On the Permanence of One’s Online (and Offline) Presence
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Some people subscribe to my blog posts (and/or the comments left on posts) by email, which means that my system sends them a message from time to time. This is all done automatically, so I normally never see these messages, but the other day I received a reply to one, from a guy whose name I recognized from the comments he'd left on my blog over time, and from some private email exchanges we'd had about Lightroom.

This particular guy lives in Bangkok, but is British, so I didn't expect the bordering-on-gibberish broken English of the short message in his reply. After looking at it for a few moments, it dawned on me what the writer was trying to say. Translating in full, it said “I'm his wife; sorry to tell you he died.”

I went to his blog, which normally has two or three new posts a day, and found it showing nothing new for the last two weeks. The most recent post (the last post), about some photographic technology, had accumulated a few comments from regular readers along the lines of “dude, where have you been?”

I went to his Flickr site; the last photo was uploaded on the same day as his last post, of a rotary-dial phone, with a “don't see these around much any more” caption.

I didn't know the guy.... I didn't know how old he was, what he looked like, or even that he had a wife, but two things were apparent from the message I'd received: he was dead, and he had a Thai wife whose English was not good. For some reason that latter part had a big impact on me. I could envision a grieving wife trying to come to terms with things, finding his email account and seeing all these long English-language messages from the same address (my blog's automated system, though I'm sure she didn't know what it was), and wanting to at least try to let the sender know that he'd passed. She wanted to get the word out to his friends, but didn't have the linguistic or technical ability to do so.

His blog sitting there in the state he left it seemed somehow wrong, somehow unfitting. If his online friends didn't know of his passing, those in a position to help his wife wouldn't be able to. Like I said, my imagination of the situation had a big impact on me, and I wanted to try to do something.

To try to get the word out, I first added a comment on his last blog post telling what I'd heard from his wife, but it turns out that comments were moderated, so no one would see the comment until he manually approved it, something that seemed unlikely at this point. There were comments asking “where are you?”, so I figure for me to see them they must have been from friends he trusted enough to white-list in his moderation system, so that their messages would bypass the moderation queue and appear immediately. So I followed the link trail, and was eventually able to contact someone who knew him in Bangkok. "He didn't show up for lunch and I was getting worried, but I only have his email, so couldn't call him to ask what was up." Now he knew.

I also was able to contact a blog friend in North America who had also been getting worried. He was able to then follow his own contacts and finally confirmed that indeed the man had died. I have no idea about the circumstances, other than “unexpected”, which one could gather from the full-steam-ahead online presence he had that suddenly, unceremoniously, stopped. I suppose it was a car accident or heart attack, but I don't know.... in any case, the result remains the same.

I'd felt compelled to do something, and however little, I had, which then allowed my thoughts to wander. It's a vastly different world now than for the first umpteen thousand years of human existence, where one's presence can be extended all around the world with unprecedented ease (just start a blog, or upload some photos), garnering a friendship of global proportions, yet, still, have all those links be of the most tenuous, fragile nature that can completely miss an event as significant as death.

I wondered what will happen to his blog, to his online photos? Without help from an English speaker, I suspect his wife won't do anything (but even if she could, what would she want to do?). Will his Flickr site stay there until.... forever? Or will Yahoo eventually decide that since no one has logged in for X years, delete it? Will his blog stay there until a disk wears out, or will someone come in and dismantle it? Will someone put up a post-mortem post telling the world that the author died?

I wondered about all this without much direction, but with a profound sense of sadness related to, I guess, the disconnect between our offline presence (our life) and our online presence, and how when one is turned off at our death, the other is left.... hanging.

I wondered what post will be at the top of my blog when I die. I doubt it'll be something like “Heading across the street to get the mail; hope I don't get hit by a bus!” or “Doctor says prognosis is not good.” Given the demographics of my posts, it'll probably be something mundane and boring, like “Hey Look, a Pretty Flower!

So when my posting frequency slows due to a slight case of death, how long before people notice? Will they notice? In my case, my wife can speak English very well, and my technologically-unchallenged brother in America could figure out how to put a note on my blog informing of my untimely demise, but what about if Fumie and I died in the same accident... how would word ever even get to my family in America?

I suppose I shouldn't worry about this stuff.... heck, it won't matter to me because I'll be dead.... but thinking about it still makes me a bit melancholy. Of course, I've thought about death plenty before, as anyone does, and the amazing abruptness of “we know neither the time nor the place” remains as impactful as ever, but for some reason this new angle seems to make things a bit different... just a touch more real.

I prayed for him and his wife. It felt a bit odd, since I don't even know who they are, but I trust that God does.

For the record, should I die unexpectedly any time soon, I'd hope my blog could remain available, for Anthony to read when he gets old enough.

All 15 comments so far, oldest first...

I’ve never used them and have no relationship with this firm, but http://legacylocker.com/ seems to do what you want, Jeffrey. Caveat Emptor…

— comment by Harter Ryan on January 27th, 2010 at 1:31am JST (14 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

Timely post. As you know, I’ve been through this very situation myself recently. A few months ago, my mother-in-law handed me a printed sheet with all of the user names and passwords for the web sites she used. Horrible security practice, I know, but it has turned out to be very, very handy. A few weeks ago, she asked me to post on her Facebook account that her health was failing and I did so. I’ve since posted again to share the news of her passing and of the memorial arrangements that are being made.

