Seattle startup Lalo is latest ‘death tech’ innovator, with an app to share and collect stories and more

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Juan Medina first considered the idea for his new startup back in 2003, after the death of his father, when his wife asked him to tell a story about his dad and Medina realized he hadn’t known him all that well. Stories, jokes, recipes and more were either lost or scattered across various friends and family, Medina said.

The idea resurfaced in the last couple years as Medina’s own daughter, now 9, said she never really met her grandparents. Medina decided to launch his startup Lalo — also his dad’s nickname — with the mission of giving people a private, digital space to connect, share stories and hold on to precious memories.

Currently operating as a small, private beta, Lalo is an app that facilitates the collection of digital content such as images, video, voice, text and more. Away from the noise and common pitfalls of traditional social media platforms, groups are intentionally kept small to foster increased trust and privacy. Imagine family members gathering to collect the best recipes in one space or share images that might have been lost to an unseen photo album.

“It’s a space to capture those more important family memories, the Sunday phone call from the grandkids to the grandparents where they can say, ‘Grandpa, tell me about a time … ,’  Medina said.

Lalo plans to make money by charging $25 a year for a subscription to the ad-free app, with multiple people being able to have access to a space for that price. Medina said the idea is optimized for smaller groups of 10 to 15 people and over-biased on privacy.

“You’re not going to get pinged by your middle-school friend, like, ‘Hey, join my account,’” he said.

Medina is also working on securing the permanence of the data, potentially with a blockchain solution or other ways to archive the material for the long, digital haul. He views his competitors as traditional social media such as Facebook where people are trading images and stories today, or more story-focused offerings such StoryCorps on NPR, or StoryWorth.

The idea brushes up against the wave of innovation falling into the “death tech” category, where startups are reimagining everything around traditional end-of-life and funeral industry practices with ideas involving body composting, cremation services and casket purchases.

Lalo users don’t have to focus on a recent or impending loss of a loved one, but Medina does believe the app can be a helpful tool in the grieving process.

Before trying his hand at his own startup, Medina spent a little over eight years at Amazon working on assorted tech, building things from scratch and understanding how to build things quickly. The decision to leave and start Lalo came with some apprehension.

“I’m married, I have a daughter, we have a mortgage. Walking away from that steady income that I’ve had my whole life was scary,” Medina said. “But it’s been amazing. I’ve loved it. It’s been great doing what I love, something I’m passionate about.”

And interest from different angel investors as well as funding from Lalo’s first institutional investor has eased some concerns about the long-term viability of the idea. Columbus, Ohio-based VC firm Overlooked Ventures announced earlier this month that Lalo was its first investment, and founding partner Janine Sickmeyer wrote of the startup, “No amount of technology can ease the pain of losing someone you love, but having better ways to grieve can help people cope and stay connected to mourn the loss together.”

Medina didn’t share how much money Lalo raised in pre-seed funding. The company incorporated at the end of 2020 and got moving in March after Medina left Amazon.

Lalo currently employs eight people and was among 30 startups selected for Washington Technology Industry Association’s sixth Founder Cohort Program, announced in August. The plan is to come out of beta in early 2022.

Complete Article HERE!

Four things you might not know about your digital afterlife

What happens to your data after you die?

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1 Your digital footprint will one day become your digital remains

If a complete stranger were granted access to every scrap of recorded information about you that exists in the world, would they be able to stand up at your funeral and deliver a personal, moving eulogy that captured the essence of you? Thanks to the modern digital world, the likely answer is yes.

If you’re not active on social media, you might think that you’d be leaving behind very little in the way of a meaningful or personally telling digital legacy. Social media, however, are merely the tip of the little toe when it comes to our digital footprints. Anyone who has access to your devices and accounts after you die – including all the material you never intended to share – could tell quite a lot about you.

Formerly ephemeral communications are now comprehensively stored in searchable, time- and date-stamped emails and message threads. Once untrackable movements are logged by our smartphones, smartwatches, and facial recognition technologies in public spaces. Internet of Things (IoT) devices like video doorbells and virtual assistants are filling our homes.

And our internal desires, thoughts, and feelings can be discerned by innumerable others through our search histories, websites we’ve visited, and the documents and photos we store in cloud accounts and our data-storage devices.

