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The Text of my TEDx Talk

What Happens To Our Digital Remains When We Die?

In 2011 an email from my brother showed up in my inbox. 
It had no subject, and the message contained a single link. 
During the next three weeks several such messages arrived, and I kept feeling frustrated and helpless. 

Those emails arrived in April.
A month earlier, in March, my brother was killed when hit by a car.

Those emails weren’t written by him: his email account was hacked, and his entire contact list received a strain of spam messages, until it was flagged, and shut down.

When I took it upon myself to neatly and respectfully “fold” my brother’s digital life after him* – just like our family was doing with his physical life – I had no idea what I was getting myself into, nor, how difficult it would turn out to be. 
Which is why I started writing about dying in this digital era: since I was introduced to the world of “Digital Death”, I’ve felt a strong need to introduce it to others - without them having to first lose a loved one.

“Digital Death” is a term to denote everything that happens – or doesn’t happen – to our digital data and devices, online accounts and virtual presence after we die. 

Have you ever thought about how many digital accounts you have? The kind you log into with a user name and a password? 
You probably have more “Personal Accounts” than you realize: this term refers to anything we log into online with a user name and a password: all the websites we ever signed up to. 
study from 2015 found that the average user had 90 such accounts, with the number predicted to double every five years. 
Sounds like a lot, right? I know I was surprised when I checked the Password Manager I use: it currently holds my usernames and passwords to 253 online log-ins.
Assuming some are no longer relevant, several are duplicates and a few are just Wi-Fi accesses, that still leaves us with, what? – 150? 200?

Our digital space and devices now practically hold every aspect of our lives: 
From life-long collections of music, movies, books, texts, videos, pictures, memories - through our banking records and the personal or professional documents and records for managing a house-hold or a business - all the way to our metadata. 
Once we are gone, all of this is left behind. 

It’s an unsolved problem, as in most cases we don’t know each other’s passwords – let alone all 90 or 253 of them - nor, what the wishes of the deceased were, as it was never discussed. 

In most cases we don’t know what the after-death policy of the sites we use, is. Even if you are one of those rare people who do read the Terms of Use, in some cases you still won’t be able to know what the after-death policy is, as it’s not published. 
And if you do find out, you might be alarmed to learn this policy is against your wishes – whatever that wish may be – or that the site won’t respect your wish, even if you were to express it*, as transferring a user account or its details might be a violation of the Terms of Use. 

Most countries and states don’t have “Digital Death” regulations or laws yet, or if they do, they’re insufficient: 
For example, the law might address only the deceased’s email accounts, as is the case in Rhode Island, or if it does address ALL of the deceased’s online accounts - it only lets you shut them down, as is the case in Nevada. 
The British law might deem accessing someone else’s account as a criminal offence, and the American law (state or federal) might see it as a crime even if you were appointed by the deceased. 
Further confusion comes with the differences in international law, as well as where you or your accounts are located in relation to the location of the servers. 

The result is that most - if not all - of the dozens or hundreds of accounts each one of us leaves behind* become unreachable. This means not just the colossal digital loss we might experience - which could also lead to real financial loss – but also that these accounts remain out there: existing, floating, uncontrolled. People may continue to use, engage and interact with them - without our consent, knowledge or being able to do anything about it - possibly in ways neither the deceased nor we would want. 

We are used to thinking of wills, legacies, heritage, bequeathing and planning ahead as relevant to older, wealthier people, but Digital Death is relevant to everybody: you don’t have to be rich in order to accumulate a vast digital world, and, in fact, the younger you are, the more online activity you’re likely to have*. 

And digital loss is not just personal. It can be communal, cultural:
For instance: we nearly lost all the manuscripts of 36 year-old Iranian-American, international bestseller author, Marsha Mehran. She was found dead, alone, in Ireland, in 2014, and her father, Abbas, had to fight in order to retrieve her digital manuscripts from their cloud storage provider.

First steps in the right direction were made when two in-house services were launched: Google’s “Inactive Account Manager” in 2013 and Facebook’s “Legacy Contact” in 2015. 
These let you leave certain instructions for your accounts in case of death. 
But Google’s service doesn't let you share access to your accounts, and Facebook’s won’t let you pass access to your account, nor can you choose to not have your profile memorialized.
And I’m guessing most of you don’t know about these services, as both companies choose not to communicate them directly to their users. 

