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What to do with a Facebook account when someone dies.

Posted on Monday 19th July 2010 by louise

When my mom’s old friend died a few months back it seemed that in those weeks surrounding her death Facebook continuously suggested that I become friends with her – I found it eerie that it had never happened before and now that she was dead she was there almost every day on Facebook smiling away at me suggesing I become her friend!

In truth I liked it, it reminded me of her and reminded me of what her kids were going through, reminded me to drop them an email and see how they were getting on, (and also to call my own mom to tell her I loved her). However in time she sort of faded away from Facebook. 

Having read the New York Times article (from the Connecting Directors  blog)  today that addresses this issue, I decided to see what had happened to her account . It is in fact, still live. I wondered if her family knew what to do with it and this got me thinking what I’d want my family to do with my own account.  Personally, I’d like my account to be left up, then my friends and family can still message me and look at all my old photos and shenanigans – Maybe they’ll be wireless in heaven so I can plug in and have a read – Id like to think so :o

So what do you do when a family member dies? Maybe you just want to leave things as they are in the land of social network… but  did you know that you can memorialize a Facebook profile:

Here’s how – We’ve taken the information direct from Facebook

Please report this information here so that we can memorialize this person’s account. Memorializing the account removes certain more sensitive information like status updates and restricts profile access to confirmed friends only. Please note that in order to protect the privacy of the deceased user, we cannot provide login information for the account to anyone. We do honour requests from close family members to close the account completely.

 Removing the account:
Immediate family members may request the removal of a loved one’s account. This will completely remove the account from Facebook so that no one can view it. We will not restore the account or provide information on its content unless required by law. If you are requesting a removal and are not an immediate family member of the deceased, your request will not be processed, but the account will be memorialized.

What would you like to happen with your own Facebook account? Does anyone have your login details so they could access it if needs be and how comfortable would to feel if you saw your recently deceased best friend pop up to reconnect with you? or do you feel that facebook is for the living and online memorials best left to websites such as MuchLoved

The New York Times article below addresses the issues.

As Facebook Users Die, Ghosts Reach Out

Courtney Purvin got a shock when she visited Facebook last month. The site was suggesting that she get back in touch with an old family friend who played piano at her wedding four years ago.

The friend had died in April.

“It kind of freaked me out a bit,” she said. “It was like he was coming back from the dead.”

Facebook, the world’s biggest social network, knows a lot about its roughly 500 million members. Its software is quick to offer helpful nudges about things like imminent birthdays and friends you have not contacted in a while. But the company has had trouble automating the task of figuring out when one of its users has died.

That can lead to some disturbing or just plain weird moments for Facebook users as the site keeps on shuffling a dead friend through its social algorithms.

Facebook says it has been grappling with how to handle the ghosts in its machine but acknowledges that it has not found a good solution.

“It’s a very sensitive topic,” said Meredith Chin, a company spokeswoman, “and, of course, seeing deceased friends pop up can be painful.” Given the site’s size, “and people passing away every day, we’re never going to be perfect at catching it,” she added.

James E. Katz, a professor of communications at Rutgers University, said the company was experiencing “a coming-of-age problem.”

“So many of Facebook’s early users were young, and death was rare and unduly tragic,” Mr. Katz said.

Now, people over 65 are adopting Facebook at a faster pace than any other age group, with 6.5 million signing up in May alone, three times as many as in May 2009, according to the research firm comScore. People over 65, of course, also have the country’s highest mortality rate, so the problem is only going to get worse.

Tamu Townsend, a 37-year-old technical writer in Montreal, said she regularly received prompts to connect with acquaintances and friends who had died.

“Sometimes it’s quite comforting when their faces show up,” Ms. Townsend said. “But at some point it doesn’t become comforting to see that. The service is telling you to reconnect with someone you can’t. If it’s someone that has passed away recently enough, it smarts.”

Ms. Purvin, a 36-year-old teacher living in Plano, Tex., said that after she got over the initial jolt of seeing her friend’s face, she was happy for the reminder.

“It made me start talking about him and thinking about him, so that was good,” she said. “But it was definitely a little creepy.”

Facebook’s approach to the deaths of its users has evolved over time. Early on it would immediately erase the profile of anyone it learned had died.

Ms. Chin says Facebook now recognizes the importance of finding an appropriate way to preserve those pages as a place where the mourning process can be shared online.

