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Things to Do on the Web When You’re Dead

Perhaps it speaks to my Western-based culture that I was so surprised when a friend of mine [not our friend and colleague Cary Lu, who had no desire to build a Web site before he passed away, as mentioned in TidBITS-399. -Adam] asked me some time ago if I would host his Web site after he died. I had simply not given any thought to the problem of what happens to a site after someone passes away or can no longer support it for health reasons.

This man had put several years of work into his Web site, and it had become an archive of his life’s musings and beliefs. He felt (and feels) strongly that this material should remain available to people after he is no longer around to share it, and there is no reason why this shouldn’t be possible. The site takes up little space, requires no real maintenance, and holds a treasure-trove of wonderful writing that will probably never see its way into print.

I don’t know how many elderly people or people with terminal illnesses are currently building Web pages, but I can only assume that the number is increasing and that within the next few years the "passing on" question will become one of significance. There are many important and emotional issues at stake here, as people’s personal Web sites become repositories and reflections of who they are and what they feel is important to share with others.

I believe this situation calls for an international not-for-profit organization. People could bequest their Web sites to this organization with the knowledge that the site will be available indefinitely to their loved ones and other interested parties. Some small commercial startups already offer this kind of service, but I’m more concerned about people who won’t be able to afford an expensive solution that requires trust funds or other sophisticated financing.

Enter the AfterLife — AfterLife is just such an organization. Over the past few months, several volunteers have been working together to address the concerns and issues of archiving Web sites after their authors die. The effort is still very much in its developmental stage, and more volunteers are needed. Currently, AfterLife has been donated server space and bandwidth, and the organization is applying for tax-exempt status in the United States.

I was honored that my friend asked me to protect something so precious to him, and I willingly agreed. But I wonder how many people’s sites are simply being "turned off" when they no longer have a voice (or a checkbook) to sustain them? I keep thinking: if my grandparents had built a Web site, wouldn’t I want it archived and available online in the years to come for my grandchildren?

Of course, no one knows what the online world will look like in my grandchildren’s time. There’s no question that the Web will evolve during the intervening years, and AfterLife will be exploring issues surrounding the conversion of Web pages into other formats for the continuance of access when that becomes necessary. Since HTML is relatively simple and HTML files are pure text, Web pages stand a much better chance of surviving into an unknown technical future than content that requires specific hardware or operating systems. CD-ROMs, for instance, may physically last for many years, but that’s no help if there aren’t any CD-ROM drives to read them or applications that understand the file formats used.

You can find more information about AfterLife at the Web site below or by sending email to <[email protected]>. If you are interested in either participating as a volunteer or bequeathing your Web site to AfterLife, drop us a line. Although AfterLife is still at an early stage, we want to encourage people to start thinking about the issues involved as the Web, along with the rest of us, continues to age.


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