On Facebook, once a person is reported as deceased – which can be reported by anyone, including complete strangers – that profile is "Memorialized”, with no prior warning. From that point onward, it is frozen and can no longer be accessed – even if you do have the right username and password, along with the deceased’s permission.

Google says in Certain Circumstances it may provide content from a deceased user's account.
Which circumstances? They don’t specify.

You might be thinking: "Hey, I’ll be dead! I don't care about some files or devices". You'd be right, of course. You won't care. But the people you love, and those who loved you, might care, for both sentimental and practical reasons. 

You might prefer that your privacy be maintained after your death – sometimes especially from your loved ones. This is legitimate, important and should be respected. 

I want to emphasize: I'm not saying the deceased don't have a right to privacy. 
The thing is that there is no one right answer to suit all, therefore, it should be your decision, and not some company's customer relations' department's. 
You should be given the choice - and the means - to decide the fate of your digital after-life.

I believe it’s time we started educating ourselves about this. 

If you are a psychologist, lawyer, social worker, care giver, hospice staff, you should tell the dying people or bereaved families you’re working with, that there is one more thing they need to be aware of: “Digital Death”. 

If you are in charge of people risking their lives in service: cops, soldiers, fire fighters: I believe they deserve to be told - before they leave their house the next time - that there is one more thing they should be aware of: “Digital Death”. 

If you, as a person, as an individual, are already aware and concerned about Digital Death by this point: 
I wish I could give you a solution. I can’t. 
There is no one solution: it depends on which sites you’re using, what their policies or Terms of Use are, where you live and if there is any relevant legislation there.

But there are a few things you can do:

  1. Think about all the devices and accounts you’re using: Is your computer password protected? Is there an unlock pin code on your Smartphone? Will someone be able to keep using your iPhone or iPad without your Apple ID? Will access or copies be needed of the important documents only you had and were kept in cloud storage, like taxes or mortgage? Should your online videos and pictures still be available? Think about it –– and make a decision.
  2. Whatever your choice is, whether you wish for some or all of your devices and accounts to be accessed or not, share your decision. Tell someone you trust, leave written instructions in a safe place where they could easily be found, sign up to a third-party or an in-house service that manages digital accounts - while remembering that new accounts get opened and passwords get changed - so relevant information needs to be updated regularly.
  3. Push to change current policies and laws. Make sure the voices of individual people and bereaved families are heard too - not just the voices of the lobbyists of the tech industry.

I’m not a businessperson, a salesperson or anyone’s agent. 
I’m someone’s sister.

Picture by Colin Ritchie

This is my brother, Tal Shavit. 

He was 55 and a half years old when killed, on the spot, by a car, driven by a reckless driver, on March 2nd 2011. 

When a loved one dies, there is so much pain, sorrow and hardship we can do nothing about.
Let’s at least do something to spare additional pain, sorrow and hardship, which we can do something about.  

Please introduce this idea to as many people as possible, so they too will be aware of Digital Death - as you are now - without having to lose a loved one first. 

Thank you.


* = What I forgot to say onstage. 


TEDxWhiteCity: Video, Thank Yous and Credits

TEDxWhiteCity took place in Tel Aviv on January 25th 2017. I gave a talk about Digital Death: "What Happens To Our Digital Remains When We Die?"

The Video 

>>>Update: You can also read the text here

Thank you 

The tight preparations schedule for this TEDx led to my having my final text shortly before the event > which led to my having a very short and limited time in which to learn it by heart (in TEDx talks you speak by heart, there are no teleprompter or cards etc.) 

