Data After Death

Episode 02

Amanda Meeks: Hello and welcome to Our Digital Futures with This podcast explores the ways in which we can all preserve our memories within a changing digital landscape. My name is Amanda Meeks, and I'm the Community and Partnerships Manager here at Permanent, and I'm also your podcast host. The Permanent Legacy Foundation is a nonprofit whose mission is to preserve and provide access to the digital legacy of all people for the historical and educational benefit of future generations. Our web and mobile app is designed for personal digital archiving and allows anyone to preserve their memories and traditions safely and securely without recurring subscription fees.

We also support nonprofit organizations and their long-term preservation efforts through our storage granting program, known as Byte4Byte. Anyone can create a free account and start archiving today.

Our theme, this episode is data, but more specifically data after death, the Permanent team has been developing a legacy planning feature that will soon be available to our members, allowing them to transfer the data of their personal or family archives to others upon their death, memorialize their accounts, and delete their data entirely if they so choose.

Part of our new feature includes naming a legacy contact, which is a concept first employed by folks at Meta, the parent company for Facebook and Instagram. My guest, Katie Gach and I will talk a little about personal experiences with postmortem data, continuing bonds theory, the importance of communication, and the interconnectedness of our data online, or the implications when it is deleted or inaccessible to those we love.

Okay, so our guest today is Katie Gach. Who earned her Ph.D. in Technology, Media and Society at CU Boulder's College of Engineering and Applied Science. Her dissertation is entitled How to Delete the Dead: Honoring Affective Connections to Postmortem Data. She currently works for Meta, which is the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, and offers personal digital legacy advanced planning and post-mortem management as a death doula.

So welcome, Katie.

Katie Gach: Thanks, Amanda. Thanks so much for having me.

Amanda Meeks: Yeah, I was connected to you through the death doula training that we both completed Going with Grace. So I was of course super interested and excited to find another doula working at the intersection of death and technology. And I feel like we have a lot to talk about, so we can jump right in if you're ready.

Katie Gach: Yes, let's do it.

Amanda Meeks: Cool. So I'd love to start with a bit of a personal question if that's okay.

Katie Gach: Sure.

Amanda Meeks: I'm curious if there was an experience or an event in your own life that inspired you to explore postmortem data through your Ph.D., and if so, would you mind sharing a little bit about that?

Katie Gach: Yeah, so I think like anything that you feel deeply is right for you, like when you find the thing that kind of makes your soul come alive and you know that it's worth throwing your life's work into. It was a series of small things over a long period of time that in hindsight led me in this direction.

One of the big things that I remember is back in 2010, I was living overseas. I was in Cambodia at the time, and I learned on Christmas Day that year that my cousin, who was close to my age, had been killed in a car accident and I think like any family, that branch of my family has some complexity to it, and communication is not always straightforward. So I had grown up with my cousin, right?

And we're both really close with our grandparents, but I realized that I didn't actually know him very well as we, you know, grew into adulthood. And I remember sitting in a pizza shop in a mall in Phnom Penh and looking through his Facebook profile and seeing all these photos and videos from his friends that I never knew all these stories about him that I'd never heard.

And it was so healing and comforting to me to see how loved he was and how much I could still get to know him through his Facebook profile and through his relationships, even though we had, you know, not lived in the same city since we were kids. And that stuck with me for a long time. And then as I went on through my life and went to grad school, I kept noticing how deeply meaningful and emotional these online connections could be and how much people could find that support the way that I did in, in their grief and connect with other people who were grieving.

And that led me to, you know, just as I continued to pay attention to that being important to me, I ended up having some small world type connections through my grad school pursuits, and ended up working with Dr. Jed Brubaker, who's an associate professor at CU Boulder. He and I actually went to the same master's program at Georgetown about eight years apart.

So when I had expressed this interest in death and grief on social media to one of my mentors at Georgetown they said, "Well then you need to talk to Jed." And Jed ended up being my doctoral advisor and he had been an academic partner with Facebook at the time and brought me right alongside his work in that area with, at the time it was called the Compassion Research Initiative at Facebook.

So it was a beautiful collection of extremely intelligent people that were working to, were working on exactly these kinds of problems on social media. So I joined that team. It was very much a group effort and now I, you know, get to say that it's my area of expertise and yeah, and just really feeling like I can legitimately make a difference in this thing that I noticed more than 10 years ago.

