Page last updated at 08:31 GMT, Saturday, 22 May 2010 09:31 UK

Virtual life after death

Candles at a shrine

By Peregrine Andrews
Producer, Radio 4's i-Shrine

On 20 May 2010 an event known as "Digital Death Day" brought together the businesses of social networking, data management and death care.

One of its organisers, Jennifer Holmes, says: "We have reached a critical mass of personal data online."

She is referring to the billions of pages held by Facebook and other social networking sites, as well as blogs, online gaming sites... basically anything into which we put data... data which, in most cases, remains after we die.

So what should happen to it?

"There's no standard practice across the industry yet. There are no norms for how digital assets are passed on to heirs," says Kaliya Hamlin, another of Digital Death Day's organisers.

And it could be the case that digital assets could have real-money value. Domain names can be sold for large sums of money and even Twitter accounts can be monetised with "sponsored tweets".

'Real money transactions'

Jesse Davis, co-founder of Entrustet, a company allowing the creation of a will for digital assets says: "There are two types of value stored in your online accounts, economic and sentimental... both types of assets need to be considered carefully in building a proper digital estate plan."

Despite investing a huge amount of time into characters, players don't have any ownership rights to [them]
Tamer Asfahani

Indeed, some massive multiplayer online games (MMOGs) rely on real money transactions and with between 15 and 20 million users paying to play the games, it can be very lucrative.

A virtual space station was sold for $330,000 on a game called Project Entropia, a world record for virtual transactions.

What would happen to this if you died?

"We have received several questions from users and request for guidelines on our policy and the manner in which they should regulate their own wills," says David Simmonds of Project Entropia, "but specific virtual items cannot be inherited by different persons - only the access rights to the account as a whole."

A person opening a safe
People are starting to think about how they keep their virtual assets safe

Tamer Asfahani of games website, agrees that the user of the games has very few ownership rights over the things they earn and buy, or indeed the character they portray in the games.

"Despite investing a huge amount of time into characters, players don't have any ownership rights to [them]," he says.

"The publisher owns all rights to characters and as a player you technically rent this character and the world - as well as everything you acquire - from the publisher.

"Therefore it's not your right to bequeath anyone your character and it's not something you can include in your will."

Digital presence

The internet is also becoming a place to remember the dead.

"The online memorial already has become the new grave," says Jennifer Holmes.

Death was not much in the minds of social networking pioneers when they started. Most sites were originally aimed at young college students.

i-Shrine can be heard on BBC Radio 4 on Friday, 21 May at 1100 BST
Or listen to it afterwards at the programme website

But with hundreds of millions of users worldwide now, (Facebook alone has over 400 million) death is a daily occurrence. So what are they doing about people's digital assets?

Social networking site MySpace policy says: "In order to respect the privacy of our users, MySpace does not allow anyone to assume control of a deceased user's profile.

"MySpace never deletes a profile for inactivity, but if a family requests that a profile be removed we will honour their request."


When 21-year-old Bath University student "KJ" fell into the river Avon and drowned in 2009, his Facebook page remained. As news of the death spread, rest-in-peace messages started to appear on his wall.

It's perhaps the best example so far of continuing bonds after death
Doctor Elaine Kasket
Counselling psychologist

One of KJ's closest friends had heard of Facebook's "Memorialisation" feature, which allows existing friends continued access but blocks new ones and removes information such as contact details.

He wrote to Facebook with proof of death and asked for this to be done.

Friends now continue to write on the wall, even a year after the death.

Facebook's European Director of Public Policy, Richard Allan describes this as "a new form of mourning".

Doctor Elaine Kasket, a counselling psychologist, has found that a surprising number of messages are written to the deceased as if they are still present and "logging on from some internet cafe in heaven".

"It's perhaps the best example so far of continuing bonds after death," she says.

There is perhaps a better sense of the living person on their remaining Facebook or MySpace page than anywhere else.

It has been suggested that the existence of this online presence after people die, plus the accessibility of online memorials, could draw out the grieving process.

But this may not be a bad thing, says Mark Dunn, a psychotherapist. He believes most of us in the developed world do not grieve for long enough and that the internet "may allow us to learn the mechanics of grieving again."

BBC Radio 4's i-Shrine was broadcast on Friday 21 May 2010 at 1100 BST. Or catch-up afterwards on iPlayer

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