The prevalence of social media has created plenty of problems – from piracy to addiction – but there’s one problem no one considered when these social media sites spiked in popularity: that the accounts might outlive their creators.
If you’re active on social media, you may also need to appoint a digital heir in your will – someone who will be in charge of managing your web presence after your death. Gmail became the first to create an option for “Inactive Account Managers” in 2013.
Facebook calls its own post-humus account appointment program “legacy contact” – someone you decide to leave in control of your online “legacy.” Your legacy contact can change your profile and header pictures, accept friend requests, and pin content to the top of your page. However, they cannot read your direct messages or delete content already on your profile. You can also only appoint one legacy contact and the position is non-transferrable, meaning if he or she doesn’t step up to the job, having someone else take over isn’t an option.
Now, you may be thinking that people’s concern over who will run their Facebook page when they die is a bit ridiculous. I’ll admit, that was my gut reaction. I mean, don’t you people have anything more important to worry about?
But then I thought about my own experiences with Facebook and death.
Right now there are over 30 million Facebook profiles belonging to people who have passed away. My dad’s is one of them.
I won’t get into the initial pain and discomfort that I went through whenever I would see my dad’s Facebook page shortly after he died, but suffice it to say it’s not an experience I wish for anyone. I went through a lot of conflicting feelings about the page, from wanting to keep it, to wanting to delete it, to wanting to keep it but not have to see it. Ultimately though I had no idea what you were supposed to do about someone on Facebook dying, so in the end I did nothing, deciding I’d rather avoid the whole issue. The page is still there.
Before the legacy contact program, users could contact Facebook to request that a deceased person’s profile page become “memorialized.” After Facebook confirmed the death of the person, they would lock the account and put the word “Remembering” before the person’s name, turning the page into a virtual memorial ground for the person. But if you didn’t know about this service – like I didn’t until today – your dead friend’s Facebook page will go on just as before.
I guess none of my dad’s old Facebook friends knew about the memorializing option either, because there’s no “remembering” in front of his name as I look at the page for the first time in years. For an account that should be inactive, there’s certainly a lot to take in, and the content ranges from touching to disturbing. First, my dad was big on Facebook games, so there’s a lot of automatically generated app content. (I guess Farmville is still a thing.) Next, I see several people have posted to his wall or tagged him in posts, reminiscing about their time together. This seems to fit what I imagine a “memorialized” page should be. Then, it gets disturbing. A couple people have posted happy birthday messages that lead me to believe they don’t know the guy they’re talking to isn’t around anymore.
I’m still sorting out how I feel about all of this, but it’s definitely worthwhile to look into how we deal with grief on social media. Maybe the presence of a lost loved one’s Facebook profile creeps you out, and you’d rather delete the account or avoid it completely. Maybe you’ll revisit their page over and over again because it makes you feel connected to them. Maybe you’ll look just once in a while to see what other people post on their wall and be comforted by a sense of community. Maybe you’ll want all of these things all at once. Everybody learns to deal with grief in their own way, which means everybody will have to learn to deal with digital death in their own way, too.