My grandmother’s birthday was on Monday, and Facebook encouraged me to celebrate by posting a greeting to her wall, or virtually sending a birthday gift. Trouble is, my grandma is dead.
Our lives are increasingly being monitored on social media. We’re inclined to share life’s biggest moments—births, graduations, engagements, and deaths of loved ones. But what happens when we die?
Yes, it’s a macabre thought. However many of us have experienced the passing of a loved one who lives on thanks to the memories and moments shared on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Lives are digitally saved to the Internet, and the years spent posting status updates are now a fixed timeline reminding loved ones that we do—or did—exist.
Managing Life After Death
It’s an impossible question to answer, and an even harder one to ask. What do you do with an account when someone is no longer around to manage it?
Facebook tries to address the issue by memorializing accounts that other users report as belonging to a deceased individual.
After the Virginia Tech massacre, a school shooting that resulted in 32 deaths in April 2007, Facebook changed its policy to indefinitely memorialize users who had passed away, as opposed to deleting their accounts. Friends and family of those killed protested Facebook’s 30-day memorialization policy, and, in response, the company allowed profiles to remain on the site indefinitely.
Facebook has no way of knowing which profiles belong deceased individuals, so friends and family can request to memorialize an account so no one can ever log into it, and loved ones can share memories through wall posts and messages.
Twitter’s policy is a bit different. Twitter lets immediate family or representatives request to have the account deactivated. Since Twitter isn’t as intimate as Facebook, “memorializing” an account would go no further than leaving the timeline as-is.
See also: Should I Unfollow Roger Ebert?
When Roger Ebert, renowned film critic and journalist, died last year, his tweets did not cease to exist. His wife, Chaz, took up tweeting on behalf of the Hollywood legend and continued to maintain his blog, even reviewing movies as Ebert would. But as a public figure who had amassed a large number of followers, the decision to unfollow him weighed heavy on Twitter users everywhere. Do we continue to follow the tweets of our beloved critic?
Ebert had coordinated with his editor before he died, allowing him to have access to his social media account and continue to post at his behest. So even though Ebert would no longer man his account, his thoughts and beliefs were still shared with friends and followers in a non-cryptic way.
Of course, friends and loved ones can also choose to take over their loved ones' accounts. However, I'll admit I was a little perturbed when, on one occasion, I saw my grandmother's profile had "Liked" an image on my Facebook. I am not sure who was managing her profile but they clearly thought maintaining her Facebook was a way of celebrating her life. And if that’s the way people choose to grieve, I support it—but just let me know first.
For users who personally want to keep tweeting after death, there are services that can help. To make sure your words live after you do, DeadSocial lets users set secret, timed messages that are distributed by a designated executor on Facebook and Twitter after the person has died.
An Open Dialogue
“Most of the time, people are using [social media] not for the dead; it’s for the living,” Dr. Elizabeth Cohen, an assistant professor at West Virgina University told me. “It’s a comforting thing—there’s still some life in the account.”
Facebook enables people to visibly see how others are connected and are grieving. It allows people to commiserate, thus creating a support system for those who have suffered loss.
Courtney Seiter, a community manager at Raven Tools in Nashville, Tennessee, said Facebook helped her and other friends process emotion after two friends passed away. At first she was startled to see wall posts from friends who had died, because the messages were full of raw grief.
“It felt like witnessing an intensely private moment that I maybe shouldn't be seeing,” she said in an email interview with ReadWrite. “But sharing helps people process their feelings and make sense of what's happening around them, so it's not an unhealthy practice - just a new way of doing what we've always done to process emotion.”
Your Data Never Dies, It Just Might Disappear
In 2012, Bernard Meisler reminded us all that while a person might stop sharing data with a service, the company still owns it. A dark realization prompted Meisler to ask the question, “Why are dead people liking stuff on Facebook?”
Understandably, if Facebook or Twitter don’t know a person has died, the company will continue using their information to make money.
Social media is a vehicle for companies to sell products through ads—whether it’s “Selena Likes [Company]” on Facebook or “@selenalarson follows [company]” on Twitter. It could be shocking to see a friend who passed away show up in an advertisement online. But it’s a blatant reminder of the information these networks collect and how it continues to be used in ways that extend beyond connecting with friends and family.
“We don’t control our information on social networking sites as much as we would like to believe,” Dr. Cohen said.
This begs the question: What happens to all this data social networks are controlling once they disappear?
MySpace users suffered such a blow last year when the website deleted its users’ blogs. People had been dedicating time and energy uploading personal narratives to MySpace, only to have the company eliminate all of their content.
Facebook lets users download all their data to a personal archive through general account settings, making sure everything they post can be saved. But when someone passes away, they obviously no longer have the ability to do so themselves, and if the account is memorialized, no one else can do it either.
Dr. Cohen suggests periodically saving everything, pictures especially, to your computer or flash drive. In case Facebook goes the way of MySpace, people will be able to access the content they’ve spent years aggregating on the site.
However, for those using social networks as coping mechanisms, the threat of data being deleted could be discomforting.
“How would I feel if Facebook decided to quit?” Dr. Cohen posited. “I think that would be very disturbing for some people who really are [using social media] to cope with their loss.”
Happy Birthday, Grandma
Because I’m friends with only a couple of family members on Facebook, it wasn’t just a little present notification that I saw, but also well-wishers saying how much they missed my grandmother. It was nice to see these moments pop up in my timeline, albeit surrounded by shameless selfies and sports news.
I started thinking about what I would want to happen with my digital life when I die (which hopefully isn't anytime soon). While its weird to think about being memorialized on social media, in a way, I think it’s just an online extension of behaviors we’ve been practicing for ages.
So by all means, friends, keep tagging me in those ridiculous photos. Just make sure you let Facebook know when I’m dead so I can’t advertise from beyond the grave.