What happens on Facebook when we die?

Anybody who follows Facebook has probably heard about the user who found it impossible to delete his account; even after he deactivated his profile, it showed up in searches and various Facebook news feeds.

If you can’t get out of Facebook when you’re alive, what happens when you die?

What happens to your Facebook profile when you die?

Sadly, this is not a rhetorical question. I’ve had two Facebook friends—first a colleague (and true friend) and second a former student last month—pass away. Yet their Facebook pages persist, digital ghosts with mini-feeds still growing, updated with the usual nonsense and noise (“Mike joined the group Free David Hasselhoff” and “Barrald Terrence and Will Navidson are now friends”) that fill anybody’s Facebook feeds.

In fact, in the second case, I only found out about my student’s death from a terse, surreal update to her profile by a family member, which then showed up in my Facebook news feed. Her Facebook profile has since become a kind of memorial, with dozens of friends writing their goodbyes on her “wall.”

In the first case, nobody has written on my friend’s wall in the six months since he died, though he was loved and respected by hundreds of people across the country. I suspect the difference between my student and my friend’s post-mortem Facebook activity is generational; digital mourning, at least in a consumer-oriented space like Facebook, is considered insensitive or insincere by anyone over the age of 30. And so my friend’s profile is eerily silent, his feed simply stating with no irony that he “has no recent activity.”

I imagine that eventually Web 2.0 will catch up with real life and incorporate grieving into its ecological landscape. Maybe this will be the beta version of Web 3.0.

I don’t know which is creepier: a Facebook engine that doesn’t know when we die and carries on as if we hadn’t; or a Facebook engine that somehow taps into public records and newspaper obituaries, detecting when we die, and initiates a sort of prescribed last will and testament profile update, a more tactful 404 error message.

3 thoughts on “What happens on Facebook when we die?”

  1. The Escapist featured a fascinating article by Tom Rhodes on this a little while ago. He talked a bit about how the persistence of online identities creates a sort of online memorial for when their owners have passed. He notes that, in some ways, having the empty avatar (for lack of a better term) may make it easier for family and friends.

    As someone who has, myself, carefully cultivated an online identity, it almost seems fitting. In a way these pages express far more of who that person was then anything anyone else might create.

  2. I just ran across your blog (and this post) as a result of finding you on Twitter search for new media (6 degrees of digital separation).

    What you ask is really a central question of hyperreality – that notion of the copy becoming the real thing (or “the reality of the fake”). See http://hyperreality.alechosterman.com for more references on it if you’d like.

    Our digital documents are very much part of our hyperreal identities. Perhaps in Web 3.0, the machine will have a way to determine if a person is alive or dead based on its amount of use and frequency of updates.

    On the other hand, this sounds like The Matrix meets HAL. Freaky.

  3. A college professor of mine, and FB friend, died about 3 weeks ago. I guess I barely make it into your generation of people who feels the digital grieving is an appropriate use of a deceased persons’ FB profile because I just turned 30.

    Posting to my prof’s wall was a strange experience. I hadn’t really talked to him in years, but he had a strong impact on my life. A friend called and told me about his sudden death and we talked about how strange and sad it was, but it still felt distant to me. Then I went to his FB wall and read all the things people had written about him, to him, and to his family. I looked at the pictures people posted post-mortum. I more fully remembered who he was, and felt like expressing my feelings to him and his friends and family. As I wrote the wall post, I cried about his death for the first time. I appreciated that opportunity to grieve as a community, even though I don’t know and will probably never see most of the people I “shared” that experience with.

Comments are closed.