We invest so much time and effort in developing our online social network presence that we rarely pause to consider what will happen when the inevitable happens to us. A study called Death and the Social Network: The Persistence of Social Identity suggests that as many as 30 million accounts on Facebook may belong to dead people.
The study’s author, PhD candidate, Jed Brubaker, is looking at how we handle death in social media networks, essentially an environment that allows us to live on forever.
The question is of more than just academic value. Without the login and password to a dead person’s account on a social network, their profile remains visible. The presence of the deceased in a social network, through their profiles, is a highly emotive issue for their friends and families who continue to be active online and who may still see their profiles.
There are several ways to handle this, and each has significant consequences for our advanced, digital culture.
Activating the Grieving Process
People die all the time, of course. But somehow a dead person’s profile on Facebook appears to be a far more personal reminder of who they were than any traditional memory. For a start, there is no apparent way to mark a profile as ‘Deceased’. Sometimes friends, or even new contacts, leave a message on that person’s wall just as when they were alive.
In many ways, the social network profile of a dead person is as active as when they were alive. Twitter, with its less personal feel, is the perfect example. Dead profiles there continue to be followed. A Twitter account can have significant activity as they receive 140-character messages from those they interacted with in the past.
Social networks with a more personal level of interaction, such as Facebook, are an entirely different matter.
Facebook’s programming is a connective one rather than a Twitter-like broadcast channel. People who visit a dead friend’s or relative’s profile are also broadcasting that profile to the Facebook feed, expanding its reach and inviting interactivity. Facebook is not insensitive to the need for privacy for the dead. It has a special form for accounts which belong to a deceased and another special form for accounts which relatives are okay with keeping up as a memorial but do not want to have their activity made public. Requesting for an account to be memorialized make it frozen in time. No one can log in or out. The only people who can leave messages of remembrance on the profile are friends and family of the deceased.
You may wonder here why would anyone want to let a deceased person’s social network account be kept online for eternity. The answer is complicated. We all grieve in different ways. A social network account captures many moments of a person’s life, along with interactions in a way which few other mediums can. Surviving friends find it difficult to unfriend someone they knew who has passed. They usually keep visiting the account on birthdays and anniversaries.
Visiting someone’s profile, re-reading their past posts and interactions makes it easier to pay respect to their memory. A recent study predicts that by the year 2015 there will be over 50 million dead people’s profiles on Facebook alone.
There is a strong possibility that wills in the future will have specific clauses asking for online profile data so that the person making the will can bequeath logins and passwords to social media accounts.
Once again, social media is exerting its influence to change how we interact not just with the living but also with the dead.