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For many of us, our online presence is just as important as our offline presence. We make friends here, we do business, we inform, we play, and most of what we do involves user names and passwords. We are counseled to create new passwords for each account we have online so that we can keep our information secure. Very good advice, but what happens if we die suddenly or become incapacitated and no one close to us has access to our passwords, or knows which online activities we engage in regularly?

This is the sort of thing I continually worry about at work, not because I might die or become incapacitated (although I’m not immortal, so it could happen), but because I sometimes get sick or take vacation and something, whether online or off, may come up that has to be dealt with immediately. In most places of employment, there are typically manuals that can walk people through the policies and procedures they need to know in order to get the work done. Somewhere within the written procedures of an organization should be the method of retrieving user names and passwords (and if your organization doesn’t have such, it should get going on this immediately).

When it comes to our personal lives, we tend not to be this organized. We write passwords on scraps of paper or commit them to memory. We’re happily doing our thing online, getting ready for a mission on World of Warcraft and suddenly we die, leaving our guild in the lurch. Our guild members have no idea what has happened.

If your loved ones don’t have the necessary user names and passwords for your Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, World of Warcraft, email, LinkedIn, GoodReads, CafePress, Flickr, etc., etc., accounts, there is no way for them to contact your friends and followers to inform them of your untimely passing. And, if you’ve read the article I linked to above, there may be no way for your loved ones to retrieve those user names and passwords from the websites themselves because of privacy reasons.

Think of the inconvenience! You’ve already up and died on your loved ones and now they can’t use the speed of the internet to inform everyone. Nor can they memorialize you in the very places you hung out. Nor can they get a sense of the fullness of your history online, which might be of great comfort to them in this, their time of grief. Nor can they take down the lewd or embarrassing pictures you left behind, thus digitally immortalizing you at your worst.*

Now that I’ve thoroughly shamed you, perhaps you’re ready for a piece of advice. Make a will for your online presence. Decide who will have access to your account user names and passwords and where they can find them, whether they are kept on a flash drive or CD in a secret place, written in list form on paper (also in a secure place), or on your computer using a password application such as KeePass. Make sure to give your designee the password to KeePass and/or your computer. As with a regular will, you’ll also want to name a backup or two in case the first person on your list is unable to fulfill his/her duties.

In addition to assigning a trusted person access to your online presence after your death, there might be other instructions you’ll want to provide in regards to how they should handle your accounts. If there is an account that you would like to have continued after your death, such as your CafePress store because it will bring in needed income for your family, arrange for its future operation. If you have a website and domain name, consider whether you want them renewed into the future.

Do you want your designee to notify a particular guild member in World of Warcraft? Give him/her the guild member’s name and the easiest way to contact him. Is there a blog post you’ve written “from beyond the grave” that you want published? Tell your designee where to find it. A few witty last words for Twitter? A photo of you in your casket that you want displayed on MySpace or Picasa? A video of you reading your Last Will & Testament to be uploaded to YouTube? You get the picture. Prepare your online presence to go out in a Blitzkrieg of unadulturated glory, but leave detailed instructions so your designee can properly carry out your wishes.

*Now, about those lewd photos ….  If you are intent upon embarrassing your friends and family once you’re gone, keep your user names and passwords to yourself.

[Addendum: March 21, 2009 – Hubby called me yesterday morning to tell me he was listening to Future Tense with Jon Gordon on Minnesota Public Radio. The topic? What to do with your online persona after you die. Jon discussed an online application called Deathswitch with its inventor David Eagleman. When you sign up with Deathswitch, it will send you regularly scheduled messages to which you have to respond with a password. If you don’t respond, it sends out more messages. If you still don’t respond, the application figures your are dead or incapacitated and sends the messages you have written to the people you want notified. An online solution to taking care of your online presence after you’re gone.]