Death and digital ghosts

Rob Walker, who profiled Boing Boing in Fast Company last month, wrote a fascinating story for the New York Times Magazine about ghosts in Cyberspace. What happens to your online identity and digital footprints after you die? I found the story to be provocative and quite moving, especially the parts about Mac Tonnies, a terrific blogger and Fortean/Science Fiction author who unexpectedly died in 2009 at the age of 34. I didn't know Mac personally but I feel connected to him through the posts he left behind. Rob is a great journalist who really manages to find the subtle threads of a story and to weave them together in a compelling and honest way that reveals his own curiosity. From the NYT:


The last entry on (Mac's blog) Posthuman Blues was titled "Tritptych #15," a set of three images with no text. The first comment to this post came from an anonymous reader, wondering why Tonnies had not updated the blog or tweeted for two days. Some similar comments followed, and then this: "Mac Tonnies passed away earlier in the week. Our condolences are with his family and friends in this time of grief." The author of that comment was also anonymous. After a rapid back-and-forth about whether this startling news was true and some details of the circumstances, that post's comment section transformed into a remarkable mix of tributes, grieving and commiseration. You can still read all this today, in a thread that runs to more than 250 comments…

"It was a very strange feeling," Dana Tonnies, Mac's mother, told me, describing how she and her husband became aware of the swirl of activity attaching to her son's online self. "I had no control over what was being said about him, almost immediately." Dana and Bob Tonnies were close to their only son – in fact they had coffee with him, in a regular Sunday ritual, the morning before he died – but they had little contact with his digital self. Sometimes he would show them his online writing, but he had to do so by literally putting his laptop in front of them. The Tonnies did not read blogs. In fact they did not own a computer…

Dana, who told me that her husband now teases her about how much time she spends sending and answering e-mail (a good bit of it coming from her son's online social circle), is presently going through Posthuman Blues, in order, from the beginning. "I still have a year to go," she says. Reading it has been "amazing," she continues – funny posts, personal posts, poetic posts, angry posts about the state of the world. I ask her if what she is reading seems like a different, or specifically narrow, version of her son. "Oh, no, it's him," she says. "I can hear him when I read it."

"Cyberspace When You're Dead" (Thanks, Chris Arkenberg!)