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Summary:

When a friend or loved one dies, their online identity often continues for some time after their death, thanks to Facebook and Twitter and other networks. Is being reminded of them every time we sign into those services a good thing or a bad thing?

As the dividing line between our online and offline lives continues to fade, more and more of what happens in the “real” world is also seeping into the online world — and that includes death. So how should we deal with it when our friends or loved ones die? I started thinking about this recently when I decided to live-tweet a friend’s funeral (something that many people felt was inappropriate), and it was reinforced for me when I saw the same friend’s face pop up in my Facebook chat list, and even saw updates in my stream from his page. What is the appropriate response when this happens? Is it a sign of how creepy social networks can be in such situations, or is it just part of what living our lives online means now?

I confess that when I first saw my friend Michael’s face appear in my chat list, I was taken aback — and more than a little disturbed by it. It was a couple of weeks after his funeral, and so the memory of his death had faded to some extent, and his smiling picture felt like a rude reminder. It reminded me of web articles I had seen about how (or whether) to delete deceased friends or family members from Facebook’s social graph, and at first I thought about doing that.

But then I thought about how difficult it had been deleting another friend’s contact information from my cellphone after he died (this was before Facebook had become popular) and how it felt like I was deliberately forgetting about that person, which didn’t feel right.

How social do we want death to be?

It occurred to me that we often keep photos of loved ones in our wallets or in picture frames on our mantelpieces, as a way of remembering them after they are gone. I have pictures of my father, who died more than a decade ago now, as part of a random photo slideshow that comes up on a spare computer and on the television for the same reason. So why does it feel so different when we see that person’s avatar pop up in our Facebook feed or a chat window? Perhaps because social media is inherently about communication — and in most cases real-time communication — and that person can no longer be communicated with.

Facebook has a process whereby a person’s page can be “memorialized,” or turned into a kind of static page as a tribute to them, where friends and loved ones can post and see messages posted by others but access is restricted and it doesn’t show up in recommended lists (you can ask the social network to do this by filling out a form). In many cases, particularly when young users die in some violent or tragic way, their friends turn the page into a memorial quite quickly — and of course journalists then often show up asking for comments or photos, which brings up a host of other questions about what’s appropriate.

But if the page belongs to someone who hasn’t really been a public figure, and didn’t die in any kind of newsworthy way, then it falls into a kind of grey area. Do you maintain the page? Mothball it? Eventually delete it? In the case of my friend Michael, who was a fairly prominent user of social media in his job as a marketing professional in Toronto (one of the reasons I believed he wouldn’t mind my live-tweeting his funeral), his family chose to keep the page alive — and has even posted messages to him as though he was still around, which I find heart-warming in an odd way.

When real death meets virtual death

And Facebook is just one part of the equation when it comes to handling a person’s social media after they die. What about their Twitter account, or their Tumblr account, or even their email? When my father-in-law died, the family was confronted with a dilemma because he and his wife had shared an account that used both of their names — so when an email came in from my mother-in-law, his name showed up in the address field as well, which was somewhat uncomfortable. But changing email addresses is not easy.

There are also issues around who owns a user’s social content after they die: does Facebook own that person’s page and status updates and photos, and if so what duty do they have to provide it to family members? What about iTunes? Twitter is less of an issue because no one can get access to their tweets anyway, even if they are alive (unless they make a special request, as Andy Carvin of NPR did for his tweets during the Arab Spring). But what about Flickr photos or Pinterest pages? It’s still a somewhat unexplored region of our online lives at this point.

But for me, the more interesting aspect is how we look at all of those pages and tweets and photos and avatars. Are they a welcome reminder of that person and how we used to fit into their lives, or are they a cruel joke played on the living because they seem to promise a level of interaction that we will never be able to have again? Perhaps they are both — and perhaps it is too much to ask that our virtual worlds be any more comfortable around death than our offline ones are.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Chad McDonald

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  1. Facebook was a social source of horror when our daughter found out that a 15-year-old boy she had grown up with had died in a snowmobile accident, mere hours after the accident happened, almost simultaneous with when immediate family were notified. It happened so fast and was so out of the blue that we thought it might be a youthful hoax. But then Facebook soon became a huge source of comfort and emotional release for friends and family who turned the young man’s page into an amazing multi-media tribute to his short life, posting photos, poems, video, even paintings memorializing him while consoling each other. Because we live in a small, hyper-social community, I think it was a given that everyone in our town benefited in some way from the virtual grieving process.

    1. Thanks for that, Nathan — our kids have experienced similar things, and I feel like the social aspect of that grief-sharing definitely outweighs the negative aspects, although I guess some others might disagree. It’s fascinating to watch in a strange way.

    2. I’m with Nathan. The first feeling is shock when the news arrives online and not word-of-mouth as we’re used to. It’s like reading deeply personal things in highly public places.

      But when that first sensation passes, we’ve seen the outpouring of grief and also great memories. It becomes a better memorial to the deceased than a the funeral service and it lasts longer. I suspect we’ll reach a point where we’ll wonder, “How did we grieve before the Web?” Sounds strange today but that day is coming.

  2. In the last couple years facebook has made it possible for me and some friends to have a couple monuments built, paid for by donations. One was for the author of the famous tune “take me out to the ball game” and one for Toto from the Wizard of Oz who’s grave site was destroyed to build a freeway. Go check them out, we are very proud of them and hope that facebook is around for a very long time. – JP Myers

    https://www.facebook.com/pages/Jack-Norworth-Memorial-Marker/118727941506682

    https://www.facebook.com/pages/Toto-Canine-Movie-Star-Memorial-Marker/122059101185330

  3. I brought up a question recently at a conference on why social networks don’t have status related to such events. That is, there are no cues in Facebook to notify the algorithms that such an event has happened such as a death because, of course, the person to mark the event has passed on. So special pages are available to let Facebook know, but this is quite awkward isn’t it? Is there also no way to mark less devastating events such as “I got sick” or “I don’t like this”. In general much of the cues if not all revolve around “liking” even if that liking means “I don’t like.”

    The algorithms should be able to tell that someone died especially in the event that their wall starts to appear like a virtual funeral which has happened to 3 of my Facebook friends in the last 2 months. It was striking at how Facebook continued to recommend I invite them to events, even though the data stream said otherwise.

    I think a more complete social experience would encompass the full range of emotions and feelings other than “like”. I wonder when and how that will evolve!

    Hi Nathan!

  4. I wrote about this situation in my family recently (https://simplyread.wordpress.com/2012/02/22/digital-legacy-a-must-have-in-our-emergency-plans).

    In the research for that – and through an interview on CBC Radio One in Canada that popped up nearby in time – I learned that there’s even a group of people working to address some of these issues: http://www.deathanddigitallegacy.com.

    Fascinating, compelling stuff on so many levels, as others have noted here. Major implications for how we now communicate about and handle this major, taboo- and emotion-fraught event.

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