What is the “digital afterlife?”
According to one man, it’s something more and more people are going to be thinking about.
Russ Hearl is a web developer in Silicon Valley, whose latest invention is somewhat of a digital-life-after-death program.
Hearl said he was browsing Facbeook one day about six months ago when he noticed a friend had posted “R.I.P.” to another friend’s wall. Shocked to see this, Hearl soon found out his friend had died three weeks earlier, yet his Facebook was still very active.
“You could see all of his posts from the day he died,” said Hearl. “It was really creepy.”
Hearl saw that many people had left their condolences on his late friend’s wall, and Hearl was struck by the informality and jarring juxtaposition of his late friend’s former life and current condolences.
Hearl began to brainstorm: was there a better way to designate space on the social media site for memorializing the dead?
Upon doing some research, Hearl found websites outside of the realm of Facebook where people could leave messages, photos and videos of lost loved ones. But Hearl could find nothing affiliated with Facebook.
“What happens to your Facebook profile when you die?” he wondered.
The actual numbers of Facebook users who die every day are still unclear, as not all deaths are reported to Facebook.
Extrapolating from CIA World Factbook data, Hearl estimates that 8,000 American Facebook users die every day.
“About 16,000 people die in the U.S. every day, and about half the U.S. population is on Facbeook,” he said. “That’s my conservative estimate. There are 901 million Facebook users worldwide.”
And when one of those active users dies, what becomes of their digital identity? Family members can report the death of a loved one to Facebook, at which time the company removes the person’s profile from public searches. Those that were friends with the deceased before their death can still visit the person’s profile. But Hearl said only a handful of deaths are reported to Facebook, leaving the profiles vulnerable to hacker and identity thieves.
So Hearl, a web developer based in San Francisco, set to work on the application, which took him about four months to create. The result was Evertalk, a free Facebook application now available to users of the social media site.
Facebook users can install the application for free by going to the Application Center tab, just like they would for hundreds of other games and programs. Once installed, users have access to all Evertalk profiles, and can search for lost loved ones. Users can leave comments in Evertalk guest books (digital renderings of those you see at funeral homes) and share.
The application is free for those who solely want to browse, but those who wish to create a page or profile for their lost loved one must sign up to be a publisher, and pay either $2 per month or $29 for the year; Hearl said the latter option is for those who wish to create multiple pages.
“I’m seeing people creating pages for those who died three to five years ago,” he said. Hearl said some are also memorializing late celebrities.
In addition to the subscription method, Hearl will be introducing a new feature in the coming weeks where publishers can create profiles for free. Users then can purchase digital flowers for “wreaths” on the page. The flowers are 99 cents each.
“When a digital flower is purchased, it illuminates,” he said.
Users can also set up a way for visitors to donate to memorial funds, or to make contributions to offsetting the cost of medical expenses.
Once the page is created, the publisher then puts a link to the Evertalk page on the deceased’s Facebook profile, redirecting friends and family to what Hearl sees as a more appropriate place to remember those lost. He said it also provides a secure alternative to leaving the profile open for the public.
“I want it to be a place where you can safeguard their identity,” he said.
Hearl’s application launched about a month ago, and he said he already has 3,600 users. In the future, he said he may pitch the application to Facebook to be an endorsed application.
“Like Instagram [a digital photo application], Facebook may want to acquire Evertalk,” said Hearl.