What is a digital legacy and what matters?

One of the hot trending topics to emerge in the last year is Digital Legacy. What is it? What does it mean? What should you do about it?

What is a digital legacy?

A digital legacy is the total available online content for a topic, person or an organization. Your digital legacy is everything created about you or by you that can be retrieved and displayed on an Internet-connected device. Most likely this is a browser but that’s a colloquial term that may not apply in another generation. Barring nuclear war or a totalitarian takeover of the Internet, your digital legacy exists as long as bits are stored. And right now that looks like a long time. For instance, the Library of Congress is archiving all Twitter “tweets” for some yet unknown future application.

What does this all mean?

In the purest sense, information is related to entropy. To paraphrase Claude Shannon, information is proportional to the logarithm of event probability . The more unlikely an event, the more information it conveys. For example, a Twitter retweet contains zero information. A time-specific tweet is a delta function, i.e.. the value of the information evaporates when the event has passed. On the Internet last week is a long time ago.

  • Intellectual Property. Patents last for twenty years from the filing date. Copyright in the United States lasts for seventy years after the author’s death. Everything you create online that is an original work (i.e. you didn’t steal it from someone else) is entitled to copyright protection and potentially passes monetary value to your estate and heirs.
  • Sentimental Property. To paraphrase Isak Dinerson, “our lives are our stories”. Your words, deeds and images describe you, they are proof that you lived, that you made a difference to someone present or in the future.
  • Narcissistic Property. The vast majority of online content created on the web today is a form of self worship. Most tweets contain either contain no information (per Claude Shannon) or they merely advertise something you wish to promote – a skill, service or product. Blogs are a conduit for telling the world you exist or to generate traffic that can be monetized. But the topical nature of most blogs and tweets reduces the monetization value as time passes. The most egregious example is game activity on Facebook. If you believe your grandchildren will care about your luck with Farmville then perhaps you are too self-absorbed. My grandchildren have never asked me how I did on Pong nor will they ever.
  • Cultural Property. The Library of Congress is archiving all Twitter tweets. Most tweets contain little or no information, but when combined they potentially contain archaeological information about our culture, our world, our collective points of view. The collected videos, email, SMS, tweets, etc. form a digital midden heap for future civilizations to ponder, laugh at, or ignore.
  • Stuff. In the physical world it might be tools, clothes, appliances, gadgets, keepsakes, collections, etc. In the digital world it might be e-books, reference documents, email, software purchased, open-source code downloads, and web app subscriptions. I subscribe to a myriad of free web apps but my membership may not be worth anything unless my businesses depend on it. It is common in a family death, for the people closest to the deceased to choose from the personal items that are not specified in a will. That which wanted ends up in estate sales, Ebay, Goodwill or the dump. The same may be true for a lot of items on the digital knickknack shelf. So don’t worry too much about stuff, worry about things that pass on value or meaning.

What matters and what should you do?

Some things are simple:

  • Take time to save the stories of your life.
  • Don’t trash your reputation online.
  • If access to online sites matters to you, then take steps to safeguard your passwords.
  • Make a will, designate a digital executor. And start creating and preserving your stories.

In the end a digital legacy is simply a longer lasting version of a physical legacy

It differs from a physical “3D” legacy in the immutability of the content. Real stuff deteriorates. Pictures fade. Magnetic media fades. Things burn or get buried in trash heaps, lava flows, etc. But bits can be reformatted to live on in new forms, like disc storage evolving to holographic storage. Stuff is still stuff, it just lasts longer.

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