I would not have completed writing the text, learning it by heart and standing on stage if it weren't for the generous assistance I received during those 44 intensive days

I wish to say a huge THANK YOU to the following friends and family members: 
Asaf Abir, wizard of of words and texts, for his feedback on the first drafts which helped mereach the final drafts;
Gabi Argov, who spent hours working with me on my English pronunciation, helping me learn the text by heart and instructing me in how to do a vocal warm-up before delivering the talk; 
Yael Gaataon, who reached the point of knowing my talk by heart herself from the many hours she spent helping me learn it, via Skype and Whatsapp, while she's in Denmark and I'm in Tel Aviv;
Shachar Bar (non-biological brother), who did his best to take care of us speakers during the event and prior to it, from the technical and technological angles;
Frankie Simon, who became sort of my research assistant;
Inbal Lottem (biological sister), who became sort of my personal assistant, 
Shmuel Shohat, Master Story Teller, who sat with me for five hours straight before I wrote my first draft, talking to me about stories and how they are built. 

I wish to also say a huge THANK YOU to someone who isn't in the friends and family category but still shows up every once in a while asking of his volition: "How can I help?": 
Daniel Alfon, who "adopted" the blog and myself a few years ago, and since then has helped in his areas of expertise and given me good advice in general. Thank you for caring. 

I had my final text five days before the event > which meant that when I sent parts of the talk to international Digital Death experts for a peer-review of sorts, I had to ask them to get back me during the next 24 hours, which borders on being rude. Thank you so much to: Jim Lamm, Dr. Selina Ellis-Gray, Stacey Pitsillides, Paula Kiel, Evan Carroll and Mórna O' Connor (Mórna Ní Chonchúir) who despite this time-table got back to me with approval, correction or an improvment suggestion. It was very moving and made me feel nothing short of blessed, to have them responding to my call. It also made me feel calmer professionally before going on stage. 

A gigantic thank you to people who cared and helped in many and various ways: 
Efrat Ziv,  Eran LutvakGalya Passi KitaroGuy HoffmanJonathan Klinger, Lilach Cohen, Michal and Ido IvriNativ RobinsonNoam HoldengreberSharon Peled Klarfeld, Sharona Reouveni, Shani ShakedShiri YeshuaSigal Strier, Tovit NizerZiv Kitaro.

Thank you very much to the friends who bought tickets so they could be in the audience and to those who called or wrote cause they couldn't. Fortunately there are too many of them for me to list here. 

Thank you Tom Ran and Eran Katz, my fellow speakers, for our nightly correspondence support group ;) .  

A special thank you to Eminem for "Lose Yourself", which I heard in a "loop" at home while I was writing the talk, as well as backstage on the day itself before going onstage. 

And thank you to the teams at TEDxWhiteCity and Virtuozo. 


The positive side about the production not supplying us speakers with wardrobe and/or make-up artist was that I could hire my first choice for a make-up artist and purchase my first choice of what to wear: 
Thank you Shiri Nisan for the make-up, Dalia Braids TLV for the braid, and Dana and all the Nox team for the jumpsuit I was hoping for. 


TEDxWhiteCity - The Day Itself

Rumor has it the video will be online soon, so now seems like a good time to write the promised sequel to the post "The Path to TEDxWhiteCity 2017": 

January 25th 2017 - The Day Itself

07:00 Braid (Thanks Dalia Braids TLV!) 
07:20 Make-up (Thanks Shiri Nisan!) 

We were asked to be ready to go on stage for briefing at 08:15. 


There was a slight delay so we were invited on stage at 09:00. Since the general rehearsal held the previous day did not take place on stage, each one of us once walked on stage, stood on the red carpet and went off stage. 

Venue before audience admittance 

Ready to go 
Picture by Shachar Bar

09:10 I call Gabi Argov for a pre-scheduled vocal warm-up over the phone (Thank you Gabi!) 

09:30 Doors open 

Venue after audience admittance 
Picture by Sharon Avraham

10:30 Part One: Five speakers (Eran KatzLeonard BrodyGalia Benartzi, Roei DeutschZaki Djemal) and a performance (Maria Kong). 

11:30 Break 

12:15 Part Two: A performance (Garden City Movement) and four speakers (Yaron Schwarcz, Dr. Tuvya AmselVardit Gross and myself). 