This, of course, has started me thinking about my own accounts. I’ve always taken password security quite seriously, so my passwords are all in my head and not written anywhere. My wife (who is not so technically savvy) asked me about my passwords recently. She kind of panicked when I told her I use a different PW for every site. “How would I do *anything* if you died?” she asked. Good question.

So my approach to password security is great for now; not so good for my family if I meet a sudden end. It’s an ugly tradeoff and I haven’t figured out how to balance these things yet. Will be interested to see what else you and others have to say here…

— comment by Eric Scouten on January 27th, 2010 at 2:05am JST (14 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

A good friend had been corresponding for a couple of decades with a person she had never met. They emailed each other daily. One day the email came from his account, but signed by his daughter, saying that her father had died.

When my mother died 3 years ago, I sent a similar email to all in her address book — some old friends and some online only friends.

We have a different such a different social setting today and the protocols are being invented as we go along. So sorry for the loss of your friend.

— comment by Julie on January 27th, 2010 at 2:43am JST (14 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

I’ve thought of this so much. I’ve kept an online journal for nearly a decade now. I have given the password to one of my frequent readers with suggestions about how to let everyone know and what to do. I know from experiences like yours, I will leave a hole. Somehow it seems to me to be even more difficult for me to get around losing an online only friend – it’s like having a hurt in a place you can’t get your hand on.

I’ve followed your luscious photography and the growing up of Anthony for years now and so appreciate what you do. I follow via rss, by the way. Susan in Seattle

— comment by susan dennis on January 27th, 2010 at 2:59am JST (14 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

Wow – quite a profound post. Facebook now has a way you can change someone’s page to a memorial page for this reason.

What this post also speaks to is the “unusual” (in a historical sense) relationships we create on the web. I follow your blog religiously because I want to know the latest and greatest about your Lightroom Plugins. Yet you post far more often about Anthony and Fumie to the point where I feel like I know them. If anything were to happen to any of you I would genuinely feel sorrow. The relationship we’ve formed, however, is so one sided I’ve actually considered if it would be socially proper to reciprocate and send you the URL for my family blog…

I think I’ll make a list tonight of all my presences on the web and share it with my wife. It will be handy when the time comes (hopefully 100 years from now).

— comment by Mike on January 27th, 2010 at 4:04am JST (14 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

A thought provoking post, Jeffrey. Thank you.

— comment by Mason on January 27th, 2010 at 1:19pm JST (14 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

Eric & others – when my parents passed, I found my father had neatly solved the problem of password security. In the safe deposit box was a CD, and on that CD was a set of files telling me where all the accounts and other info were, scanned copies of birth certificates, marriage certificates, etc. – and all the passwords.

I have something similar but I do not keep it up to date well enough. Still, knowing it is available but in the safe deposit box seems like a good compromise.

— comment by Laura on January 27th, 2010 at 2:10pm JST (14 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

It’s funny, but I think about this regularly.. I’m not morbid or any such thing, but I do think of my family’s future.

I still don’t have a safe solution for it though, although I do like Laura’s suggestion.

— comment by Sean McCormack on January 28th, 2010 at 12:45am JST (14 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

Very thoughtful post. I too have wondered how people will handle all the online stuff after my death and have not quite resolved it. Laura’s suggestion seems to me the most practical.

— comment by Mano Singham on January 28th, 2010 at 1:28am JST (14 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

One of the best posts/articles/blogs I have ever read about the death of a person unknown. You sir are as good at writing as you are at photography and are living proof humans are a bit special.

— comment by Derek on January 31st, 2010 at 7:18am JST (14 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

Thanks for this. Makes you pause and think about life.

— comment by Jon on February 1st, 2010 at 12:10am JST (14 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

Wow, I was very moved by this post. I log on weekly to your blog since I discovered it a little over a year ago…Wrote to you once about how my husband (also photography junky and software engineer) about how much we love your blog and visit Kyoto once a year for the past 5 years or more…I ramble. Just wanted to say that your photos and posts mean a lot to us and we appreciate all your hard work to make this blog so meaningful! Thank you.

— comment by Garin on February 1st, 2010 at 3:10pm JST (14 years, 1 month ago) comment permalink

The post about your on-line friend in Bangkok who suddenly died last year was truly moving, even after one year. Thank you for
Your musings which are truly a good meditation on death. RIP May he rest in peace. Father Mac

— comment by Father Mac on February 10th, 2011 at 7:57am JST (13 years ago) comment permalink

:33< Dearest Jeffrey, I am moved by your words. It made me look at life in a different angle…

— comment by Nepeta Leijon on January 13th, 2012 at 7:39am JST (12 years, 2 months ago) comment permalink

When my son was 4 we stayed one night at a British woman’s living alone with her cat in France. She was 51. She grew up as an orphan, had health problems, couldn’t walk very well. I found her via “hospitalityclub.org”. Some years later I saw on her profile that she had moved to Ireland to live at the farm of her partner. I really was happy for her to have found someone. I sent her a mail and her partner wrote back that she had suddenly passed away 3 weeks earlier. I googled her name and found a forum where people who knew her described how it happened: she and her partner attended a wedding of friends in Italy, came back, she didn’t feel well, went to the doctor’s and didn’t wake up the next morning. Nice death. She was only 54. I was as shocked as you. At least I was glad that she didn’t die lonely in France. Her life was quite lonely (she had no kids), but at least the last 3 years she had her partner. I wrote a comment on her profile that she had passed away.

— comment by Anne on September 19th, 2012 at 7:02am JST (11 years, 6 months ago) comment permalink
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