Sunday, December 20, 2009

Online obituary guestbooks

With the recent death of someone close to me, I discovered the industry of online obituary guestbooks. The industry seems at once disgusting and emotionally manipulative. Upon cursory inspection, one might also infer a network of payments between these guestbooks, online newspapers, and the "comfort industry" (flowers, giftbaskets, etc.), which makes it that much more uncomfortable, given the links between these sites. (The links below are not people I know -- they were selected for illustration purposes). is one of these services. They collect guest comments for a period of time, after which they request that family or friends pay to have access to the book. Conveniently (for them), they're linked off of some online news obituaries such as our very own I don't know whether they pay these news sites, though I suspect they do.

The guestbook remains online for some period of time (a month?). Once this period has passed, Friends and family can pay $2.95 for access for a day. This fee is called an archive activation fee, suggesting that it must be expensive to host gigabytes of text and photos.

Or you can keep the guest book online indefinitely for only $79.99.

These services become especially attractive to families once people have left comments on the service; how could you let positive comments about your loved one disappear?
By doing this, you'll be giving the loved ones of Marilyn Ann Wrobleski a place to express their feelings, and share memories any time they'd like in the months and years ahead.
Well, why not host our own guest book with these comments? Oh, snap -- the terms of use suggests that you cannot reproduce these comments on your own site:
"You may not, for example, incorporate the information, content, or other material in any database, compilation, archive or cache. You may not modify, copy, distribute, re-publish, transmit, display, perform, reproduce, publish, reuse, resell, license, create derivative works from, transfer, or sell any information, content, material, software, products or services obtained from this Site, except as specifically noted above."
These sources also provide links for you to buy flowers or gift baskets for your loved one. No question they're generating revenue through affiliate payments, by inspection of the links: I've changed "legacygift" to "legacygift2" in the link so we don't earn the site any more money than it deserves.

At least we know that's site is guaranteed to host our guestbook indefinitely, even after is gone:
"Subject to its suspension, cancellation, and termination rights and rights to remove Material,, Inc. represents that each Guest Book and Moving Tribute sponsored as "permanent" will remain on this Site for the duration of, Inc.’s existence, and that each Guest Book sponsored as "one year" will remain on this Site for one year from the date of sponsorship ..."
Well, okay. For a year. Oh, wait, maybe not even that:
"unless: (a) this Site ceases to exist in whole or in part during the relevant period ..."

In some sense, I'm happy that there exists some service like this; they are providing a service to families and friends of loved ones. At the same time, it treads an uncomfortable ground, because this service seems poised to exploit people at their most vulnerable periods, and their fees seem rather high, given the limited scope of services they provide and the rather prohibitory terms of use, when affiliate payments alone (through flowers, etc.) are probably enough to cover the costs.

"Show Us the E-Mail"

A compelling op-ed by Eliot Spitzer, Frank Partnoy, and William Black appeared in today's NYTimes.

"By [making emails and models related to AIG's counterparties publicly available] online, the government could establish a new form of “open source” investigation."

One argument is that the US is an 80% shareholder -- we should have the shareholder power to compel AIG to make decisions such as this.

An argument against this which I didn't see in the article: perhaps making such emails public, we would hurt AIG, and ultimately ourselves, since it might still be teetering on the edge of collapse. In this case we might be keeping our holding in AIG shares afloat by keeping this information private. But, on the other hand, we also might be missing out on opportunities to claw-back undeserved bonuses or payouts to AIG counterparties.