“If you blur your eyes, this looks a bit like Chris de Burgh being bummed in a sex swing by a giant rabbit,” enunciates Brian Sewell, as he suddenly loses his mind during a Dali retrospective on The Culture Show.
As much as that hilariously vulgar display would cheer me up no end after a long day at work, unfortunately I made that opening paragraph up. Well, sort of. Those words were actually taken from a tweet I once wrote about a photo I’d seen on a fancy dress costume website. It popped into my mind after reading an article about digital legacies, which made me think about all the useless toss I’ve posted online over the years. What will become of it all when I’m gone? Will it form the basis of people’s memories of me?
Only a few years ago, it was considered quite unorthodox for bereaved people to create special memorial websites to celebrate the lives of people they had sadly lost. But the internet was clearly the perfect platform for such things. Friends and relatives could pore over hundreds of old photographs and snippets of video, stick everything into a timeline, have it all gently dissolve into each other over a soundtrack of the deceased’s favourite music (a bit like a remembrance version of ITV’s Nightscreen), and upload it for all to see. A million times better than a fleeting obituary – it was a permanent online presence.
These days, of course, formal memorial websites and tribute pages are commonplace online. But those thoughtful, emotive creations of the bereaved now exist alongside the digital legacies we’re creating for ourselves every single day.
We constantly update our Twitter timelines with thoughts, observations, rants, jokes, banter, and details of our darkest moments and happiest hours. And what we’re unable to squeeze into 140-characters (without reverting entirely to text speak, which creates the impression we’re valiantly tweeting through a stroke) we write on our blogs.
Facebook has recorded our farming skills, our ability to pointlessly recite song lyrics, and our insatiable appetite for quizzes (“your inner dictator is: Nicolae Ceaușescu!”). While our Flickr and Twitpic accounts are vast digital picture books containing all the images we deem to be beautiful, interesting, hilarious, controversial and thought-provoking.
The internet is like an unfathomably huge toilet, with thousands of polystyrene foam packing peanuts dancing in the surf of every flush. That unflushable debris is our digital legacy – or what Hans-Peter Brondmo, head of social software and services at Nokia in San Francisco, calls our “digital soul”. And according to Sumit Paul-Choudhury, writing in New Scientist magazine recently, cheap storage and easy copying means our digital souls have the potential to be immortal.
According to Paul-Choudhury: “The memories we are leaving behind now, in all their riotous glory – drunken tweets, ranting tweets, bad-hair-day pictures and much more – may become a unique trove to be studied by historians for centuries to come. In fact, today’s web may offer the most truthful and comprehensive snapshot of the human race that will ever exist.”
Really? That’s a disturbing thought.
If I was to unexpectedly skid off this mortal coil tomorrow, in a spectacular car-shaped fireball, the thought of my various contributions to the internet knocking around for evermore makes me feel a little uneasy. That’s why there’s a war on for our [digital] souls. In the blue corner: the ‘preservationists’ (who believe we owe it to our descendants to preserve our digital legacies). In the red corner: the ‘deletionists’ (who think it’s vital the internet learns how to forget).
I don’t know which side I’m falling on. Deletionists, maybe?
My Facebook profile alone is full of unflattering photos and self-deprecating crap, most of which I’m guilty of uploading myself. For some reason, I once posted a photofit image of myself as a profile photo which I’d created with a free online generator (and misguidedly thought was a good likeness). So when I think about my digital legacy, I envision my descendants adding the sole remaining image of me to a holographic family tree, which resembles Corey Feldman wearing a witness protection disguise.
[Although, rather that image than the one where I look like a disgruntled Swedish pornstar who’s just been handed some Cillit Bang and told to wipe down the set of Shit Guzzlers 4.]
But it’s not just the dim, distant future that we need to think about. I sometimes wonder which web-based photo of me a local newspaper or news station would use if I suddenly met with a particularly messy, but ultimately newsworthy, death.
I took a photo during a clifftop walk in Boscastle a few years ago, which I subsequently uploaded to Facebook. Wouldn’t it be hilarious, I thought, if I let my head hang over the edge of the cliff, pull a terrified expression (as though falling), then snap a photo of myself from above.
Of course, aside from the basic fact that my photo idea just wasn’t very funny, the key element of the composition – namely, the sheer drop beneath my head – wasn’t at all obvious. Consequently, it looked like I’d taken a photo of myself only moments before a block of frozen toilet waste from a passing aircraft impacted my skull. Or like I was documenting my slow, agonising death by steamroller.
It’s almost the perfect photo to run next to any story about my untimely death. But I’d rather my digital soul didn’t present any future picture editors with the opportunity.
The words we hammer out on our keyboards and hurl online can also create a powerful digital legacy. The Chris de Burgh tweet that opened this blog post clearly marks me out as a renaissance man (as does this), while various other tweets seem to confirm both my lack of optimism and general hatred of people (Exhibits A, B, C, D and E). Even my ‘jokey’ threats to bludgeon my noisy neighbours to death still sit on Facebook’s servers in its labyrinthine data centre. And as for the rubbish written on this blog, well, where do I begin? Would my descendants be proud?
[Occasionally, though, I’ve provided my Twitter followers with a tantalising glimpse into my unconscious mind.]
But of course, our digital legacies aren’t always in our own hands. Googling your own name usually throws up a plethora of Twitter-related websites, which aggregate every mention of the word “bum” or something, and before you know it you’re the number one “bum” Tweeter in your area; an unexpected accolade over which you seemingly have no control. The internet is vast. Maybe too vast to keep fully abreast of.
So maybe it’s time to pick a side. If you want to preserve something wonderful for your descendants, then you’d best get organising and assembling your digital legacy into something presentable. It’s the digital equivalent of wearing clean underwear in case you’re hit by a bus.
But if you’d simply rather hit delete, make sure you think it through first. A lot of our online memories – our photos, blog posts and tweets – are intertwined with social interactions that we might recall with great fondness. And once they’re gone, they’re gone.
Actually, maybe I won’t hit delete. Not just yet, anyway.