Amanda Meeks: Yeah, it's actually like really hard to believe that Facebook has been around since 2004.

Katie Gach: Mm-hmm.

Amanda Meeks: And you know, like all of the ways that like our lives have kind of unfolded on that platform. You know, being of our generation, kind of millennial / xennial. I'm a xennial, assuming you might be a millennial.

Katie Gach: I'm firmly in the millennial generation. Yeah.

Amanda Meeks: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

Katie Gach: Yeah. I turned 13 in 2000. So that's like, right smack in the middle of that definition.

Amanda Meeks: I was in college, I think it was my sophomore year of college, when Facebook came into existence. And yeah, just the, the thing that you're talking about, about like grief and finding community and kind of being in community in grief on Facebook is really interesting to me. That has been something that has kind of always been I think it's a little bit more prominent on Facebook than other social media platforms.

Katie Gach: For sure. Yeah. Yeah. And that, there's a lot of reasons for that, that I could get into. But yeah, I agree. It's harder to see this, see anything similar happening on other social media platforms, even Instagram.

But there are parallels for sure.

Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm.

Katie Gach: My advisor, one of his earliest papers on the subject, talks about how Facebook has been a site of the expansion of death and mourning. And what he means by that is that, someone that you might have lost touch with over time, maybe a friend from kindergarten or your neighbor from your childhood, you maintain an awareness of their life that you wouldn't have without social media.

So once someone like that passes away, it impacts you more than it would have if you say, found out months later when you went home to visit your parents or something like that. It also lets people find out about deaths over a longer period of time. You might think of someone that you remember from your old job and wonder how they're doing, and then you get on their profile and find that they've passed away.

So it extends the amount of time that news is available to people. And there's of course, a social aspect to that as well, that we experience more deaths, we're aware of more deaths because of the greater number of people that we're able to maintain that awareness of. So those factors coming into play, they result in us needing more connection.

That, I mean, and we have it like we, we need to connect with more people when we have more deaths affecting us. And the cause and the effect and the need and the, you know, meeting that need are all right there in one platform.

Amanda Meeks: Yeah. And something about that while you were talking reminded me that like, this wasn't Facebook's initial purpose. Like it wasn't.

Katie Gach: Oh gosh, absolutely not. The story of the platform, whether it's told in the media and the way it's told internally among those of us who, who get to work there it's comical how narrow the vision was now that we've seen it grow so far beyond that.

Amanda Meeks: Yeah. I think it's interesting to think of it that way because I know, you know, like with Permanent, we exist specifically for people to create legacies, digital legacies, that they can pass that round and pass down to future generations.

And we are in the process of developing our legacy planning feature and that is quite a bit more complicated than what I think most platforms are doing these days, which were definitely all inspired by the Facebook Legacy Contact Feature and the memorialization features and what have you, and all of the work that you all are doing through the ATLAS Center.

Katie Gach: Yeah. Yeah. So it is the Alliance for Technology, Learning, and Society at CU Boulder, that's the specific department where I earned my Ph.D. ATLAS is uncommon when it comes to Ph.D. programs that are exploring new media and new social issues that come with new technologies.

There's a lot of focus on how technology can be used for like learning and education purposes, but they really let their researchers cobble together their own set of specialties. So while I studied death and grief on social media and did a lot of kind of funky creative exploration of like what it could look like to do something like having a funeral for a Facebook profile, you know, conducting a ritual surrounding that shift from active profile to memorialized profile.

I had colleagues throughout the program that studied like, "How can we use dance to teach young black women physics?" and like that was, a real dissertation by this remarkable researcher her name is Simone Hyater-Adams. So there's just the huge variety of topics that ATLAS allows its researchers to explore.

 But the core similarity is that creativity and that desire to really like push what we can do with technology and why and how. Yeah, so I'm not currently doing any work with the ATLAS Institute, but I remain very fond of them.

Amanda Meeks: Yeah, yeah. I'm a big fan of the ATLAS and am just, you know, I would love the opportunity to learn more about it at some point, whether in person or elsewhere.

And I think the next question that I have for you is really about Continuing Bonds Theory.