Following the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, members begged the company to allow them to commemorate the victims. Now member profiles can be “memorialized,” or converted into tribute pages that are stripped of some personal information and no longer appear in search results. Grieving friends can still post messages on those pages.

Of course, the company still needs to determine whether a user is, in fact, dead. But with a ratio of roughly 350,000 members to every Facebook employee, the company must find ways to let its members and its computers do much of that work.

For a site the size of Facebook, automation is “key to social media success,” said Josh Bernoff, an analyst at Forrester Research and co-author of “Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies.”

“The way to make this work in cases where machines can’t make decisions is to tap into the members,” he said, pointing to Facebook’s buttons that allow users to flag material they find inappropriate. “One way to automate the ‘Is he dead’ problem is to have a place where people can report it.”

That’s just what Facebook does. To memorialize a profile, a family member or friend must fill out a form on the site and provide proof of the death, like a link to an obituary or news article, which a staff member at Facebook will then review.

But this option is not well publicized, so many profiles of dead members never are converted to tribute pages. Those people continue to appear on other members’ pages as friend suggestions, or in features like the “reconnect” box, which has been spooking the living since it was introduced last October.

Ms. Chin said Facebook was considering using software that would scan for repeated postings of phrases like “Rest in peace” or “I miss you” on a person’s page and then dispatch a human to investigate that account.

“We are testing ways to implement software to address this,” she said. “But we can’t get it wrong. We have to do it correctly.”

The scanning approach could invite pranks — as the notification form already has. A friend of Simon Thulbourn, a software engineer living in Germany, found an obituary that mentioned someone with a similar name and submitted it to Facebook last October as evidence that Mr. Thulbourn was dead. He was soon locked out of his own page.

“When I first ‘died,’ I went looking around Facebook’s help pages, but alas, they don’t seem to have a ‘I’m not really dead, could I have my account back please?’ section, so I opted for filling in every form on their Web site,” Mr. Thulbourn said by e-mail.

When that didn’t work, Mr. Thulbourn created a Web page and posted about it on Twitter until news of the mix-up began to spread on technology blogs and the company took notice. He received an apology from Facebook and got his account back.

The memorializing process has other quirks. Memorial profiles cannot add new friends, so if parents joined the site after a child died, they would not have permission to see all the messages and photos shared by the child’s friends.

These are issues that Facebook no doubt wishes it could avoid entirely. But death, of course, is unavoidable, and so Facebook must find a way to integrate it into the social experience online.

“They don’t want to be the bearer of bad tidings, but yet they are the keeper of those living memories,” Mr. Katz, the Rutgers professor, said. “That’s a real downer for a company that wants to be known for social connections and good news.”



Your Comments

There are 5 responses to “What to do with a Facebook account when someone dies.”

  1. Tuesday 20th July 2010 at 7:53 am
    Charles Cowling says:

    This is very detailed and helpful. Thanks a lot, Louise. I guess it’ll go on evolving — but I like that last observation: Facebook wants to be all things bright and beautiful, and is embarrassed by death — even by its new oldie demographic.

    I’d have thought that FB is good for a transitional phase, and the memorial is best settled ‘for ever’ at a specialist online site like the excellent and, in my opinion, unbeatable

    Passwords, passwords!! Fast becoming one of the most important and crucial pieces of info we leave behind if we want those we leave to have any chance of winding up our affairs!

    Nice research, Louise. More than a blog post: a resource.

    • Thursday 4th August 2011 at 8:21 pm
      Ellen says:

      It’s wodrenful to have you on our side, haha!

  2. Tuesday 20th July 2010 at 4:10 pm
    Sandy says:

    Really good article and something to think about!

  3. Wednesday 18th August 2010 at 9:52 pm
    R.Brian Burkhardt says:

    Thanks for posting this,the more folks posting on the facebook memorial the more informed the world will become on digital death and dying.

  4. Wednesday 15th September 2010 at 12:17 pm
    rolfen says:

    I think Facebook should implement a “will” section in their privacy settings (they may use another, less suggestive name) where the user can choose what should be done with his information and profile in the case where he is incapacitated, either temporarily or permanently.
    He should be able to select a list of users who can declare him deceased, whether they will need to provide official documentation, a list of users who can access his personal information (and which parts), and what should be done with the profile (frozen, kept, maybe deleted…)
    This is the ideas I came up with after 15 minutes of thinking, so I think it can be perfected further.

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