A friend request I received on Facebook back in 2010 still haunts me today.
Like many friend requests early in Facebook’s history, it was sent by a casual acquaintance from high school. This was also prior to Facebook’s move into mobile, so friend requests had a tendency, at least on my end, to sit for a few days before confirmation.
On that day in 2010, I found myself looking at a friend request from Jarrod, a high school classmate whose profile detailed all of his major life events since graduation, including having a daughter. The friend request lay waiting for me to confirm it, just another in a string of sure-why-not affirmations of casual, online connections that constitutes the social media landscape through which I sleepwalked.
Then I received a text from a high school friend that woke me up. Jarrod had just taken his own life.
The friend request, meanwhile, still demanded my attention. But now, I faced a series of questions: Did I want to be Facebook friends with him? Can I be friends with someone who is no longer alive? Is it rude to decline the friend request now, or is it weirder to accept it?
How Can Social Media Handle Deceased Users?
Social Media Will Have More Dead People Than Living
According to researchers from Oxford University, by 2100, there will be nearly five billion dead people on Facebook if the platform continues its growth trajectory. At the current rate, by the year 2070, dead people will outnumber the living on Facebook. What ramifications will this shift have on social media?
I found myself thinking about the ramifications of this dynamic in 2010. Jarrod had crossed the threshold into this strange category of Facebook’s living dead. Although he was deceased in the real world, online, he was still smiling and actively asking to connect with me.
This experience was jarring on a personal level, and it solidified my belief that social media has an inherent responsibility to consider the myriad ways that it alters our conceptions of communication, friendship and perhaps even death itself. The “social” part of social media is a delicate dance, as life is filled with tragedies just as with moments of joy and whimsy.
In the real world, we all live by personal moral codes that shape our actions. We know that death changes the rules of propriety, and we adjust our behavior to ensure we don’t offend others or stir up uncomfortable emotions. We know when it’s okay to bring up someone’s death and when it would be hurtful or jarring. But when our offline moral codes meet the computer code of a social media platform, strange things happen.
One such strange thing occurred to web consultant Eric Meyer because of Facebook’s inaugural year in review feature in late 2014. Meyer’s automated slideshow featured pictures of his six-year-old daughter, Rebecca. The problem? She had died of brain cancer that year, so seeing pictures of his recently deceased daughter created pain, not pleasure.
“To show me Rebecca’s face and say, ‘Here’s what your year looked like!’ is jarring,” wrote Meyer. “It feels wrong, and coming from an actual person, it would be wrong. Coming from code, it’s just unfortunate.”
How can we design social media to better manage the complex, nuanced relationship between the living and the dead? How can we develop social media to better understand the complexities of communication and the emotional impact of seeing certain photos?
As Meyer said, “I didn’t go looking for grief this afternoon, but it found me anyway, and I have designers and programmers to thank for it.”
Facebook has spent the past few years setting up rules for memorialized accounts, which put the word “Remembering” by a deceased person’s account. This format may also allow a legacy contact to pin a tribute, change the profile photo, and accept new friend requests. Learning from past issues when its code-without-context sent ill-timed reminders of death to Facebook’s living users, memorialized accounts are not featured in birthday reminders or People You May Know recommendations.
What Happens to Your Social Media Accounts After You Pass?
One of the reasons why there are so many lingering accounts featuring the deceased is that people don’t commonly consider what will happen to their digital assets after they pass away. People can easily conceptualize that their ownership of a house or piece of land will outlive them and that real estate is transferable through a will. In fact, a defined legal process of transferability exists for real estate even if we don’t have a will.
But what about our social media accounts? What do we want to happen to our Instagram, Twitter and TikTok accounts after we die? We typically discuss what we want to happen to our bodies, but what about our bodies of work online?
Facebook gives two main options to its community. Users can either assign a legacy contact to run their accounts post-death, or they can choose to have their account automatically deleted once the company is properly notified of their passing.
Startups, sensing that the desire for control over one’s digital assets is going to grow in importance in the coming years, have been developing methods of simplifying the process of sharing passwords, memorializing accounts, and even setting up some timed, post-death messages to be sent to loved ones or perhaps the entire Twitterverse. Goodtrust is one such startup, having recently raised $2.3 million in seed funding for its “secure digital legacy platform for your websites, social media, online accounts, documents and last goodbyes.”
Improving Social Media for Death Will Involve a Multifaceted Approach
Discussing our own mortality is uncommon in Western culture, and having our social media accounts be more permanent than we are can be unsettling. Who cares what happens to our social media accounts when we’re dead, anyway? We’ll be dead!
In truth, most of us care deeply about our legacies. Now, our social media accounts are intertwined with our legacy. In fact, these accounts may become like our digital gravestones. So, how do we want to be remembered?
Improving social media to accommodate for this shift will entail a mix of education and advocacy. This will require individuals to consider their social media wills, platforms to actively design and plan for legacy accounts, tools for loved ones to assume authority over profiles, and laws that make the process of transferring these digital assets easier. Currently, individuals sometimes have to get court orders or sue a platform in order to gain access to a deceased’s account.
We Need to Think About the Future Now
In 2021, the lines are still blurred between the living and dead online, which creates for a good deal of discomfort, dissonance and confusion. Is someone really dead if they still seem to be alive online? To test this question out, I just visited the Twitter account of the actor Michael K. Williams.
Williams, well known from his work in The Wire, died on September 6th of this year. But, here on his Twitter, we see him paying tribute to his father’s birthday just a month ago by linking to an Instagram post. His Twitter account implies that he can still be booked through his agent, and his Instagram account lets us know that he is in a New York state of mind.
Both accounts are verified, indicating to users some modicum of trustworthiness. But can I trust my own understanding of whether I am interacting with a living individual? That’s where we need actual verification. This would be similar in nature to the bot-or-not problem that plagues social media, where many individuals desire a clear indication of whether they are communicating with a real human.
Looking into our social media future populated by so many deceased people, we should also know if the person we are interacting with online is actually alive.