Little wonder that the algorithms seem to know us better than we know ourselves – in this hyperconnected and electronically surveilled world, we are constantly feeding them our data.

A 2019 survey found that 1 in 4 people in the UK want all of these data to be removed from the internet when they die, but no legal or practical mechanisms exist for this to occur. There is no magical switch that is thrown, no virtual worms that traverse the internet nibbling away all traces of us when we die.

Physical death does not equal digital death. Our personal data is simply too voluminous, spread too far and wide throughout the digital world, and too under the control of innumerable third parties to simply call it back home to ‘bury’ it.

2 Social media are becoming digital cemeteries

Dedicated digital cemeteries do exist, the oldest being The World Wide Cemetery, founded in 1995, where people can still visit online graves and leave virtual flowers and tributes. Memorial gardens are dotted around the virtual world Second Life.

Many funeral homes now offer online condolence books, and some physical cemeteries even feature graves with digital components such as video screens or QR codes affixed to traditional headstones. Scores of digital legacy companies appear regularly, often going out of business shortly thereafter.

None of these digital cemeteries can hold a memorial candle, though, to the platforms that never intended to become online places of rest in the first place: sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Facebook has been memorialising profiles in one form or another since the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, after which users pleaded with the site not to delete profiles that had become memorials for the lost.

Scholars at the Oxford Internet Institute have estimated that the number of deceased users on Facebook could be as high as 4.9 billion by 2100. The dead are also mounting up on Instagram, which also memorialises profiles, and Twitter may follow suit. In November 2019, Twitter cancelled an imminent inactive-account cull in response to an outcry from bereaved people who feared the loss of their deceased loved ones’ Twitter feeds.

Social media companies may be actively trying to work out what to do about the data of the deceased on their servers, but dead people’s information is all over the internet, across all sorts of websites and apps. Many – perhaps even most – of the entities that manage our data are not planning well for the end from the beginning, so information can stick around online for an indeterminate period of time.

We should never assume, however, that online is forever. Disappearance of online data is inevitable through deliberate culls, accidental data loss, and companies going bust.

3 People are struggling to make plans for their digital legacies

It’s not only organisations that are flummoxed by what to do about digital legacies. It’s us, the people who are accumulating them. Less than half of adults in the UK have made a traditional will, and far fewer have considered what will happen to their digital one.

In the Digital Legacy Association’s 2017 Digital Death Survey, 83 per cent of respondents had made no plans at all for their digital legacies. A handful of people – 15.2 per cent – had made their wishes known for their Facebook accounts using the Legacy Contact feature. Legacy Contact allows you to appoint a trusted person to manage your memorialised account after you die, and you can also stipulate if you want the account deleted.

Whether instructions left on Legacy Contact or any other online platform would hold up in UK courts, however, is another matter. As in many realms of modern life, this is an area where laws and regulations are not keeping pace with technology. GDPR and the UK’s Data Protection Act 2018 don’t comment on what should happen to the digitally stored information of the dead, who are no longer entitled to data protection.

Service providers are understandably reluctant to hand over account contents or access to next of kin, especially when that’s likely to compromise other (living) people’s privacy.

Laws governing wills and probate don’t help much either when it comes to digital material. To bequeath something to someone in the UK it has to be tangible or valuable, and your social media profiles might not be judged to be either. In addition, you can’t pass on what you don’t actually own in the first place.

You do not own your social media profiles. Even if you’d like to, you cannot pass on an iTunes or Kindle library, since you have only purchased a license to watch, listen or read while you’re alive. The vast majority of your online accounts and their contents are non-transferable: one account, one user.

It may be a while before coherent, enforceable systems are instituted to govern what should happen to the data of the deceased. Until then, the companies to whom we entrust our data when we’re alive largely decide what happens to it upon death and who can access it.

In this legal and regulatory void, we can only make arrangements as best we can. For sentimental and practical material that might be valuable to our loved ones, we need to leave behind instructions for how to access it or – even better – back it up in secure but accessible formats that are not under the control of online service providers. In the not-too-distant future, digital estate planning may be a career all its own, or at least a necessary component of an existing profession.

4 It is impossible to predict how digital legacies will be meaningful to the bereaved

Our expectations that ‘normal’ grief will follow predictable, orderly stages is encouraged by our algorithmic environment. If you type ‘stages of…’ into a search engine, that engine will likely suggestion completion with ‘grief’. If you type ‘grief’, the engine will likely suggest ‘stages of’.

