Cease and Deceased: What Happens When Mourners Hijack Your Facebook Profile

Two researchers at the University of Toronto—Profeessor Rhonda McEwen and Librarian Kathleen Scheaffer—have completed a study on the methods and consequences of mourning on Facebook.

The two surveyed “nearly 20” Facebook users who have had a loved one die since 2008, and bolstered their study with interviews, and comparisons between Facebook mourning and traditional public grieving such as newspaper obituaries.

Facebook’s policy for memorialized deceased users has been in place since 2007, but the U of T researchers found some concerning side effects to public grieving that have not been addressed by the social media company. Chief among them is what they perceive as a problem of altered identity; if a person’s Facebook profile is their carefully curated expression of self, then the added or augmented continuance of that profile could threaten to alter the self-expression.

Imagine that you died, and your mom went onto your Facebook profile and deleted all the photos of you shotgunning Coors with glow sticks encircling your nipples during freshman year at college. The researchers appear to be arguing that those debaucherous photos told an important part of the story of who you were, and their removal would be disingenuous.

The researchers also found evidence of loved ones showboating on Facebook profiles, competing with their fellow mourners over who loved the deceased the most. They argue that this bickering could negatively impact the legacy left by the deceased.

To combat these issues, the study makes three recommendations for Facebook’s “memorializing procedure”:

1. Offer “digital estate options” to determine who can control the profile postmortem.

2. Lock a dead person’s account, and automatically delete it after 50 years.

3. Enable Facebook friends the same access to the page, respecting the privacy filters. Disable direct messaging to prevent shenanigans. Remove the profile from search. Enable loved ones to create memorial pages.

Not surprisingly, i have my own thoughts about the researchers’ recommendations. The first is that, especially when it comes to young people, death doesn’t factor in to most people’s social media strategy. It’s often a complete surprise. If you were told you had an hour to modify your own Facebook profile before you die, you may very well remove your own frosh week photos to save Mom the effort. Facebook profiles are not generally presented as the way we want to be remembered; we compose them to project the way we want to be viewed in the here and now. Those are two very different intents.

i’m not on-side with deleting accounts of the dead. i would be absolutely fascinated to read through my great-great grandfather’s diary, to see pictures of who he hung out with and to get a glimpse of what life was like for him back then. Maybe i could even discover what type of beer he shotgunned during his frosh week, and what they used to encircle their nipples in the 1800’s in lieu of glow sticks? That diary does not exist, and more’s the pity. But if it did, i certainly wouldn’t be okay with policy dictating that it disintegrate after 50 years.

With Facebook and the rest of the records we’re creating online, we’re leaving a juicy, searchable legacy that will put us as close together in time as the Internet has put us together in space. This stuff is (and should be) forever, kids. Please post accordingly.