We may die, but the Web lives on

My friend Ethan Kaplan over at blackrimglasses has a fascinating post about the death of a geek — a man named Mark Hoekstra — and the strange feeling that is created by seeing his blog posts, Flickr photos, Last.fm contributions and other elements of his online life floating around in the ether after his death (just 34 years old, he apparently died suddenly of a heart attack while riding his bicycle). As Ethan says:

“The thing about Mark’s death: I did not know him, but I do know everything that was “last” in his too short life. I know the last song he listened to was Instant Death by the Beastie Boys. I know that Last.fm last saw him Monday evening. He has a cat, whom I hope is taken care of. Five days ago he posted a picture of a Cisco Aironet he got from Ebay.”

I’ve had this same experience several times now — in some cases with people I know well and in others with people I barely know at all, and yet somehow feel that I know, as a result of the photos and blog posts and other elements of their lives that continue to exist online. I recall coming across Adrian Sudbury’s blog, which he wrote up until his death from leukemia, and Leroy Sievers blog, which he wrote until his death from cancer, and I remember being affected quite strongly by the blog post that soldier Andrew Olmsted wrote for publication after his death.

In some ways, the blog entries and other online ephemera from people like Mark Hoekstra are more affecting than the deaths of famous people like author David Foster Wallace — or even journalists like Leroy Sievers — whose passing generates a certain amount of heat and light on the Web as a result of their public presence. What happens to Mark’s blog posts or photos or Last.fm recommendations after his death? Will traces of him be left for others to find, and for how long?

I wrote a memorial webpage for my father after he died of cancer in 1996 and have kept it online since then, just in case someone might run across it who knew him, but is there any point to that other than the feeling I have that some part of him is still alive? I set up a website in memory of my father-in-law after he died of cancer two years ago, with the text from various eulogies, photos slideshows and so on. It sits there still, like a moment trapped in amber, and for some reason I can’t bring myself to delete it, just in case someone comes across it in their Web travels.

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