Albion Monitor /Commentary

Where Old Homepages go to Die

by Simson L. Garfinkel

(AR) SAN FRANCISCO -- The world's religions give varying answers to the age-old question: What happens to people after they die?

But now, another question needs to be asked: What about their home page?

The answer to the second question, it turns out, is much like the one many people give to the first. What happens to a person's presence on the Information Highway after they are no longer traveling it has a lot to do with the kind of electronic life they led when they were.

World Wide Web home pages in the cyberspace equivalent of the big city -- large services like America Online -- are likely to be automatically deleted, with the disk storage space reassigned to another subscriber. That's much like a big city apartment getting quickly cleaned out and readied for a new tenant.

"I assume that deceased members typically stop paying their bills and their accounts get cancelled," says Jason Mitchell, who runs America Online's Web "server," or computer.

What should be done with a dead person's Internet information turns out to be a surprisingly complex question

But in the smaller towns of cyberspace, people are developing more delicate ways of dealing with the loss of loved ones, as was demonstrated after the February suicide of Martin Richard Friedmann, a 29-year old programmer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab.

Often seen around Cambridge with his wild hair and skateboard (he had once been a contender for the world championship), Friedmann was also well known in cyberspace, as a result of having designed the Rolling Stones' Web page. He had also built a demonstration on virtual reality for the Chicago Science Museum.

"Soon after Marty's death, his page was replaced with one composed by his closest friends here at the lab," said Henry Holtzman, a research specialist at the Media Lab. "Initially it was a brief announcement of his death, and a link to Marty's own home page. Anyone retrieving the original URL (an electronic address) for his home page would get this page instead."

Within a few days, the "brief announcement" had expanded to include the obituaries printed in local newspapers and the details of Friedmann's memorial service. Eventually, those pages became an electronic "memorial wall" where people could leave their own personal messages.

Eventually, the Media Lab's main Web server contained a connection to the memorial page.

The memorial wall is still in place today. "I expect Marty's page will be around for a long time, but I can imagine them going away when there is no one from his research group that remembers him anymore, or cares to maintain the pages, or when the computer holding the pages crashes and a new web server is set up in its place," Holtzman said.

One question that remains unresolved is what the Media Lab will do the next time a student dies. That's because like many other schools, it lacks a formal policy on the disposal of a deceased's data.

"The good news is that doesn't happen that often, so we don't have a really well-structured procedure," says Daniel A. Updegrove, Associate Vice Provost for Information Systems and Computing at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

But what should be done with a dead person's Internet information turns out to be a surprisingly complex question, largely because of the still-undefined nature of much of the Internet itself. Consider: are a person's pages on the World Wide Web a publication, like manuscript or diary, that should be preserved? Or are they more like a collection of newspaper clippings and cartoons that a person might tape up on their office door?

"The Web issue is just one of many, many issues that we are looking at in terms of electronic records," said Helen Samuels, MIT's Institute Archivist. "Archivists are just coming to terms with what it means to preserve electronic records."

Sometimes, for example, something can be preserved technologically but still be, in effect, lost. For example, Carnegie Mellon University has a policy of storing a deceased student's files on magnetic tape before wiping the student's account, says Michael Mauldin, a professor. The problem, said Mauldin, is that the data backed up on tape might as well not exist, because the student's heirs don't know about it.

"The trick would be for an heir to come in and say, 'I would like a copy of the files from my son's computer accounts,'" he said. "The request would be honored, but I am sure that doesn't happen too much."

Another issue involves a dead person's electronic mail, an issue the Media Lab faced when Muriel R. Cooper, a professor, died of a heart attack in May at age 68.

"It was so confusing," says David Small, a graduate student who had been working for Cooper. "She had stuff everywhere. Mail files that were printed out on paper. Mail files that were electronic. Mail files that were on her home computer."

Worse still, because Cooper had never deleted her old messages, she had more than 30,000 in her e-mail box.

In the end, Small decided to treat Cooper's e-mail the same way that he treated her physical mail, and simply gave copies to her attorney.

Of course, Cooper's computer account continued to receive mail after she died. Some of it was from mailing lists, which are popular on the Internet, while others were from individuals who didn't know about her death.

So Small set up a computer program that automatically sends each a message about the professor's death, telling them their mail was being saved, but that nobody would ever read it.

"The funny thing is that a couple of people then sent her mail telling her that they missed her," said Small.

Albion Monitor December 3, 1995 (

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