Thursday 5 November 2009

What Happens when Virtual Friends Die?

Say you meet someone online, start chatting, e-mailing or gaming together. You do this for say two years, then all communication stops. What do you assume? Do you assume that person has simply lost interest and found a new hobby or do you assume that they are dead?

There are various websites which offer you the opportunity “to search government death records very easily. They vary in what kind and extent of information you are able to extract from them. They are only as good as their database after all.” However in order to use these databases, one first has to consider the possibility that this person is dead, before actively ‘searching’ for them. Today we have virtual acquaintances, virtual colleagues and even virtual friends. If they die, how are we to be informed? Do we have a right to be informed? Can a virtual friend (bit) be as close as a friend (atom)? Are family members aware of all your virtual friends?

Second Life’s ‘Linden Lab’ states that “if there is a legally binding will and testament they will divide assets and inform loved ones in-world of your passing.” However in order to do this Linden Lab would need to be provided with: a testamentary letter or other appropriate order, a copy of the death certificate, a copy of the will and a copy of a government-issue ID sufficient to identify you. This tedious process would perhaps prevent many people from attempting to inform virtual friends. However one must ask, if this process were to be implemented, how far is Linden Lab responsible for the way these virtual friends receive this ‘bad news’ and the aftermath of their bereavement.

Most of our virtual identities do not expire immediately with our body. Digital information tends to have a different set of laws to the physical world. It will generally remain intact until someone decides to close the accounts. Communities such as ‘Friendster’ write in their user-terms agreement that “the provider of the site’s services [are prohibited] from removing your profile without your express consent." It also specifies that a relative must provide “written proof,” which means that grieving relatives must scan and e-mail a death certificate to each of these communities, if they want the persons account to be closed down.

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