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I’ve occasionally wondered what happens to a person’s facebook account when they die. I suppose it’s up to family members and friends to deactivate the account–that is, if they know the password. Or maybe you contact the some administrator at facebook? Is there a helpline or help desk for that sort of situation? Mostly, when this has crossed my mind, I think of how painful it would be for friends and families to have this reminder of all the details of someone’s life, moment by moment, especially if the user was very active on Facebook. I know that some people begin to use the person’s wall as a memorial, but that can only go on for so long, right?
These questions are the subject of a front page New York Times article from this weekend, “As Facebook Users Die, Ghosts Reach Out.” Jenna Wortham reports:
“Facebook, the world’s biggest social network, knows a lot about its roughly 500 million members. Its software is quick to offer helpful nudges about things like imminent birthdays and friends you have not contacted in a while. But the company has had trouble automating the task of figuring out when one of its users has died. That can lead to some disturbing or just plain weird moments for Facebook users as the site keeps on shuffling a dead friend through its social algorithms.”
Apparently, one such “weird moment” that occurs rather often has to do with the Facebook feature on your homepage that suggest that you “get in touch” with a friend you haven’t interacted with in a while–it’s counts as a weird moment when that friend has say, died three months ago. Or even eight or nine. In the article, people are debating whether someone’s Facebook profile–in the aftermath of their death–is comforting (to a point) or a terribly painful reminder. Then, there is the memorial question:
“Following the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, members begged the company to allow them to commemorate the victims. Now member profiles can be “memorialized,” or converted into tribute pages that are stripped of some personal information and no longer appear in search results. Grieving friends can still post messages on those pages.”
The official rule on death at Facebook? To deactivate or memorialize an account, a friend or relative must provide proof of death:
“To memorialize a profile, a family member or friend must fill out a form on the site and provide proof of the death, like a link to an obituary or news article, which a staff member at Facebook will then review. But this option is not well publicized, so many profiles of dead members never are converted to tribute pages. Those people continue to appear on other members’ pages as friend suggestions, or in features like the “reconnect” box, which has been spooking the living since it was introduced last October.”
Sounds kind of awful–having to provide Facebook proof of death information. But I suppose, what else can they do? They can’t just hand out passwords to deactivate accounts. Or turn user’s profiles into memorials if they happen to still be alive–that would be a pretty terrible practical joke. Either way, I don’t need ghosts trying to reconnect with me.

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