Managing Our (Digital) Legacies

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Legacies, especially what constitutes them and who has access to them, have changed a great deal over time. For instance, Willa Cather, a giant of 20th century American literature, and author of classics like "O Pioneers!" expressly forbade the publication of her personal correspondence. Her wish has largely been respected and enforced by her executors since her death seven decades ago.

But next month, an anthology of around 566 of her letters is set to be published, finally submitting her private life to public scrutiny. So a part of Willa Cather's legacy, in the form of her letters, is being published against her will.

But what about the rest of us today? How can we control our legacies? That question has become a lot more complicated these days, especially since a great deal of our legacy — pictures, emails, Facebook and Twitter profiles — now exists in digital form.

When we die, our families face real barriers — legal, cultural and technical — to accessing what we've left behind in the digital world. We discuss the ability and rights we and our families have to control our online legacies after we die. Evan Carroll, who wrote "Your Digital Afterlife," joins us from studios of WUNC in Durham, North Carolina.

"The interesting thing about digital assets is that we don’t have that access to them the same we way we have access to them in a box in a closet," says Carro. "So, for instance, we have various assets that are stored on our computers and those might be secured by a password. Perhaps more difficult are those that are stored on the internet, and those that would require us to know that the account exists. So we have an awareness problem."

Facebook, for example, has a policy states that your family can request that your profile be deleted or can request it be put in a memorialized state. "Once it’s in a memorialized state, some of the information is removed and you cannot gain any new friends to that account…and finally the credentials, the username and password to that account, no longer work."

Carroll says that there is some truth to the widely-repeated adage, "once it’s on the internet, it's permanent." "They are correct to the degree that you cannot control what happens to it, however we should also realize that just because we think of the internet as permanent, that does not mean the internet is permanent. It would be very easy for various companies to go out of business and suddenly those websites are no longer online."

Our Washington correspondent, Todd Zwillich, is filling in as host all this week. Follow Todd on Twitter for the latest from Capitol Hill.