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Every time I turn around lately, there’s another discussion about online privacy, usually in relation to getting more of it. As a professional historian, that disturbs me. Will excessive privacy controls lead to a dearth of personal history?

I don’t have a problem with peeps having privacy in the here and now, but what is going to happen to your digital data when you die? It’s been recommended that you leave a digital will, wherein you spell out who will take care of your online accounts when you’re gone and what should happen to them (delete them? memorialize them?).

Normally, when people discuss managing your online life after death, they take the position that keeping all your data around is negative. Scott Brown from Wired magazine explores this in his article Managing Your Digital Remains. No embarrassing secrets, please!

Embarrassing for whom? If you’re dead, you’re no longer around to be embarrassed. Sure, your relatives might think differently of you, but, undoubtedly, they have their own secrets and the revelation of your secrets might make them feel not so weird about their own.

Believe me, as a historian who has surfed through volumes of past data (be it in newspapers, personal journals, probates and other sundry sources), anything you might be hiding needs to be magnitudes of freaky and/or bad ass beyond what’s been done before in order for it to even be considered novel. And if it’s that bad, you shouldn’t be recording it online anyway. The internet has big ears.

While making a will for your digital data tends to focus on the feelings and desires of relatives and friends, what I have rarely seen discussed is how the historical record will be affected. (The closest I’ve seen is this article from Slate: “Every Day We Write the Book: What would happen if Facebook made its data available for research?” by Michael Agger, which talks about dealing with the data in aggregate – also important to historians.)  If internet and application service providers are reticent to provide relatives access to accounts, they sure aren’t going to allow access to historians unless the public demands it.

With more and more and more personal content being “born digital” every day and less being created in analog hard copies, figuring out how to preserve born digital content has become a top priority for the museum community. While we’re still trying to figure out the mechanics of that, server farms all over the world are actually holding that data.  What we need is a method by which individuals can bequeath access to their online data to historians and museums, a method that would be honored by organizations that hold digital data. (Currently, unless you’re friends with someone on Facebook, you can’t see their data. If such a digital data bequest system were set up, a history organization given permission to access a particular account would hopefully get that access from Facebook.)

Understand that very little of what humans create actually ends up in museums for further study, so only a small percentage of those of us online would have to give permission for this access in order for historians to have lots and lots of data to study. No need for those of you with really, really, really embarrassing digital data (what ARE you doing, putting it online?) to share, but those of us who want to share our data with historians should be allowed to do so.

That brings me back to wills for our digital lives. Even though there may not be a mechanism currently in place for sharing your digital data with historians, if you put access permission in your will, that permission can pave the way for it to be shared in the future.



Incidentally, the digital will doesn’t have to be in digital form, although it could be. There are services, such as AssetLock, Legacy Locker, Death Switch, My Webwill, and Entrustet,  that will help take care of your digital data once you’ve passed. No matter what format your will is in, leave instructions on how to find it. More good info here on creating a will for your digital life.


Bob Collins discusses what has happened to personal data that has been stored in previous technological formats. His article inspired my blog post, though once I got to writing, I couldn’t figure out how to fit it in properly. Definitely worth the read.

[MPR News Cut by Bob Collins] Our disappearing life