Despite what you and the algorithms might think, however, bereavement is actually incredibly, spectacularly idiosyncratic. Just as every relationship we have in life is unique, each bereavement is particular too. Despite dominating the popular discourse for the latter half of the 20th Century, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ famous grief stages – which were actually based upon qualitative research done with dying people, not bereaved people – boast little empirical support.

Across cultures and millennia, people have continued bonds with their dead in various ways, and we cannot predict what digital artifacts will be important in helping a bereaved person feel a thread of connection to those gone before.

For every person that relies upon a memorialised Facebook profile in their grief, there will be another that wishes it would just disappear. A preserved Twitter profile might be an absolute lifeline to friends, but the family might want it removed, perhaps imagining it’s not important to anyone. There is no rule book for what should and should not be important to someone in grief.

An astonishing and unpredictable variety of digital artifacts have been reported to me as being sentimentally significant to bereaved people. The digital recording of her husband’s heartbeat, stored in iTunes on a widow’s phone. The way that a woman’s brother organised and named his files on his laptop, giving her a window into how he thought and reasoned. A spam email from a woman’s deceased friend whose account was hacked – even though she knew it came from a hacker, she didn’t want to erase it, because it was his name in her inbox. A mother’s search history on her laptop, revealing to her daughter what she was thinking about in the last days of her life.

And finally, Google Street View, haunted by those who are no longer at that address. There is dad, watering the front lawn. There is a fondly remembered pet, peeking out the window of the house. There is grandma, sitting on the porch where she always did, waiting for the school bus to bring her grandchildren home. Even Google Earth is full of ghosts.

Complete Article HERE!

This empathic website helps you think and talk about death

Death is all around us this year. We need tools to help.

By Mark Wilson

It’s been a year of loss. But even seeing the devastation of COVID-19 hasn’t made it any easier to talk about death—and specifically, the possibility of our own deaths and deaths of those we love. Of course, ignoring death doesn’t make its inevitability any less real, during this year or any other.

Life Support is a new website from the London creative studio The Liminal Space, funded by the U.K. government. It’s a resource that proclaims, “Talking about dying won’t make it happen.” And with that premise as a baseline, it lets you explore topics about death and dying from the perspectives of experts, like palliative care doctors and social workers.

The design appears nebulous at first glance, with words floating in hand-drawn bubbles, which pulsate like the rhythm of your own breathing. But looks can be deceiving. What’s really lurking inside this casual space is a sharp curriculum built to answer your lingering questions about death.

As you scroll through the interface, the site offers several potential paths of thought that are probably familiar to most of us, like, “I’m scared to have a painful death” and “I don’t know if I should talk to my child about death.” When you find a question to explore, you swipe for more. That’s when experts come in. Some of their answers appear in blocks of text. Others are actually recorded, with audio you can play back. You might think the audio is a gimmick or unnecessary panache. In fact, I found it quite affecting to hear a doctor offering her own thoughts and advice about death aloud; it creates a level of intimacy that printed words can’t quite capture.

Ten or 20 years ago, a resource like this might have been a pamphlet (and indeed, anyone who frequents hospitals knows that pamphlets are still a mainstay to educate patients on topics of all types). But Life Support makes a convincing argument for how giving someone a bit of agency—like choosing our own questions to be answered, or hearing from doctors with our own ears when we’d like to—makes the information easier to digest.

I doubt there’s any quick resource out there that will ever get people completely comfortable talking or thinking about their own mortality. Religion and the arts have already attempted to tackle this topic for millennia. But Life Support is a solid attempt to ease us into the conversation.

Complete Article HERE!

8 tips for understanding the ‘netiquette’ of death and grief

By Mark Ray

When Carla Sofka’s mother died just before Thanksgiving 2017, Sofka didn’t immediately post the news on social media. She was busy planning the funeral, making travel arrangements and getting an obituary ready for the weekly newspaper in her mother’s community.

“We had 23 hours to get the information to them if we didn’t want it to be 10 days before Mom’s obituary was in the local paper,” said Sofka, a professor of social work at Siena College in Loudonville, New York.

Then the phone rang.

Unbeknownst to Sofka, the funeral home had posted the obituary on its website, and almost immediately a childhood friend had spotted it and shared it on Sofka’s Facebook page.