As I had only five days to learn my talk by heart in, when the morning of the day of the event arrived, I didn't (!). 
Therefore, from the moment I left the make-up room till the moment I went on stage (excluding a brief break to practice walking to the red carpet onstage once and a break for a vocal warm-up), which sums up to about four-five hours, I did nothing but going deep into the vast backstage-behind-the-stage area with my phone and earphones and listen to a recording of myself saying the talk. I heard myself in a "loop" over and over again, looking for ways to remember what the next bit I wanted to say was. From time to time I made some variations and heard something else in a "loop": Eminem's "Lose Yourself" and I even danced it backstage once or twice, too. 
I think - I hope - that the first time I said my entire talk fully and flawlessly by heart from beginning to end was when I was onstage in front of the audience during the event itself, but I won't know for certain until I'll see the video. 

Picture by Sharon Avraham

I was nervous and excited to the point my mouth became so dry it was difficult for me to talk. I had to stop twice to sip some water. 

Picture by Sharon Avraham

As I left the stage and walked into the backstage area again I no longer held my tears in check. 

13:30 Break 

Picture by Yoav Evenstein

14:45 Part Three: A performance (Moses Project) and five speakers (Reem YounisOri SassonDr. Tom Ran, Yifat Yudovski and Erez Perlmuter). 

And now all that remains is to wait and see the video itself. 

>>> Update: The video is available online
>>> Update: Turns out I forgot one sentence and one paragraph, but luckily it did not disturb the flow of the text


The Third "Death Online Research Symposium"

The third "Death Online Research Symposium" took place in March 2017 in Aarhus, Denmark. 

I attended the two previous symposiums but unfortunately could'nt attend this one and therefore can't deliver a detailed summary of it as I did with the previous two (2014 Day 1, Day 2, 2015 Day 1, Day 2). 

I bring the programme here even though I wasn't there in person as one of the ways to see where Digital Death is heading is to look at who the speakers are and which subjects they present, research and are interested in. 

Day 1 

Keynote speaker:
Michael Hviid Jacobsen, professor, Aalborg University, DK: "Beyond Ariès - Contours of 'Spectacular Death'"

Paper Session: "Death and Society. Negotiating social agencies and relations". Speakers: 
  • Johanna Sumiala, University of Helsinki, Finland
  • Anu Harju, Aalto University in Helsinki, Finland
  • Arnar Arnason, Aberdeen University, Scotland, UK
  • Piergiorgio Degli Esposti, SDE Sociology and Business Law Department University of Bologna, Italy
Keynote speaker:
Connor Graham, Senior Lecturer and Research Fellow, National University of Singapore: "Human Mortality Humanness, Online Life and Death"

Paper Session. Speakers:
  • Tobias Raun, University of Roskilde, DK
  • Anders Gustavsson, University of Oslo, Norway
  • Lisbeth Frølunde, Roskilde University, DK
  • Luke van Ryn, University of Melbourne, Australia

Day 2 

Keynote speaker:
Jed Brubaker, Assistant Professor, Dept. of Information Science at the University of Colorado Boulder: "
Postmortem Interaction"

Paper Session. Speakers:
  • Carsten Stage, Aarhus University, DK & Tina Thode Hougaard, Aarhus University, DK
  • David Myles, University of Montreal and University of Quebec in Montreal, Canada
  • Dorthe Refslund Christensen, Aarhus University, DK, & Kjetil Sandvik, University of Copenhagen, DK
  • Ylva Haard af Segerstad, University of Gothenburg, Sweden
Keynote speaker:  
Annett Markham, Professor MSO of Information Studies, School for Communication and Culture, Aarhus University, Denmark: "Methods as Ethics: Challenges for studying death online"

Day 3

Paper Session. Speakers:
  • Paula Kiel, London School of Economics and Political Science; London, UK.
  • Jo Bell, University of Hull, UK
  • Stine Gotved, IT University, Copenhagen, DK.
  • Sharon Greenfield, RMIT University, Australia.
Plenary panel: ”Existential Terrains: Memory and Meaning in Cultures of Connectivity”, Dept. of Media Studies, Stockholm University, Sweden: "The Existential Terrains of Gender and Death Online"

  • Amanda Lagerkvist, Stockholm University, Sweden
  • Timothy Hutchings, Stockholm University, Sweden
  • Michael Westerlund, Stockholm University, Sweden
  • Katya Linden, Stockholm University, Sweden
  • Charles Ess, University of Oslo, Norway

Plenary discussion and wrap up: "Addressing challenges in the academic study of Death Online / Future Dreams and Fantasies of the network".