Author Identifier

Derani Dissanayake

Date of Award


Document Type



Edith Cowan University

Degree Name

Master of Science (Computer Science)


School of Science

First Supervisor

Paul Haskell-Dowland

Second Supervisor

Dr David M. Cook


People spend a considerable amount of time and money in collecting digital objects. Nine out of ten Australians have a social media account but 83% of them have not discussed with their family members what should happen to their social media accounts when they die (Steen, D’Alessandro, Graves, Perkins, Genders, Barbera, Shi, McGrath & Davis, 2017). Only 3% of Australians who had a Will included social media accounts in their Wills. People collect digital objects yet little attention is paid to their preservation. 71% of Australians are unaware of what happens to their digital assets when they die (Ibid, 2017). The challenge for future generations lies in the creation of tangible digital artefacts by older people that they leave as a legacy for others (Manchester & Facer, 2015)

The collection of digital objects and digital assets that are valuable, that later will be passed on to future generations, is called a Digital Legacy. Digital objects have a value in terms of money, history, sentiment, and law. Unlike physical objects, digital objects can be stored in multiple locations and preserved in multiple locations. In one sense, this means that digital objects can make one’s legacy seem immortal. However, it is difficult to control this process, especially for those who are left to conclude a deceased person’s affairs. Concerns such as transferability and accessibility are key issues for the executors of digital assets. Other issues pertaining to digital legacies included the gap in Australian digital asset legislation between legacy benefactors and different private companies who trade in social media, cloud storage, and digital device systems.

Despite these challenges, older Australians are often unaware that they leave a Digital Legacy behind. However, less attention has been paid and very little work has been done in relation to the Digital Legacy of older Australians. This research study looked at the factors that are associated with the management of digital legacies of older Australians. This study considered the different ways in which older Australians perceived the value of digital objects, and how their digital content held a value as digital assets beyond their lives.

This study took the form of a mixed methods approach. A total of 32 older Australians who were over 65 years of age formed the basis of the sample population. Data was collected in the form of open ended, semi structured interviews to get a wider understanding to the reasons why digital objects have a perceived lesser value than physical objects. This data was evaluated in comparison with online samples of legacy-related End User Licence Agreements (EULAs) and Terms of Service (ToS).

The study found that whilst older people easily saw the value of physical and tangible objects, they had differing views about the value of objects in the form of digital photos, social media content, digital music, virtual games and online financial services. The study showed that older Australians held differing perceptions of the value of digital objects. It found inconsistencies in the rules and regulations of platforms and services that catered for digital content. The study was able to determine that these inconsistencies had a significant impact upon the perceived value of digital objects. Older Australians found it difficult to value digital objects that (upon their death) were inaccessible. Private companies in control of social media platforms, cloud services, and digital operating systems were regarded as serious constraints to digital knowledge preservation.

The research revealed that older Australians are particularly likely to value digital photographs because they understand the convenience of using digital content in terms of access, storage, and file sharing. The research recognised that beyond the older Australians’ legacies, their family members and heirs found difficulty in managing the ongoing survivability of valued digital assets. Digital Legacies are important because they allow the transfer of knowledge (in digital form) to survive beyond individual owners.

The impact of this research is that there is a growing need for older Australians to actively manage their valued digital objects. Digital assets deserve the same considerations as physical assets. Restrictive practices that prevent asset mobility reduce the perceived value of digital objects. Legislative reform may be the answer to correcting this imbalance. A significant part of this study used the findings to develop a model of comparative judgement to assist in the clearer understanding of perceived values of digital objects.

Digital objects and physical objects are treated differently in terms of legacy management. This study indicates the importance of a restored balance between the two classifications.