We may die, but the Web lives on

by Mathew on September 21, 2008 · 11 comments

My friend Ethan Kaplan over at blackrimglasses has a fascinating post about the death of a geek — a man named Mark Hoekstra — and the strange feeling that is created by seeing his blog posts, Flickr photos, Last.fm contributions and other elements of his online life floating around in the ether after his death (just 34 years old, he apparently died suddenly of a heart attack while riding his bicycle). As Ethan says:

“The thing about Mark’s death: I did not know him, but I do know everything that was “last” in his too short life. I know the last song he listened to was Instant Death by the Beastie Boys. I know that Last.fm last saw him Monday evening. He has a cat, whom I hope is taken care of. Five days ago he posted a picture of a Cisco Aironet he got from Ebay.”

I’ve had this same experience several times now — in some cases with people I know well and in others with people I barely know at all, and yet somehow feel that I know, as a result of the photos and blog posts and other elements of their lives that continue to exist online. I recall coming across Adrian Sudbury’s blog, which he wrote up until his death from leukemia, and Leroy Sievers blog, which he wrote until his death from cancer, and I remember being affected quite strongly by the blog post that soldier Andrew Olmsted wrote for publication after his death.

In some ways, the blog entries and other online ephemera from people like Mark Hoekstra are more affecting than the deaths of famous people like author David Foster Wallace — or even journalists like Leroy Sievers — whose passing generates a certain amount of heat and light on the Web as a result of their public presence. What happens to Mark’s blog posts or photos or Last.fm recommendations after his death? Will traces of him be left for others to find, and for how long?

I wrote a memorial webpage for my father after he died of cancer in 1996 and have kept it online since then, just in case someone might run across it who knew him, but is there any point to that other than the feeling I have that some part of him is still alive? I set up a website in memory of my father-in-law after he died of cancer two years ago, with the text from various eulogies, photos slideshows and so on. It sits there still, like a moment trapped in amber, and for some reason I can’t bring myself to delete it, just in case someone comes across it in their Web travels.

  • http://www.storyofmylife.com antje wilsch

    Well i'm going to jump in here and make a plea (plug). Our site is exactly for this reason – to leave your footprint behind. I think it's important for your girls that you save those memorials you created so they can learn about their grandparents and tell their kids. Those sites get lost when someone stops paying the hosting fee, or the blog goes out of buiness or “retires” old, inactive blogs etc. Putting stories and keeping pictures and videos stored online is not a be-all-end-all but it's another insurance policy these precious things are lost.
    Plus – there is a lot of stuff about you (anyone) out there already, so why not control the story that your childrens' children will be reading years from now…. I am a big big advocate of doing this. I do genealogy and it's so cool when I find some document in the archives like a draft card or an old photo, but who are these people? What did they think? What did they do? Those are, to me, more valuable than riches.

  • Shepard

    Hmmm….I'm not as jarred, but that's not to say that I'm not moved.

    It's no more jarring to read the dead's thoughts online then it is to watch an old Bob Hope movie. One can argue that knowing someone and then reading their blog posts or viewing their photos is different then not knowing a media personality, but I don't think so. It's all the same to me.

    Not that it isn't weird. I think Matt Johnson known as the band The The summed it up best in his song “Love Is Stronger Than Death”:

    In our lives we hunger for those we cannot touch.
    All the thoughts unuttered & all the feelings unexpressed
    Play upon our hearts like the mist upon our breath.
    But, awoken by grief, our spirits speak
    “How could you believe that the life within the seed
    that grew arms that reached
    And a heart that beat.
    And lips that smiled
    And eyes that cried.
    Could ever die?”

  • http://www.buzzbishop.com/blog buzz

    I wrote about something similar, digital estate planning, back in the spring. I was inspired by an interview local blogger Derek K Miller did with CBC's Spark.

    http://www.cyberbuzz.com/2008/05/14/digital-est

  • http://www.storyofmylife.com antje wilsch

    I saw that – that was a good one. It's one of the problems we're trying to provide a solution for. There was a story on MSN not too long ago about a gentleman whose father passed away suddenly; he had an online business, and the son was trying to get into his computer to access all his files to fulfill orders, get the financials in order etc. He spent six months calling various service providers to explain the situation and try to unlock passwords and let those customers know, answer emails, etc — it was a nightmare, and this will happen more as everyone moves online.

  • Leighna

    So true, yet another strange way the Internet has changed our lives.

  • Pingback: Does Social Media Survive Its Creator?

  • Ethan Kaplan

    Correction: I didn't know the guy, just found it on the Make blog

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks, Ethan — wasn't sure whether you knew of him before you came across the news. In any case, thanks for a great post — it really got me thinking.

  • kevinCougar

    that is very touching, My Dad died long time ago, He is a good man, always take care of others. I never write anything after he died. I should have..

  • Gilliebee

    I had a similar experience… My mom died in 2005. We still have a memorial page active, and, even stranger, I can't bring myself to remove her contact info from my outlook.

    I also had a friend, young (44), die recently and suddenly. His facebook page, his wall, became a place where many of us came together to mourn, share memories, express our shock…. And now all of that is frozen in time. In fact most of us were posting replies to his own last post, on the eve of his death, about his recent health troubles, which he felt were mainly behind him. I still visit that page every so often.

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    I completely agree with you on this, internet has truly changed our lives, I Liked that title, we may die, but the web lives on……… thanks for posting this story.

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