Katie Gach: Mm-hmm.

Amanda Meeks: So going back to your research, Continuing Bonds Theory is the idea that our relationships don't end when someone dies. And of course, we learned all about this with Going with Grace and I think it's a very like doula-centered idea too.

Like we often talk about like rituals and how to keep growing those bonds and it's an important part of what drives legacy creation and digital stewardship it seems. So I'm curious if you can talk a little about how online data potentially helps foster those bonds between loved ones.

Katie Gach: Mm-hmm. Yes. So Continuing Bonds Theory has been very instructive to the design and the decision-making about how to do memorialize profiles correctly. And I'm not claiming that Facebook does it perfectly, but we are the industry leader in being able to manage profiles in this way. So, the idea that our relationships don't end when someone dies is -there's a ton of research behind it.

It's not a super new theory. I think the first research about it is from the 1990s. But what it does do is it enables us to take these things that we posted during our lifetimes; what we thought about current events, pictures of what we were doing at the time, and it lets people honor those things as the heirlooms and sacred memories that they become when a person dies. It goes from being, you know, your diary or your, you know, photo album that you've made in the moment for those years that you spend on these social platforms, and those things become something different when you die.

They become, in some cases, the only thing that your loved ones have left of you. Or the easiest thing to access about you that your loved ones will have. Not everyone can come to where you lived and go through your things and keep things the way that your closest loved ones will get to do, but they do have all this stuff that you yourself created and put out there for the people that you know and love to have access to.

So when you talk about creating a digital legacy with something like Permanent, the reality is that we're creating our own digital legacies all day, every day. Some people call it a digital footprint in terms of like privacy and what is out there about you that other people can find. And while the privacy and safety conversation about your digital footprint is important, the conversation I like to have is about how that digital footprint becomes your digital legacy whether you like it or not.

And something like Permanent is great because it lets people think forward about that and it lets them kind of curate a little bit of their actual values and the way that they lived and what was really important to them. But, If we don't have that forethought, people are going to find out anyway, what was important to us and what we loved and what we did.


Amanda Meeks: That just like scares me a little bit to think back to those 2004 photos on my Facebook and how that's -

Katie Gach: Oh yeah.

Amanda Meeks: Definitely part of my legacy.

Katie Gach: Yeah, but that past version of you, who you were in 2004, was just as real as who you are today. And that is life, right?

Amanda Meeks: Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. And you know, in thinking about it, like kind of the way that you just described it, where Permanent allows you to kind of curate it and think forward, I think that's really helpful in terms of like just choosing what you want your legacy to be, and also putting it in the context of like maybe your family history, or your community history or, your life's work, because some of that doesn't exist on social media. So it can be a pretty wide variety of things that are pulled together to create a legacy that's a little more encompassing but doesn't necessarily have that social aspect.


Katie Gach: Mm-hmm. Yes. I like the way you said that the social aspect of a legacy is something that I think about a lot. It's one of the main arguments I make in my dissertation, which you mentioned in your introduction, thank you. Is that this idea of singular individual identity being something that is able to be isolated and documented as a standalone thing is not at all how human lives work. It's not at all how human relationships work and it's not actually going to capture our identity, and that is actually most visible when someone's profile gets deleted. Because what, it's not just the profile that goes away, it's your comments on other people's profiles.

It's, you know, your likes and comments on pictures. It's your posts in your groups that you had conversations with your neighbors or with people all over the world have things in common with you. All of those places where your profile kind of extended tendrils of who you are into the digital world, all of those things get deleted.

And that affects what we call the contextual integrity of all these other conversations and these other people's lives. So in the chapter I'm most fond of in my dissertation, kind of tries to break down like, okay, "If we can't stand alone as individuals with a singular profile, and that doesn't represent us accurately, what does represent us accurately?"

And so I described this concept of affective constellations where our emotional contact with other people and the surfaces of contact, whether that is in-person conversation or a digital conversation, actually very much shapes who we are and who the other person is, and that you can't easily disentangle those things.

So a more correct deletion process would disentangle the things that are, you know, just on your profile from the other things that are out there on other people's profiles and other people's groups, but the technical reality of sorting through data in that way is almost insurmountable. It would just, the complexity it would create within a system that's already very complex and takes up a lot of data centers in a lot of parts of America, it would need exponentially more than that.

