Elliot Jay Stocks is a designer, speaker, and author. He is the Creative Director of Adobe Typekit, the founder of typography magazine 8 Faces, one half of Viewport Industries, and an electronic musician.

Posthumous posting

Posted on 05 May 2011 10 comments

Article illustration for Posthumous posting

Yesterday afternoon on Twitter, a significant number of people I follow were linking to Derek K. Miller’s ‘Last Post’, published on his blog by relatives after his death to cancer. It’s a touching story and, like many, I found myself mourning the loss of someone I never knew. Go and read it now, and then come back here.

Derek’s post — as well as being beautifully written — highlights an issue that I’ve been (perhaps morbidly) thinking about for some time now: as we increasingly live our lives online, with our everyday habits documented across the universe of social networking sites / apps, and our long-form thoughts detailed on our blogs, what happens when we die?

As unfortunate as Derek was to suffer from cancer, he was fortunate in one way, in that he knew his death was coming: he could prepare for it mentally, and he could prepare for it socially, by composing that all important blog post, ready for his family to publish on his behalf once he finally went. If I ever found myself in a similar situation, I would no doubt take a similar approach.

But what of those people killed suddenly, with no warning? What happens when that stream of web-based activity suddenly stops?

Perhaps we need some sort of system in place that allows our next of kin to access our blogs, Twitter streams, Flickr photos, et al, and make the necessary announcements. Maybe that’s a fully-functional web app, or maybe it’s a modernised version of a will. Either way, I’m not suggesting that our online activity is anywhere near as important as our actual physical death; rather that we should perhaps consider fool-proofing our exits from this world and offer a sense of closure to those left wondering where we might’ve gone.

I feel inspired by Derek’s foresight.


  1. Steve Avery

    Steve Avery

    05 May 2011 @ 01:54PM #

    I too have thought about this in the past. I think it’s a great idea. I was also thinking about things like my computer password in order to log in and access all my files. And what about emails that I’ve received from clients or even newsletters that I’ve subscribed top that I will need to be unsubscribed from. And what about unfinished work/projects!

    I’m with you on this Elliot. It would be great to have something in place that would cater for the unexpected.

  2. Phil Ricketts

    Phil Ricketts

    05 May 2011 @ 02:00PM #

    I also read that blog post, and was also rather touched by it.

    I’ve wondered about this myself previously, and have a hidden page on my site which would be renamed to index.php, in the event of my premature death. As instructed by an email that would be sent. I occasionally update it, with best wishes intentions and a few other goodies.

    My website is currently a contact button (I’m not promoting anything).

    And, no, you’ll never guess the filename! Ever.

  3. Matt Daly

    Matt Daly

    05 May 2011 @ 02:08PM #

    I read the article yesterday and had to take a moment to re-compose myself…

    We could certainly use a system of helping our loved ones access our online activities after we are gone. If not the social side of things then definitely the professional side.

    My Wife wouldn’t have a clue where to start when it came to sorting things like web hosting or apps that I am regularly charged money for. Obviously I would not need them anymore so her first thought would be to cancel it all. This would effect clients websites and cause a right mess…

    Maybe we need an app that tracks all of our online accounts and activity and clearly labels them as needed or not needed with contact details of someone that can take over the responsibility after we pass.

  4. Elliot Jay Stocks

    Elliot Jay Stocks

    05 May 2011 @ 05:55PM #

    You’re very noble gentlemen, thinking of your clients’ inconveniences over your own deaths! ;)

    @ Matt: I like that idea of listing what’s important and not important. And thinking about it, all of this stuff would be applicable if we were seriously injured, too; it needn’t just apply to death.

    Someone has just sent me an email with a link to a beta version of a web app that may well do all of the above. I’ll check it out and report back when it’s gone public!

  5. Duane King

    Duane King

    05 May 2011 @ 06:16PM #

    A moving story indeed. Last year, I lost my mother and several close friends. Sadly, I have constant reminders of their absence—whether through Facebook, Flickr friends, Twitter followers, Address Book entries, or email searches. It’s an interesting side effect of our digital lives. I should be more proactive about developing a plan for my own web-based outlets.

  6. Kyle Meyer

    Kyle Meyer

    05 May 2011 @ 06:25PM #

    I worked on such a system back in agency days for a client. It was an interesting experience but it’s a next to impossible thing to get quite right. The system involved selecting people who could report you dead who would get reminders if you didn’t ‘check in’ within X amount of time.

    Very difficult to know if someone’s still breathing.

    The other issue was the security of keeping banking passwords and other such sensitive information online in one place… on someone else’s server.

  7. Tom Walters

    Tom Walters

    05 May 2011 @ 06:45PM #

    This is a really interesting post. While I think it’s a good idea to prepare for something like this, in the interest of privacy I think we would need a system linked to our own computers. Something like a piece of software which you could open up and click a button to notify a web-app and decrypt any information.

    I think this is also something that is going to become far more important in the future, as a generation of people grow up online, we could (in the far future) begin to have trouble with dormant accounts.

    I can see this becoming important in legal term; a system perhaps whereby a physical will contained a password to the service and allowed to you see all the information about the persons identity.

    If an app isn’t made in the next year for this, I think I’ll have to start work on one.

  8. Brandon Hopkins

    Brandon Hopkins

    05 May 2011 @ 07:04PM #

    Hey Elliot, I wrote this post about a week ago. It relates more to people who own web assets that earn income, but is appropriate nonetheless.

    @Kyle there are many services that offer that exact thing you’re talking about. Each has a different system, but at least 10 that I know of.

    Here’s the post: http://www.brandon-hopkins.com/creating-an-after-death-plan-for-your-websites

  9. Andy Pimlett

    Andy Pimlett

    05 May 2011 @ 08:27PM #

    Often a persons exact wishes are not executed as they might have intended after they are gone; perhaps for practical reasons, squabbling between next of kin or maybe just misunderstanding. Providing access to your online presence to a next of kin, with a list of requests implies they will have the technical knowledge as well as a understanding of your wishes with which to undertake your final wishes.

    A better solution would be an application which a person could program with a series of automated tasks which could be executed at a given time in the future. Such an application would have potential in areas other than a person passing away but it would certainly provide a much stronger guarantee that an individuals ‘exact’ wishes would be taken. (e.g. blog posts, tweets, Facebook status, account closure, data removal from services such as Dropbox etc.) I personally like the idea of knowing much of my personal data is not left littered all over the web to be trawled through in some far off future; a future I can have no knowledge of the impact of aforesaid data.

  10. Christoph Zillgens

    Christoph Zillgens

    05 May 2011 @ 11:01PM #

    Thanks for bringing up this point, Elliot!
    Thinking about my own death feels strange and also a bit scary (although it inevitably comes some day) and so I tend to avoid thinking about it too much. But spending a massive amount of time online nowadays makes a proper system of retirement necessary. The touching post of Derek shows that there is a reputable way to say “good bye” to the online world.

    I’m getting really nervous if I think about my girl friend having to deal with all my business stuff, online contracts, clients and so on in case I die. It’s kind of leaving here alone twice, not only bodily but also with all this stuff she’s not prepared for.

    So there should be a plan or a manual for your closest relatives or friends if you die: publishing a last post, cancel all your online-contracts, say “good bye” in some of your communities and so on.

    I’m not sure if you need an extra app for this. Maybe 1Password is enough for that combined some instructions on how to shut down the important services. You can put those important services in one group within 1Password. Of course this means some extra work compared with an automatic app, but an automatic shut down service could be hacked or abused …

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