Digital Afterlives: From the Electronic Village to the Networked Estate

Tamara Kneese

Everyone with a web presence has the potential to live on as information. Today, numerous stories in the popular press examine the afterlives of social data, asking what happens to our online profiles, feeds, blogs, and accounts after we die? This dissertation traces the rise of digital estate planning, a new cultural field that organizes individuals' various online accounts and bequeaths control of these materials to designated kin members. I locate the origins of digital estate planning in the aftermath of the campus shootings at Virginia Tech in April 2007, when victims' loved ones petitioned Facebook to keep the profiles of those who were killed as virtual, interactive shrines. Virginia Tech was a particularly networked place, and the Blacksburg Electronic Village already shaped campus life. By connecting the valorization of Facebook pages to a longer history of web memorialization practices that appeared during 1990s net culture, I show how Web 2.0 logics about user-generated content and collaboration enabled profiles to become valuable objects worthy of preservation. Based on qualitative interviews with digital mourners and digital estate planning startup company founders alike, I discuss how Facebook memorialization precipitated the emergence of digital estate planning as a way of capturing what I call communicative traces, or the electronic ephemera people constantly create over a dense ecology of interfaces, platforms, and devices. In aggregate, communicative traces are speculatively valuable because of their connection to data mining as well as their potential to become meaningful heirlooms transferred across generations. Some digital estate planning websites are tied to transhumanism, a movement that promises immortality by uploading human consciousness into computers, thus connecting mundane actuarial practices to loftier techno-utopian goals. For surviving kin members, digital remains are complicated by the burdens of caring for them, which requires physical infrastructures, perpetual upkeep, and affective labor. Do we have obligations to digital souls, and what are the ethical, legal, emotional, and material implications of this kind of afterlife?