So remind me what your initial question was, because I could go down that rabbit hole for a bit. Yeah.

Amanda Meeks: Just, oh, now I forgot. (laughter)

Katie Gach: Does in your, your individual digital -the social aspect of our digital?

Amanda Meeks: Yes, yes.

Katie Gach: Yeah. So where I see this is relevant to what you're doing, the social aspects of our legacies are not new with the digital tools that we use. These things have always been true, but it was the affordances of how we documented things lent more to social realities than what we have now. And what I mean by that is informed by the ways that I've learned about my own ancestors and my own family history through things like archives and census records and newspaper clippings.

And I should mention that my dad has retired and has gotten really into ancestry research since his retirement. So he's always sending me these fascinating newspaper clippings from like the 1920s. And it's exactly the kind of stuff in the newspapers that we post on our social media now, it's things like, Oh, this woman hosted a baby shower for her friend. The expecting family lists everybody that came, lists what they ate, list the children were playing in the backyard during this lovely event, and that was like the social section of the newspapers. And I'm like, we've been posting our dessert pics for each other to see for like a hundred years now or more, right?

This is not a new thing, but like, And you know, my dad has sent me those things to say like, "Hey, did you know that like my great-grandmother on my side of my family and your mom's great grandma on her side of the family, they lived in the same neighborhood, they went to the same parties. It's like all recorded in these newspapers' social sections?"

And so those are the things that I have of the legacies of people that I come from. And I don't think that they were thinking of, you know, serving watermelon at a baby shower as being like a legacy that should last a hundred years. But it did. But it did. Yeah. And it's this glimpse of their life that I'm really grateful to have.

So being able to put out so much individually being our own publishers, you know, our own memoir authors.

Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm.

Katie Gach: It changes the kind of legacy that we're leaving and lets us imagine that we're more individual than we actually are. But we're still gonna have things like census records and newspaper articles that reveal the more social aspects of our legacies for sure.

Amanda Meeks: Definitely. Yeah. Yeah, this like leads into the next question nicely, which is around like how post-mortem data represents living people. That was something that you mentioned in one of your talks and I think we've started, you've started to unpack this already, but how do we unpack this further for folks who maybe haven't given this any thought?

Katie Gach: Yeah. I remember this specific slide from my dissertation defense that postmortem data represents living people too. So what I mean by that is when Facebook enabled the delete after death option for profiles that is, rooted in the legal terms of service that you agree to when you click accept, when you, for anything you do online. It's like, "Hey, here are the terms of service with this service provider. Do you agree to these?"

So that's legally binding. You know, if you think that the platform has misused your data and you take them to court, they can hold up that terms of service agreement and say, "Actually, you agreed to let us do this," and you're not gonna win that court case.

And I'm speaking very generally, not a lawyer, that's not legal advice, but that's what that is for. So, there is a legal obligation that a company would have. When one-half of that legal agreement has passed away, it makes the agreement null and void. It keeps them from being able to continue that agreement unless you had a caveat or something in there about what to do with your choices after you've passed away.

So if you say that you want your Facebook profile deleted after you die, they see that as like you as an individual contract party, they're now legally obligated to make it look as if you never existed on that site at all. Anything that you created, they no longer have a legal right to keep it. You've asked them to delete it, and they are legally obligated to do so.

But like I mentioned before, those tendrils of your activity and your personality, your identity, are all over the website. They're all over the platform in all these different ways. And it wasn't just you out there performing a one-man show for all of those things.

It's interactive, it's very back and forth. It is these group conversations and it breaks those things. You now have people that are responding to a question that, that nobody else can see. So if they're going back and trying to find, you know, as an example, I'm in a wonderful Facebook group called Handy Women, and it's just women who fix stuff around their houses and we help each other do things. We answer questions. Like that group, showed me how to repair my own garbage disposal. (laughter) That's how we have collective community knowledge now. I probably could have asked one of my neighbors, but it was way easier to just hop on that group and be like, "There's a glass in my garbage disposal. What do I do?" And they told me.

