The curse of online identity

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I spent most of today writing out URLs, usernames, passwords, and instructions in a large spiral notebook, in longhand. That sounds silly, but there were good reasons for it.

A few months ago, my wife Air presented me with the notebook, asking me to write down the details of all our online activities, because since the very beginning of our relationship in 1994, I've been in charge of most of those things. (I showed her how to use email back then, for instance—though it was she who convinced me to join Facebook and Twitter.) Now that I've had cancer and have been undergoing treatment for close to four years, we have to prepare for a time when I could be too sick (or, to be frank, too dead) to handle that anymore.

Initially, I put together a big list of URLs, usernames, and passwords in a spreadsheet, and printed out a copy to put into the notebook. But that wasn't enough: what are all those sites for, anyway? What are the steps if we need to modify something, like renew a domain registration or update to the latest version of WordPress (easier than it used to be)? Sure, I could have typed everything up in a word-processing document and printed that out, but sometimes writing things with a pen, the way I used to write essays on the bus in high school, forces a better focus. Plus I could easily draw arrows and rule marks and circles and boxes if I wanted.

I ended up with pages and pages of notes, and realized that in addition to all the fairly complicated instructions they contained, there were dozens of different usernames and passwords involved. Yes, people like Air's former student Kaliya, organizations like the OpenID Foundation, and companies ranging from Sxip to Automattic to Facebook, Microsoft, and Google have been working at reducing that proliferation of logins. But those efforts have had mixed success, or have raised their own concerns.

So now we have our notebook, to which we'll add as we think of new things it should contain. It also got me thinking again of our digital legacies—specifically, what of my online life (like this blog) I want to endure, and what (like my Windows Live ID or my Apple MobileMe account) can be deleted or shut down. Not all those decisions are clear yet, but at least now Air has a decent reference to have them implemented, or to make them herself if I can't make them with her. That's a relief.

It occurs to me just now that I should make copies of those pages and put them in our safety deposit box, because paper needs backups too.

9 Comments

You are wise to write all this down. It would be a good practice for all of us. Many spouses don't know really crucial information about their family finances either - banking account numbers, investment accounts, policies, deeds, benefits, etc. It really is a gift to organize for someone. In an emergency or time of stress, it can really be a blessing.

Regards,
Angie

It's good that you're doing this, Derek, and it's an important reminder to all of us in this age of information overload. How things have changed in just a few short years. Your post made me think of this recent article in the NYT magazine.

Not to mention, you just crafted a fairly substantial artifact to be left behind. I like the decision to write it out longhand. Would we have cared if we found a .txt file of Devinci's notebooks? It's precisely the handwriting (and little notes or doodles you add to it for surprises) that will make it a thing to be cherished instead of merely a phone book listing of keys to digital locks.

Around 2002 I crafted a 2-page list of critical information to hand to my sister for safekeeping while my wife and I went on a long trip. It included credit card numbers and PINs and passwords for email, online stores, internet service and our home alarm. Every few years I completely rewrite the list, which has grown to 8 pages.

It comes in handy on a regular basis because I cannot remember it all. More importantly it is a huge peace-of-mind artifact. If anything should happen to me, (I am the family computer guy), or to my wife and I, then my wife/siblings will have more power to cancel/control many things that otherwise would have been difficult or impossible to deal with.

We haven't put our wills together yet, but we have vowed to get them done this year. Mostly for the same reasons.

Comic book format? I love it. Not so sure my wife would agree to it, though. Cheers!

Hmm. Sounds like we will one day all need an online version of an executor to deal with our cyber estates.

One of my friends has access to most of my online stuff, but not all. Not a bad idea Derek, 'cause no one could clean up my online estate as things stand now.

Derek,

I have been reading lurking in/on your blog long before you were diagnosed, for computer info mainly because California friends we have in common referred me to your site.

Flash forward several years: I am now in your boat with a different diagnosis but similar expected ending. I too have been recently considering such a compilation of passwords etc, for banking info and many other sites etc because my husband barely knows how to turn on a computer other than to read his email. And I have set up almost all our bills to be paid online.

I have printed a copy of those things for him, tucked a few more in places ( as in attached to my will etc), but I find sometimes it is overwhelming to keep updated as I change passwords often to avoid problems.

Anyway, I wish you the best and want to say I admire you for the way you have approached all your treatments etc. I am not so brave, so just going week by week now but admire your tenacity.

You have many talents but the one I enjoy most is your writing abilities. That helps me in ways you can't imagine.

Thank you for being so open and honest about it.

G

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