Ghosts in the machine and online life after death

By Christian Nielsen

As we spent so much of our life online, what happens to our virtual selves when we die? Do they disappear too, or do we become ghosts in the machine?

Tuesday 18 September 2012 / Updated 31 October 2014

Last year, a journalist colleague-cum-friend stopped answering e-mails. At first, I thought he was miffed because a few of the stories he had written came back with critical comments and the client was breathing down my neck to take him off the job.

I knew he was having some kind of difficulty at home and perhaps even financial problems, so I persevered for his sake. A couple of weeks later, I gave the green light for another batch of stories from him.

No response to the e-mail on the first day. This was  out of character for this guy because he usually picks up a new commission in a flash. Two, three, four days passed without word. I still thought he was smarting from the client's rebuke so let it pass. But after two weeks or so something was clearly wrong.

First I tried to call him on his mobile. No answer. I tried his old number – his mother's I believe. Again nothing. This was not the sort of guy to pass up work, I decided, and definitely not the type to sulk for weeks, so something was definitely going on.  It was time to start investigating.

I checked his website, and . Nothing unusual there – some relatively recent activity. I then did the only other thing I could think of to nip a nagging worry in the bud … Yep, I Googled his name + ‘obituary'. I know it sounds morbid, but if I haven't communicated the circumstances well enough here, take my word for it that this search was not done flippantly.

Sure enough, the first or second hit was a note in a local newspaper that my colleague-friend of five years had passed away. No mention of how, only that the family expressed its gratitude to a certain hospice which may or may not suggest he had been ill for some time. And when I think about the declining standard of his work, it would make sense.

But the way this happened, or at least the way his ‘virtual' community (me and perhaps other colleagues and employers) had to learn of his is what concerns me the most about online. Concern that we build up friendships or professional closeness over the years without any physical foundations or recourse, if that is the right way to express it.

I didn't know his family, or even if he had one. I had an old landline when he first started working for me but that was superseded by email/LinkedIn and so on. So, once his apparently expired or the battery ran out, that was it. His mother, wife, son, or whoever was close to him probably didn't know his PIN to open it again and answer the worried calls.

What's more, they probably didn't know his passwords and access codes to the various tools he used. When I say ‘probably' I'm just trying to be careful because the guy passed away nearly a year ago and just last week I got a ‘recent activity' notification from him on LinkedIn.

It's especially creepy because I still don't know 100% that he's dead. Sure, all the evidence indicates it, but with just 0.01% doubt, when you get a nudge from someone online, it makes you wonder. So much so that I had to see what the recent activity was. It appeared to be someone he had invited to join his network had finally got round to accepting it X months later.

Of course this is possible. I opened a LinkedIn account some 10 years ago and conscientiously ignored any and all invitations for nine years, until the system got so insistent that it became easier to accept them all than go through the rigmarole of rejecting and worrying that I'd offended someone (yes, I'm not a digital native … these things worry us ‘physical world' people).

Post-game plans?

It also makes me wonder if we are overlooking our responsibilities to family and (virtual and physical) by not having a … well … post-game plan in case we get knocked over by a bus tomorrow. At least when we owned CDs and other real physical assets it was pretty simple, with or without a will and last testament, your stuff usually just went to the nearest and dearest. But with ‘digital assets' we're not even sure we own them, let alone whether we have a plan for how to pass them down to our family or friends.

Take the recent Bruce Willis and Apple story, which may have been false but that's beside the point because it highlighted the issue of intellectual rights and digital assets like downloads, and that we may be only buying listening rights during our tenure on this world. How does that encourage legal downloading and the sustainability of the music/ industry?

Perhaps the smart, discrete, respectful thing to do is to prepare your exit plan from the virtual world as much as you are primed to do so for the physical world. For example, write down the main platforms you engage in and how your family or friend can access them to take possession of any so-called digital assets bequeathed.

Make sure the executor or trusted person has instructions or enough information to shut down the online accounts which otherwise, very disturbingly, live on as ghosts in the machine. And, of course, put all this information somewhere safe from prying eyes, but not so safe that it won't be found if that bus does have your number on it.


What happens to your Facebook account when you die? (30 Oct 2014) This story echoes the need to “think ahead” about your digital last will and testimony and introduces a feature now available on Facebook, at least, allowing those left behind to ‘delete' or ‘memorialise' the account. Here is what The Guardian's ‘AskJack' blog has to say on these options:

“If you choose to delete the account, then all the comments, photos etc. will also be deleted, unless you take legal steps to preserve them. This is a privacy issue. Facebook says: “The application to obtain account content is a lengthy process and will require you to obtain a court order.

“If you choose memorialisation, Facebook changes a number of things: No one is allowed to log in to the account; You can't change, add to or delete existing content, which includes adding or removing friends; Automated activities, such as daily quotes or horoscopes, are stopped; Memorialised accounts don't appear in “public spaces” such as birthday reminders, People You May Know, or searches; Memorialised accounts can only be accessed by the user's confirmed friends.”

Hope this little addition helps those faced with the unpleasant decisions on what to do with the ‘ghost in the machine'.


  • Christian Nielsen

    Christian Nielsen is a journalist, copy writer and editor based in Brussels. He writes pretty much anything that takes his fancy, from the woes of travelling with kids to the dangers of antidepressants, but technology, EU affairs and science writing pay the bills.

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