But you know, if my profile were to be deleted, all of that knowledge that they shared with me as a result of my question is gonna get deleted too. The entire context of why people were talking about glass and garbage disposals is gone. And that's a really simplistic example, but imagine what that would be like for a group that, for example, parents of kids with rare diseases are a big priority of mine that I think about when I think about the usefulness of social media, rare diseases, genetic conditions, and there are only like a few hundred kids in the entire world that have these rare health issues and their parents can all find each other on Facebook. So you go from being the only person in your state or your region of the world that's dealing with this, to all of a sudden you have support system of people who get what you're going through. That is you, we can't explain the value of that. Right? And so if one of those profiles gets deleted and it's someone who's been really active in that community, the knowledge associated with their conversations, their legacy of creating knowledge and giving support to that community goes away.

Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm.

Katie Gach: And that is entirely rooted in the idea that we are isolated, individual, standalone entities as human beings. And we're not, we're so entangled with one another. I don't know how we're ever gonna get our data systems to reflect that.

Amanda Meeks: Yeah.

Katie Gach: But it's kind of, it's still like the overall vision that I have for humans being on the internet is that it would look more like that somehow.

Amanda Meeks: Yeah, it's so complex. So complex, and I think that just the idea that like technology does such a great job of connecting us, right? That is its job on the internet. That's what it exists for. But yeah, when you have to delete something and somebody's contributions, presence, just anything that they did on a platform, like that makes so much sense why it would be like such a detriment to a community, especially such a, a small, tight-knit community where people are really relying on each other from a distance and where like that information is found nowhere else.

Katie Gach: Mm-hmm.

Amanda Meeks: Yeah.

Katie Gach: Mm-hmm.

Amanda Meeks: One of the things that you talked a little bit about too was how like new technologies are often like working and trying to eliminate work, but you kind of emphasize this, that doing the work ourselves, meaning as a human is really important in this context.

And what it seems like what we'd lose if we leave it up to, you know, a fully automated process or the algorithm or whatever, it seems like what we lose is just insurmountable. And I'm curious if you have any ideas for how we humanize this process even more.

Katie Gach: Yeah, what a good question. When I talk about the work we need to do, the work that we shouldn't automate, it is this work that kind of lets our bodies catch up to what's going on around us.

I think a lot about how to keep our bodies involved in these digital things that we're always doing, because the body is ultimately what we lose when someone dies. In another one of my talks, I start out with this example that I found during the death doula training course with Alua. And it talked about, you know, family coming home from a funeral and looking around and seeing their person's things still just sitting there as if nothing had happened yet.

Their shoes are still by the door, their jacket is still on a hook, their clothes might still be in the dryer. Like there's all of these things that make it look like they should still be there. And it was kind of a poem or like a creative writing piece that ended with "Who's going to tell the house what happened?" But if you think about all of the ways that a community will come together after someone dies and they, they do that work, they sit and go through the boxes in the attic, they sort through the clothing, they find things that are special to them that they really wanna keep.

It would be so painful if you went home from the funeral and it didn't look like the person had ever lived there. If that was automated, if the house somehow knew to put away all the stuff or get rid of all the stuff that had belonged to the person that's now gone. It's part of how we come to understand what the world is without that person, to take the time to go and through and do that work.

And so if we are automating any part of that, even their digital legacy, you know, if we just let Apple's photos app make the slideshow for the funeral instead of going through ourselves and picking the photos we want, it's gonna be weird. It's gonna feel off. It's gonna not have the personal touch and the intention that people need from something like a memorial slideshow.

Is it really cool that we can make a memorial slideshow so quickly if we need to? Absolutely. I've seen some beautiful memorial slideshows that people have shown me that just said like," I just found this on my phone. My phone just made it. And the song behind it is perfect and the pictures it shows were perfect."

And like it's great when those things can happen, but we need to be conscious of what happens in us when we're doing the work ourselves and how we're coming to understand what the world is without that person. Cause if we don't have that work to do, it's always gonna feel like we are floating out in the midst of nothing and don't have any handholds in this dark and confusing place that grief can be. And so I see that work as finding the scaffolding in that dark and confusing place. Finding where the walls are, finding what you can hold onto and, you know, getting to know that new landscape. So that's where my mind is at with it. Does that, does that make sense?

