March 15, 2009 in City

Untimely deaths leave online groups in limbo

Peter Svensson Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Melissa Spangenberg looks at a “World of Warcraft” Web page in New York on Feb. 1.
(Full-size photo)

NEW YORK – When Jerald Spangenberg collapsed and died in the middle of a quest in an online game, his daughter embarked on a quest of her own: to let her father’s gaming friends know that he hadn’t just decided to desert them.

It wasn’t easy, because she didn’t have her father’s “World of Warcraft” password and the game’s publisher couldn’t help her. Eventually, Melissa Allen Spangenberg reached her father’s friends by asking around online for the “guild” he belonged to.

One of them, Chuck Pagoria in Morgantown, Ky., heard about Spangenberg’s death three weeks later. Pagoria had put his absence down to an argument among the gamers that night.

“I figured he probably just needed some time to cool off,” Pagoria said. “I was kind of extremely shocked and blown away when I heard the reason that he hadn’t been back. Nobody had any way of finding this out.”

With online social networks becoming ever more important in our lives, they’re also becoming an important element in our deaths. There’s even a tiny industry that has sprung up to help people wrap up their online contacts after their deaths.

When Robert Bryant’s father died last year, he left his son a little black USB flash drive in a drawer in his home office in Lawton, Okla. The drive contained a list of contacts for his son to notify, including the administrator of an online group he had been in.

David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, has had plenty of time to think about the issue.

“I work in the world’s largest medical center, and what you see here every day is people showing up in ambulances who didn’t expect that just five minutes earlier,” he said. “If you suddenly die or go into a coma, there can be a lot of things that are only in your head in terms of where things are stored, where your passwords are.”

He set up a site called Deathswitch, where people can set up e-mails that will be sent out automatically if they don’t check in at intervals they specify, like once a week. For $20 per year, members can create up to 30 e-mails with attachments like video files.

If Deathswitch sounds macabre, there’s an alternative site: Slightly Morbid. It also sends e-mail when a member dies, but doesn’t rely on them logging in periodically. Instead, members give friends or family the information needed to log in to the site and start the notification process if something should happen.

A third site with a similar concept plans to launch in April. Legacy Locker will require a copy of a death certificate before releasing information.

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