Surrounded by four large monitors, Richard Pitt is aglow in a hazy blue. Clicking his mouse and punching his keyboard with break-neck speed, he brings up his blog on one flat-screen, e-mail on another while RSS feeds roll incessantly on the third.
The basement of his house in Pitt Meadows is a digital realm, littered with computer chords and stacks of hard drives.
“This has a beginning,” Pitt says as he scans the room. “But it has no end.”
Among the preeminent pioneers of the Internet, Pitt and his partner, Stuart Lynne, launched Canada’s first commercial ISP, wimsey.com. From 1986 to mid-1993, Wimsey was the main gateway for e-mail and other Internet access in western Canada.
His own firm, Pacific Data Capture, was behind the live streaming cameras which began broadcasting a few years ago from inside the nest of a family of bald eagles.
“I type as fast as I think,” says Pitt, who began “spewing” his thoughts online via his blog The Digital Rag in 1994, making it one of the longest running diaries on the Internet.
An inventory of Pitt’s online presence includes two blogs, a website or two, a LinkdIn profile, Google + account, a Now-pages newsletter, Facebook profile and a lengthy electronic archive of emails and chats.
A self-described “rational anarchist,” online he rants about government, ponders the pros and cons of changing technology, champions open source software and, more recently, began blogging about his impending death.
“You can’t live in a 140-character world,” says Pitt, admittedly not a fan of Twitter.
“It is too simplistic and you can’t live in a world where you are ignoring the background and just thinking about the issue of the moment. You have to put it into context and the context is we live, we die and we do or don’t make an important mark on the world.”
Pitt has been acutely aware of his own mortality since he was diagnosed with diabetes 15 years ago.
Since then, he confesses to more or less living in semi-retirement. He purchased a motorbike and began ticking things off his bucket list.
Last November, however, what Pitt thought was a stomach ulcer turned out to be cancer, and not just the benign kind that could be zapped with a cocktail of drugs, but one that’s spread rapidly, inching him closer and much faster than he’d like to death’s door.
“Yes, it blind-sided me,” says Pitt.
Instead of turning inward, Pitt sought the familiar and began to use his online pulpit as a way to educate, perhaps enlighten and provoke thought. It’s been cathartic, almost healing, and the reactions to his missives about death and disease, though macabre to some, have been largely positive.
“Some people are just really uncomfortable talking about death and dying and disease. It makes them think too much about their own mortality. Yet, we have to. If we don’t, we are just like ostriches, we bury our heads in the sand,” he says.
But where do all the photographs, blog post, emails, video – his sizable digital footprint – go when Pitt is gone?
It isn’t something even he, a tech-savvy, Internet pioneer, has thought much about.
He’s handing off his company to a friend and plans to keep his domain active for at least another 20 years. Business correspondence he’ll erase and delete.
Given a choice, he’d like his words to linger in cyberspace, like a trail, akin to a dusty box of letters or faded photographs his great-grand kids might stumble upon in a virtual attic.
“It’s like leaving a legacy of books, a legacy of film. If anything, it’s leaving a legacy of openness. I get so frustrated with people, when something bad happens they clam up. Maybe this is just an off-shoot of my open-source heart.”
Once you are dead, what happens to your updates, your posts, your photos, your online bank accounts? Who owns them? Who’s going to look after them?
Do you want your Facebook profile to remain active for eternity? Do you want to keep popping up as a suggested friend long after you are six feet under?
With 800 million active users on Facebook, around 385,968 in the U.S. alone die every year. Worldwide stats estimate around three Facebook users die every minute.
So perhaps in the not-too-distant future, the act of writing a will might include instructions and passwords for online accounts, alongside the traditional financial bequeaths.
Samantha Collier suggests it’s time people and business begin making plans for their online legacies.
A business development consultant from North Vancouver who runs the blog Social Media For Law Firms, Collier was forced to contemplate the digital afterlife when her husband passed away suddenly four years ago.
“We had an immature relationship at that time and were arguing a lot. We would go onto Facebook and be friends and then not be friends,” she explains.
When her husband died, Collier had un-friended him, which meant all the photographs of their children on his account and post on his wall were lost to cyberspace.
“It was really heartbreaking at the time.”
Collier tried to contact Facebook to find a way to access the photographs, but the online giant wasn’t much help. She’s since given up.
The Digital Beyond (www.thedigitalbeyond.com), a blog about your digital existence and what happens to it after your death, bills itself as the go-to source for information on how to plan for the future of your online content.
Most Internet giants such as Facebook and Twitter also have policies on what to do when a user kicks the bucket.
On Facebook, if a user dies, you can request to have their account “memorialized” by emailing a link to the person’s profile, an email address and a link to an obituary.
Memorializing a Facebook profile means the person no longer pops up as a “suggested” friend, you can’t send them private message and only post to their wall. Their profile becomes also private and if even if you have information to access their account, you can’t log in any more.
“It’s kind of creepy, when someone who is dead gets suggested as a friend,” says Collier.
The Nebraska state legislature is now mulling a law that would require Facebook to grant access to a deceased person’s account to the executor of that person’s estate.
Canada, though, isn’t contemplating legislative changes.
Collier is now advising clients and businesses to think about succession plans and who will administer their online presence once they are gone.
“It teaches you a lot of things about how you want to leave things,” she says.
“It’s really important to think about and talk about with your spouse because it is sort of like going through your things. Would you want your husband or wife to see every message you’ve ever received?”
• Richard Pitt blogs at digital-rag.com.
• Services like Legacy Locker and Entrustet.com can act as digital executors, allowing customers to list multiple accounts and digital assets and specify which beneficiaries access which accounts. Legacy Locker can even store and send farewell letters to loved ones.
• A cost-effective do-it-yourself method: create a special e-mail account that digital executors can access. Passwords and new account information can be regularly sent to that address.
• Businesses should add more than one administrator for their online profiles.