ last few entries are written by the family or friends and heavily commented on by the friends of the decedent. Most of the members on LJ Remembers had months of warning that they were dying of terminal illnesses, allowing them time to give family members the access they would need to notify their online friends of what had happened. Others were victims of accident or suicide whose families were lucky enough to have password access to their accounts.

Still, preparation for an untimely demise in the broadband age means more than naming an executor. A number of newer sites are offering death notification services. Died Online.com, which claims to be the “Internet’s first ever death notification system,” allows members to set up a list of contacts who will be e-mailed in the event that they fail to log in for a time period specified by the user (the site recommends 90 days). If a user doesn’t check in within the established time limit, the site’s database e-mails the member as a fail-safe before notifying the user’s contact list that he or she has expired.

It’s hardly a foolproof system and a concept that some regular Net users seem apprehensive about using. The fact that the Died Online site includes a message-board forum similar to Friendster’s, with accompanying searchable dating profiles, may not help. “I don’t know how seriously I can take a Web site that’s supposed to inform me of a friend’s death that also has a chat forum about dating and sex,” 17-year-old AOL Instant Messenger user Sarah Dillon says of the site. “Those things don’t mix too well with each other.”

Another site, Mylastemail.com, charges $9.99 for three years of storage of up to five e-mails to be sent in the event of the user’s death. Users print out a document to be stored with their life insurance policies and will. The executor of the user’s estate then snail-mails the document to the company, which in turn delivers the stored e-mails. The site also offers the option to auto-release the e-mails in a similar fashion to Died Online’s process.

Dawn Thompson worries that such a site would only feed the fixations of those who dwell on their own deaths: “It sounds like a site that would be more for people who have discovered they were terminal or maybe contemplating suicide.” (Representatives of Eied Online and Mylastemail did not respond to e-mails for comment.)

And despite safeguards and attempts to make such services authoritative, e-mail notifications have the potential to raise their own complications. “There are so many factors that could cause you to not have access to a computer in those few days,” Dillon says. “So right there, if your e-mail gets sent out it might cause some drama with family and friends. But also I know if I died and my friends and family got an e-mail letting them know, they might not believe that at all.”

Indeed, death hoaxes and unfounded rumors of people’s demise have become as much a staple of Internet life as e-mail spam and message-board trolls. Dan Jansen of Baltimore band Long Live Death experienced a rash of phone calls following a post on FriendsFer-esque site MySpace.com. stating that he had died this past March.

“I had been in a car accident related to my diabetes not long before all this happened,” Jansen says. “My ex-girlfriend had posted a testimonial on Friendster asking people to look out for me, and then a friend of mine jokingly posted on another site that I was dead. I got calls all day from people checking in to see if I was alive. I’m sure it scared a lot of people, but at the same time it’s kind of nice to know that all those people care about you.”

And then there’s the case of a Lipstick and Cigarettes user named Jeff Gourley. Gourley, who used the alias JeffG, apparently died last year not long after Huth. Sean Percival, another L&C user, recalls viewing the news of Gourley’s apparent death with skepticism.

“JeffG was what you would call a ‘character’ poster,” Percival says. “He posted so much off-the-wall, crazy topics you never knew what was true and was not.”

ûourley was infamous on a number of boards for posting incendiary material and being subsequently banned, only to reappear under new aliases. “He was banned from Makeoutclub.com for posting pictures of geriatric pornography,” Percival says. “He liked to argue a lot. Sometimes I think he would take a counterstance on something just to get things stirred up, to have fun.”

People on Gourley’s e-mail contact list were notified last summer of his death of complications from diabetes after a relatively long period of inactivity from his alias.

“I found out after reading the board—someone received an e-mail from a ‘friend’ of Jeff’s,” Percival recalls. “I tried to e-mail the person back but never received a response. I even asked, ‘Is this for real?’ Jeff would be the kind of person to do that. We Googled for newspapers in his area and were able to find the obituary. All the facts seemed to line up.”

Still, other L&C posters reserve judgment. “I’m not entirely convinced JeffG is dead,” Brett Roberts says.

 

Despite all the uncertainties inherent in online culture, many people take the details of their online lives seriously. Enough so that as their lives begin to revolve more and more around their ability to communicate globally, they begin to contemplate the effect that their death might have on the friends they are far removed from physically.

Baltimore-based electronic musician and graphic designer Richard Chartier travels all over the world for his work and communicates primarily via e-mail with the contacts he has developed in his travels, something he’s considered when thinking about his own mortality.

“I’ve thought about this enough that I’ve set a stipulation in my will so that if I die, the executor, who would either be my mother or my best friend, is responsible for notifying everyone on my contact list that I’ve passed away,” says Chartier, 33. “There are just so many people who would need to know and would only be easily contacted via e-mail. I use the computer so much for business and communication with other artists and curators that the scope of having my mother contact them all by telephone would be ridiculous. There are people on that list that I’ve never met, one of whom I’ve done two records with and never even spoken on the phone with. These are people who would need to know I was gone, and e-mail is the only way they’re likely to find out.”

And in the end, Internet technology can offer some small comfort to the grieving. Thompson now uses e-mail to communicate with friends who were close to her son, something she had not done much previously outside of her job at a local car dealership. Now she has multiple e-mail accounts that she checks from a computer she bought after Aaron’s death.

“I e-mail Amy [Waller],” Thompson says. “She expresses so many things that I’ve felt, too, and we can comfort each other. I didn’t use the computer much for communication before Aaron died. But now it’s become something I use to talk to people about him, and it doesn’t end on the computer—I’ve developed a friendship with Amy.”

“I e-mail Aaron’s mother about every week,” Waller confirms. “It’s nice because we can talk deep and cut to the point—on the phone it would be impossible. We’d just get too upset.”

Thompson recently began setting up a way for people who knew her son, online and in real life, to submit stories about him for eventual inclusion on a Web site devoted to him.

“Aaron’s brother Daniel just had a son who is named after his uncle,” Thompson continues. “It’s so unfortunate that little Aaron will never get to know the big Aaron. I want to set up a site with stories and pictures of him so that his nephew will be able to know who his uncle was.

üPeople can e-mail me at aaronslegacy@yahoo.com to submit them,” she says. “I had another address before that was more directed at me. I’m hoping that this one will be easier for people to write to so they don’t feel they have to be quite as concerned about sharing certain things. I really want people to e-mail me stories—like the time Aaron and his friend mooned cars on their way down to the 9:30 Club in D.C. I want them to know it’s OK to talk about him.”

ýhompson’s desire to use the communication tools her son favored to commemorate his life is not unusual. The multitudes of LiveJournal communities and Web pages devoted to deceased young people are a testament to how real some of the relationships between online friends can be, and also how persistent online culture has become, even in the way we approach mortality. Pieces of people’s lives become nonphysical totems to their memory and exist indefinitely until the next hard drive wipe or crash.

“I Googled all of Aaron’s screen names and real name,” Waller says. “I found a picture of him skiing at age 12, and a conversation from two years ago posted on a journal.”

Vast numbers of pages containing digital references to deceased people, created for that purpose or not, float in cyberspace waiting for someone to update or remove them. It isn’t difficult to imagine a virtual world in which Web browsers have to sift through oceans of data left behind by the dead. In fact, it’s already happening.

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