The Digital Death Of Hugo Chavez

A tsunami of consolatory tweets choked the Internet’s arteries this week following the deaths of Venezualan leader Hugo Chavez and Canadian folk hero Stompin’ Tom Connors.

The death of Chavez came as no surprise – he’d been battling cancer for years – and no doubt he’d already written his will.

But did the media-savvy Chavez – who has more than four million followers on Twitter – prepare for his digital death?

It seems not.

His last tweet, dated two weeks before his death, declares optimistically, “I still cling to Christ and trust in my doctors and nurses. Ever onward to victory! We will live and overcome!”.

Chavez’s Twitter account remains active today like an open conduit to the digital beyond.

But this begs the question – should we be preparing for our digital, as well as our physical, death?

In the last decade, our lives have become increasingly digitalized. Over 300 million photos are uploaded to Facebook a day, and an average Facebook user posts 90 pieces of content a month. Over 48 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, and over 200 million tweets are posted daily.

But discount social media for a second – people also use the Internet for shopping, online dating and gaming, watching porn and uploading documents in the cloud with services like Dropbox.

So with such a significant digital imprint one has to wonder: what happens to your assets when you die? Well, in the last decade over 40 companies have sprung up to address that very question. Some merely offer online memorial pages for people, others manufacture gravestones embossed with a smartphone-readable QR codes that open a virtual photo album of the deceased.

But companies now offer people the opportunity to speak to friends and family from beyond the grave using so-called death switches. Want to send your loved ones a video telling them your final wishes or thoughts? Want to pass on your usernames and passwords for your bank and email accounts to your spouse?

Well, the company “If I Die” has a Facebook app for that.

Co-founder Eran Alfonta said he got the idea after a friend and his wife narrowly avoided a serious car accident in Italy. After their recovery, they began to think about what their kids would get from them if they died – beyond an insurance policy.

Users can record videos and compose messages to be sent to select friends immediately after their physical (and digital) death, or according to a schedule of their choosing. Three trustees are appointed to verify the death before the messages can be posted.

Just imagine checking your email in the mornings and opening the following:

YOUR RECENTLY DECEASED FRIEND HAS SENT YOU A PERSONAL VIDEO FROM THE DIGITAL AFTERLIFE

This approach belittles and impersonalizes death in an age when text messages and social media have arguably already decreased face-to-face interaction.

And besides, such an email could easily end up in your spam folder.

The same company in August 2012 started an ethically questionable “If I Die 1st” competition. The first subscriber to die in the next year can get their 15 minutes of posthumous fame by having their video posted on the popular technology site Mashable.

This idea would most certainly appeal to a younger demographic that’d be unlikely to think about the emotional repercussions this would have for their grieving parents.

Sending one five minute video message is free – but pay $20-100 and you can send more videos of up to 30 minutes each. That’s a lot of potential coin when you think that three Facebook users die a minute – or nearly 1.8 million people in 2011 alone.

But is it right for a company to monetize grief or death?

Alfonta says the service his company offers is just one more layer – beyond flowers, funeral services, and caterers – to the death industry.

But this seems like a flimsy excuse for a business and one that consciously appeals to the narcissism of Generation I – a tech-savvy generation that uses social media to cultivate online personality cults.

Do we really need the ability to send a video from the digital afterlife? Does it matter if our Facebook, Twitter and email accounts live on ad infinitum? Do our children and grandchildren really need access to our online photo albums?

Well, more than 15,000 Canadians who signed up for the “If I Die” app certainly seem to think so.

Adele McAlear, a Montreal-based digital death expert, says she wouldn’t personally use any of these services.

She points out many of these companies have gone bust – leaving subscribers down the mortal coil without a paddle.

McAlear also doesn’t trust these start-ups with her passwords, preferring instead to record this information in an old-fashioned, physical will.

So maybe Chavez had it right – may he (digitally) Rest In Peace.