Article: In Memoriam

In his first article for Miniclick, Jamie Dalzell takes a look at the increasing concerns surrounding our digital footprint once we shuffle of this mortal coil…

In Memoriam: Your Digital Photo Footprint

Some keep them in old shoe boxes, stashed away at the back of overcrowded cupboards. Others? In photo books and albums, gathering dust atop bookshelves. The lengthiest book of all, if the old adage of ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ rings true. And let’s not forget that most iconic of Hollywood horror-movie locations: the attic. Home to ghosts of the past in more ways than one.

Such is the timeless magic of a photograph.

They’ve captured the tragedy and triumph of war. Hollywood stars and starlets in all their glitzy glamour. And, more importantly, our loved ones, in their finest, funniest and most mundane moments. These photos in particular? Always stowed away for safe keeping, tradition seeing them passed down to the next generation as a window into the past.

For today’s generation this is likely a largely foreign concept. With a smartphone in every pocket, photos are no longer meticulously developed. But rather uploaded in their hundreds and thousands to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The result? Future generations won’t need to piece the past together from scraps of information. Instead, they’ll simply retrace the digital footprint left by those who’ve come before: every Twitter tirade, Facebook update and Instagram’d meal. There for all to see.

This social sharing era comes as both a blessing and a curse. Who wouldn’t want the chance to relive the days of our loved ones? Yet as the recent spate of legal battles has shown, accessing the digital lives of lost loved ones is posing serious questions for all involved.

So how are we dealing with this part of life that’s fast gone digital? More specifically, what happens to those photographic moments that are being lost to locked accounts, left to gather virtual dust in digital photo albums?

The Photo Book Phenomenon

Recent research has shown that within the next century, Facebook will play host to more deceased user accounts than living. The leading social network of our day becoming the digital graveyard of tomorrow? It’s a chilling thought.

More worrying still is the great unknown of what happens to these accounts as the years pass. There’s no ‘Save All’ when it comes to someone’s digital existence. So where to from here? Unsurprisingly, it’s business with the initial answer to this question, with an entire industry sprouting up around the preservation of our online selves. Digital death, it seems, is big business.

A Twitter user? Services like Twournal, Tweetbook and Tweetbooks let users turn those random thoughts of theirs into the modern-era’s rendition of a journal. 140 characters at a time. For some? No bigger than a pamphlet. And for the more prolific among us? A trilogy of novels rivalling George R.R. Martin’s epic saga. A Facebook user? Similar services abound that collate status updates and even private messages into a book for the coffee table or the top shelf.

But what of your photos?

With platforms like Instagram recently surpassing 300 million users – sharing some 70 million photos a day – it’s clear that our digital photo albums are bigger than ever. The loss of these photos is that prominent a fear that Instagram itself have an entire FAQ devoted to the subject.

In response, services like Blurb and Social Print Studio are giving users the ability to pull images from Facebook and Instagram and transform these into a photo book in minutes. While others offer tips, tricks and guides on making the photo book creation process that much easier. Combining the best of both the physical and virtual world.

While these services are revolutionising the way we manage our digital selves, they suffer from one fatal flar: many are designed for use by those with access to the account. A difficult thing to do if a loved one has taken their passwords to the grave. ‘What’s the trouble’ you might ask? Accessing these accounts isn’t as simple as it seems.

The Digital Ownership Dilemma

On first look a digital file might not appear to degrade like the dog-eared photos of old. Yet with new networks coming and going in the blink of an eye, there’s no guarantee that these files won’t be lost to history and the break-neck speed of technology’s forward march.

In response, these platforms are starting to take action. In February, Facebook became the first to introduce the idea of a ‘Legacy Contact’. An option that lets the owner of a Facebook account designate someone they’d like to take control of their account once they’ve passed on. This came on top of Facebook’s existing memorialisation feature, which turns the page of a deceased user – at the request of family – into a memorial that will live on.

These accounts are only accessible by current friends and family, allowing those people to continue to post to their timeline and browse through photos. Out of respect for these people, the usual birthday notifications and the like are disabled, meaning those who want to view these profiles can do so on their own terms, and in their own time.

Elsewhere, the options are mixed. Networks like Twitter delete inactive accounts within six months, though will shut down an account at the request of an authorised family member or other representative. Not a single memorial option in sight.

For Google? They deal with these events on a case-by-case basis, while Instagram is one of few that offer a memorialisation feature similar to Facebook.

But what of those who are seeking direct access to these accounts, and the information contained within? As expected, it’s currently a battlefield of lawyers, lawsuits and drawn-out legal battles. And the market here is only growing. From those that offer digital wills, to those who specialise in areas like who has access to your iTunes account, and who owns any virtual property you purchased in online video games.

So the who, what, when and where of our digital footprint remains a fiercely contested thing. An area many hope to see resolved through the introduction of new laws, regulations and standardisation. And as these platforms mature, alongside their attitudes towards digital death? The focus will continue to shift to the possibilities this digital world offers in the remembrance, preservation and memorialisation of those who are no longer with us.

As for those photos? The range of solutions on offer is a stunning example of what happens the physical and digital world collide. Everything old, it seems, is new again: tradition isn’t dead just yet. Sure, floppies and thumb drives may one day join the photo albums in the attic, but they’ll be accompanied by Twitter journals, Facebook memoirs, and most importantly? Photo books that keep the unbreakable magic of the photo, and the people captured within them, alive for generations to come.

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