Amanda Meeks: Yeah. And I love that analogy of the house and you know, if the house like suddenly knew how to basically disappear your person, that is like such a jarring experience. And yeah, I think that the nature of like online platforms being what they are, it can be a little challenging because we don't always have that ability to have that like person-to-person conversation. And I think that's why like the way that we're developing our feature, to give people as many options as possible that allow them to make those decisions ahead of time, that allow them to communicate those decisions.

Communication around these topics is like the most important piece because if you have an account anywhere and nobody knows about it and it contains your most precious, valuable, cherished memories or anything - keepsakes, then those become inaccessible. It's like they don't exist.

Katie Gach: Yeah, that is such a good point.

The communication around these things is so important and that's a perfect opportunity for me to share one of the biggest challenges that I found in six years of research that I did on this exact topic. Just that if I were to ask you, "Hey Amanda, what do you want to happen? Anything of yours, what do you want to happen to your favorite sweaters after you die?" You as a death doula probably have an answer for that, but the average person would likely say something, and again, this is based on my data, so this is the thing that people cite me for, I have a Ph.D. for.

Most people will say, "I don't care, I'll be dead."

Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm.

Katie Gach: Like they're very aware that they're not in a position to be affected by whatever happens after that, but they are very aware of how their loved ones might need to make those decisions. So people will, if they think a little bit further beyond that initial question, they would say like, "Well, I want the people that will miss me to be able to do what they need to do to figure it out."

Amanda, if I were to ask you the people who love you most, your closest relationships, what would you do with Amanda's favorite sweaters? After she passes away, they might have like a really beautiful idea and a lot of opinions about what to do with those things. So it's not just the communication of those decisions that matters, it's letting the people who love you most guide those decisions along with you while you're still alive.

Because it is impossible for you to figure out what your family is gonna need in this imagined future where you're not around. But they can tell you now, you should ask them now. Like making those decisions and imagining those things together is absolutely the best way to do this. And so what I love about what, you know, the Legacy Contact Feature does on Facebook, and this was very intentional by the design team that did this, you know, before I was in the picture even.

When you choose a legacy contact, it tells them, it sends them a message in, in Facebook Messenger and says, "Hey, this is a feature Facebook has. I trust you, so I've chosen you to manage my account if something happens to me. Please let me know if you wanna talk about this."

And so there's this idea that like, well, don't just like send the person an email. You did get an email also, because it just makes sure people have seen it, but like it prompts that conversation that as the researchers behind this feature, we know is so important for people to have and it becomes really important.

And this is one of the case studies from my dissertation, speaking with a woman who, her husband had passed away, and the conversation they had, they, they were fortunate enough to have before he passed away, he had said, "Hey, I saw that on Facebook when you're my legacy contact, you can add friends to the profile if, like, they didn't have Facebook before I died and they wanna look at my stuff afterward."

And he specifically told her, "Hey, listen, my sister and I are estranged. We haven't spoken in years. I'm, you know, she blocked me on Facebook, but if something happens to me and she wants to be involved in the memorial and she wants to get on my page and share anything, please make sure you let her do that."

And first of all, it's a beautiful story of hope of reconciliation and someone who had deep love and consideration despite years of being estranged. But it also shows how the decisions we make during our lifetime that might be best for us during our lifetime, can change after we die. The privacy settings he had during his lifetime reflected no relationship with his sister, and he understood that that could change after he died, and he was really glad it was possible.

So those are the kinds of conversations we're hoping to spark with people. It doesn't happen too often that people actually have those conversations, but making sure it's possible and prompting it is still really important.

Amanda Meeks: Yeah. Wow. That is a really powerful story and thank you for sharing it. And one of the things that is kind of sinking in as we're having this conversation is that our digital footprint is huge. And like you said, it becomes our digital legacy and not all platforms have these built-in features.

Well, I think my last question is really kind of focused on the future and so it's generations from now. What could the record of our existence look like in the ideal world of Katie Gach? Like if people invest time and mental energy into leaving digital legacies that they feel really good about and that work within the systems that exist then?

Katie Gach: Hmm. I love this question because I do think about it a lot.

I would love for my great-great-great granddaughters to be able to just scroll freely through my Facebook profile. I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be delightful for them to see the like silly shenanigans I got up to in college or, you know, see pictures of the places that I traveled in my twenties.

