Life and Death and Facebook

Posted: March 30, 2014 in Family and Friends, Technology
Tags: , , ,

For many of us our online life has a social center on Facebook. We search on Google, get our news on CNN or some other news site, but we connect, no matter how shallowly on Facebook. I started my Facebook profile several years ago just as a high school reunion was approaching. Many of my Facebook friends are family members (I have a large family) and people I went to high school with. Although I’m not close friends with many of these people I’m connected in some way to all of them and care about them. Some of my Facebook friends are very active and I’ve come to appreciate their humor, their outlook on life, or in some cases their seemingly ceaseless energy. I’ve seen pictures of their families, seen the bursts of activity and emotion when there is a “change in relationship status” whether it is a good or bad change, the activity generally goes up.

Birthday wishes are another way we acknowledge Facebook friends. When I’m active on Facebook, which isn’t always, I’m usually on top of those messages. Even if you haven’t seen some of these people for years and may never see them again, it is nice to acknowledge the connection to them and appreciation of them. The other day I noticed a birthday announcement for an old high school acquaintance. This was different though. I remember the guy from high school but I don’t think I have seen him since. I had seen his posts and knew he was a big fan of the Iowa Hawkeyes (I can understand that) and had sensible but conservative political views. What I also knew is that he had passed away more than a year earlier. So instead of simply wishing him Happy Birthday in the little box so helpfully provided by Facebook, I went to his wall to post a message of remembrance. What I found surprised me. There were over 150 birthday wishes on his wall. Although there were some messages of remembrance, many of the messages clearly were from people who did not know he was no longer with us. I’m sure most of these people knew him from his posts on Facebook that they saw in their “News Stream” and since there was no news of his passing for most of them, they didn’t know.

I’m not blaming any of his friends for not knowing he had passed away. This is just the shallow way we stay connected on Facebook. We let an ever-changing bit of code Facebook has created decide what news from who and about who is important to us and we rarely visit the actual walls of our friends. If you interact with people Facebook increases the number of posts by them in your news feed, if you don’t interact with them then you won’t see their posts. A death is even harder to find out about. Only if you have a common friend, and that friend posts something about the passing will you find out on Facebook. If Facebook is your only connection to that person, then you will not know!

Facebook may have billions to spend on a company that makes virtual reality glasses, but apparently they haven’t put a lot of thought into what should happen when someone on Facebook dies. Facebook has about 1.26 billion users, in fact a lot of Facebook statistics are available here, but one was missing – the number of Facebook users that die every year. I understand that this is an unhappy statistic, an unhappy event, and that most people don’t want to think about it, but it happens. In fact with 1.26 billion users it likely happens to millions of Facebook users every year. Although the average death rate is 1 in 113 people per year I would imagine that for now the demographics for Facebook are different from the general population, but I would still estimate there are millions of deaths among Facebook users every year.

Facebook has started to try to deal with this by creating a Memorialization Request page in their help system. So if you search for help on what to do about the death of a friend you have the ability to take some action. But I don’t think this is enough. This doesn’t give any control to a Facebook user about what happens to their account upon their death. It doesn’t even provide any options to the family and friends of the person except to request memorialization or do nothing. So what happens when you memorialize an account? Below is a screen capture of the current Facebook Policy for memorialized accounts. It can also be found here.

Facebook Policy for a Memorialized Account

So basically when you die control of your Facebook profile belongs to Facebook. Up to your death you control it, but if you die you are given no options about what happens to your account. I think Facebook can do much better than this.

At a minimum Facebook users should be able given options about what happens to their account. At a minimum a user should have one of three options:

– to have their account memorialized
– to have their account removed from Facebook immediately
– to have their account memorialized but removed after some specified time.

If a user chooses to memorialize their account, they should have the option to modify their preferences for several settings after their death. For example they may want to change their preference for people posting on their wall, the privacy settings of some or all of their posts, and other privacy settings. Some people may choose to relax their policy, or tighten it, or limit it to a smaller group. The current policy gives users no option to change their current settings. Of course someone would have to report the user’s death to Facebook to initiate these user selected options. Facebook may know about everything you do while logged in to Facebook, but at least they don’t know when your heart stops beating (yet).

I think Facebook is a terrific website. It is evolving everyday, I hope they will spend some of their development cycles working on this issue. I’m sure they can meet and exceed my expectations with a fraction of their development budget. I also think that the friends and family of everyone who passes away will appreciate that Facebook cared enough to give them control of their public legacy after their death.


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