Facebook and death: Blurring the line between the real and virtual

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