There's goofy pictures of me with a big pregnant belly before my daughter was born, I think it would be great if they had all those things because I wish I had all those things from my ancestors. So I hope that these platforms have a sustainable future.

In the most basic sense, I hope there is some way to export not just the data from my profiles, cause I'm on every platform. You can find me on every social media platform except for like Snapchat, I think. So I would love to be able to kind of like export those things in a way that like it would still function the way that it did when I was using it, even if it's not, you know, if Twitter doesn't exist anymore, which I think is the most likely platform to, you know...

Amanda Meeks: but that's a whole other podcast.

Katie Gach: Oh gosh, yes it is. But I would love for my Twitter feed and my replies to people and these conversations that I had to still be in a format that people could look through. I did care a lot about being on the internet. Like there's a reason I'm on every platform.

I think the overall benefit to humanity to be able to be connected in these ways, I think it's beautiful. I think it's incredible and I don't wanna lose most of the things that I have put out there on the internet. So that's what I hope for myself.

I also do hope that the things that were private to me during my lifetime would stay private. You know, they don't need to look through my private messages between me and my spouse. They don't need to look through my text messages with my sister when we're shit-talking like, I mean, those might actually be really funny in hindsight, if they have similar documentation about other people. But yeah, I think about like I have some letters that have been saved through the generations from family members, and they're very anchoring to me to see that, like how I compare to the women that I came from and whatever I can give to the people in the future that come from me or feel any sort of connection to me, I hope they can find whatever they need that is grounding for them and anchoring for them to get a better sense of where they've come from and why the world was the way it was.

One of my project managers at Facebook used to say like, "How cool would it be if we could look through Abraham Lincoln's Facebook profile and see like, not just the Gettysburg address, but like all the addresses he gave about, you know, what was going on in the world at the time.

So that's the kind of perspective that I have that like it, it will be great to have those things, not just for public figures and everyday people, but for the people who are big figures in your own life that are important to your own history.

Let's not decide now who's gonna matter for the future. Let's let the future decide.

Amanda Meeks: Mm-hmm. I love that. So beautifully said. Thank you, Katie.

Katie Gach: Hmm.

Amanda Meeks: All right, so thank you so much for being on the podcast today and for all of your insight and expertise. This was really wonderful.

Katie Gach: Great. Yeah, I feel like it went really well. Thanks for your thoughtful questions and clearly doing all of the background work to be able to ask good questions, so I really appreciate it.

Amanda Meeks: Of course.

Thank you for listening to Our Digital Futures, where we explore the ins and outs of preserving our memories in an ever-changing digital landscape. Special thanks to this episode's guest, Katie Gach for sharing much-needed insight into the digital legacy planning process.

A good legacy plan allows people to be seen for who they are after they're gone, pass on or preserve what's most important to them, and enables loved ones to make decisions that are in line with what the deceased would've wanted. We hope that you feel inspired to make a plan for your digital legacy after listening to this episode, even if all you do is name a legacy contact for your online accounts, that's a huge step in the right direction.

Choosing a legacy contact or setting up any kind of plan for your data beyond your life ensures that the people you love and trust can do what they will inevitably need to do in wrapping up your online affairs. We'll certainly be sharing more on this topic and offering additional guidance in the coming months as the Legacy Planning feature is launched. Stay tuned.

Special thanks to our production team at Next Day Podcasts.


Katie Gach headshot

Katie Gach

Katie Gach earned her Ph.D in Technology, Media, and Society at CU Boulder's College of Engineering and Applied Science. Her dissertation is entitled “How to Delete the Dead: Honoring Affective Connections to Post-mortem Data.” She currently works for Meta, which is the parent company of Facebook and Instagram and offers personal digital legacy advance planning and post-mortem data management as a death doula.


Amanda Meeks headshot

Amanda Meeks


Amanda Meeks is the Community and Partnerships Manager at the Permanent Legacy Foundation where they cultivate opportunities for members to connect, socialize and learn from each other. They love learning about other people and their stories; inspiring and empowering people to document and share their ideas, experiences, and art with the world. Amanda is also an artist, end-of-life doula, and research librarian who lives in the southwest with their beloved dog, Theodore.