“The minute that obituary showed up on my feed, people who saw it started posting comments and messages to me,” she said. “I didn’t even know this was going on, because I didn’t know it was there.”

What makes Sofka’s story ironic is that she has been writing and teaching about the impact of technology on grief and dying for decades. She even coined the term “thanatechnology” (“thana-” means death in Greek) in 1997. But in her moment of grief, she never thought to say to the funeral director, “Please don’t post Mom’s obituary on your website until we tell you that we’ve notified the people who need to find out another way.” (By the way, that funeral home now asks families whether posting is okay.)

Lee Poskanzer, CEO of Directive Communication Systems, which helps clients safeguard digital assets in their estates, experienced a more pleasant Facebook surprise in 2010 when he posted news of his mother’s death on Facebook.

“A very close friend of mine, who I would never have thought about calling, actually hopped on a plane and was able to make my mom’s funeral the next day,” he said.

The Social Media Rules Have Changed

As Poskanzer and Sofka’s stories illustrate, digital technologies have changed the rules surrounding grief and dying.

“How does one decipher a uniform approach when our society is using technology in so many diverse ways and each one of us has a different approach to our online presence and our digital footprint?” Poskanzer asked.

Fortunately, experts like Poskanzer and Sofka have begun answering those questions. While the landscape is still shifting, it’s possible to discern some basic rules of “netiquette.”

Here are eight tips about death and social media:

1. Leave the scoops to CNN and Fox News. If you’ve heard about a death but haven’t seen a Facebook post from the next of kin, that could be because family members are still trying to contact people who need to hear the news firsthand. Sofka said a good question to ask yourself is, “Is it your story to tell?”

2. Think before you post. Even when it’s appropriate to share, make sure what you’re sharing is appropriate. Don’t post painful or disturbing information without the family’s consent — and even then consider whether sharing is appropriate. “We may not recognize that we could be harming someone by posting or tweeting or putting a picture on Instagram,” Poskanzer said.

3. Avoid being cryptic. Nuance vanishes in cyberspace. A post that said “I’m praying for the Johnson family at this difficult time” could refer to anything from a death to a job loss to a house fire. “You have to know the poster in order to understand a little bit where they’re coming from,” Poskanzer said. When in doubt, pick up the phone.

4. Remember that news travels fast. When Sofka’s aunt died unexpectedly, she elected not to tell her teenage daughter, who was on vacation in Florida and didn’t know her great aunt well. Unfortunately, cousins began posting stories about the deceased woman on Facebook, so Sofka’s daughter quickly found out and wanted to know what was happening. “I can’t believe I didn’t expect that,” Sofka said.

5. Be patient. “Sometimes people watch how many people like a post or how quickly they acknowledge it,” Sofka said. “Somebody who’s grieving doesn’t have the time or energy to focus on that.” And if you’re on the other side of the situation, consider posting something like Sofka did after her mother’s passing: “I’m overwhelmed by the caring and the kindness of the postings. Please forgive me if I don’t have time to respond right now.”

6. Watch out for problems. Unfortunately, online death notices can attract everything from negative comments to fraudulent GoFundMe campaigns allegedly set up to pay for funeral expenses. “As family members and friends, if we see that, we need to contact the family immediately so somebody can contact GoFundMe,” Poskanzer said.

7. Be helpful — but not too helpful. It’s fine to offer to monitor the family’s online presence for problems, but don’t go too far. Poskanzer recalls a woman whose husband had just passed away. “While she was sitting shiva (mourning in the Jewish tradition), somebody had memorialized the page to her husband’s Facebook,” he said. As a result, the grieving woman no longer had access to the page. Facebook also has information about legacy contacts; people chosen in advance to oversee memorialized accounts.

8. Adjust your response to the situation. Poskanzer lost a friend recently who was very active on social media — to the point of chronicling her cancer battle online — so sending online condolences after she died made sense. On the other hand, Sofka talked with a woman who’s not active on social media and had recently lost her father. “She said, ‘Nobody sent cards; that was the hardest thing for me, because if felt like nobody cared,’” Sofka recalls.

As the rules of netiquette change — funeral selfies, anyone? — perhaps the best rule to follow is the Golden Rule: Blog, post and tweet about others as you would have them blog, post and tweet about you.

Complete Article HERE!