The grieving process is as universal a feeling we as humans share regardless of religious affiliation or geography. Now more than ever we’re given the ability to reach out and connect in more ways than ever imaginable, thus allowing for interpersonal relationships to be kept for long stretches of time without necessarily having to nurture them thanks to advances in technology. But with the rise of social media and other “forever” portals, it’s becoming harder and harder to say goodbye when a friend/family member passes away and remains digitally embalmed on one’s Facebook friend lists, Twitter timeline and Instagram feed. We’re the first generation of sharers whose lives have played out in tangible footprints and are forced to ask, “What happens to the social media accounts of the deceased?” Is it a blessing that family and friends have a way of always feeling like a happy moment is but a mouse click away, or is the potential for everlasting life in the form of photos and quips something that doesn’t allow people to move on?
Your data is going to outlive you. The question is in what form and for how long?
The Five Stages of Grief
Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first introduced her “five stages of grief model” in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, and was inspired by her work with terminally ill patients. The stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are meant to apply to any catastrophic personal loss besides just death. Are social media channels not properly allowing for the final stage to be resolved?
Jed Brubaker, Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine has been studying “postmortem social networking” for three years. In an interview with Mashable he said, “I think what the really interesting thing is here is that the online social networks we have are radically changing our relationship with death. It used to be your mom told you someone died. Now, with Facebook that guy you knew in kindergarten — you’re connected to him, so when he dies you’ll know. Your generation will have more encounters with death than ever before because we’ll never have lost anyone.”
On one hand, we’ll never truly lose anyone because of social media, but on the other we’re inundated with more macabre details than ever before that prove extra chilling because there will always be a connection. We look at instances of war on the news or gun violence in Chicago with a certain disconnect for the most part, but when “your feed” latches on to a particular death, it’s hard to remove yourself from the situation. Sometimes ignorance is bliss and most times being in the loop can feel like a hangman’s noose.
According to a report done by The Huffington Post, as of 2012 there were an estimated 30 million virtual profiles that had outlived their users. Facebook had already addressed the situation in 2009 when the company introduced a feature to convert profiles of dead friends into official memorial pages. “We believe we have put in effective policies that address the accounts that are left behind by the deceased,” said Fred Wolens, a Facebook spokesman. “When we receive a report that a person on Facebook is deceased, we put the account in a special memorialized state. Certain more sensitive information is removed, and privacy is restricted to friends only. The profile and Wall are left up so that friends and loved ones can make posts in remembrance. If we’re contacted by a close family member with a request to remove the profile entirely, we will honor that request.”
Facebook’s current policy stems from the tragic shooting at Virginia Tech which resulted in 32 people being killed and another 17 wounded. According to USA TODAY, “Facebook officials who planned to remove the pages of students killed at Virginia Tech said Tuesday they would change their policy and allow the pages to remain up indefinitely as virtual memorials. The decision follows online protests and a letter-writing campaign by friends and other members of the social-networking website who heard that the pages were to be removed May 14. The company’s past policy had been to delete profiles after a 30-day freeze on the account.”
It is possible to have pages completely removed but the use of a third party is vital in accomplishing it. In 1986, Congress passed a law forbidding consumer electronic-communications companies from disclosing content without its owner’s consent or a government order like a police investigation. Although that law predates the rise of the commercial Internet, courts and companies have largely interpreted it to mean that the families can’t force companies to let them access the deceased’s data or their accounts. With privacy an ongoing debate, Facebook is eventually going to have to put in place a user-based opt-in/opt-out clause if a person were to pass away. Much like a will tends to a person’s affairs, it’s necessary for people to control the information about themselves should they perish. It seems rather grim for this sort of feature, but it’s the same disconnected reality where news of someone passing receives “likes” as a show of solidarity for a person’s family and friends.
Capitalizing on Grief
The U.S. funeral market is currently estimated to be worth around $20.7 billion annually, with an excess of 2 million funerals taking place each year. Thus, it should come as no surprise that “digital legacy management” is a growing field in which entrepreneurs can preserve a person’s life without necessarily having to secure a final resting place.
In their own words, “If i die is the first and only Facebook application that enables you to create a video or text message that will only be published after you die.” Boasting 200,000 users in over 42 countries, the app works like this: After installing the app, you leave your message. It may be in video or text format, and it’s possible to either record a message or upload a ready video. You then choose friends to be your Trustees, which are in charge of reporting your passing away, thus triggering your final message to be published (it should be noted that it takes three trustees to confirm a person’s death). Eran Alfonta, founder of Willook and creator of If i die said, “Leaving a legacy was a privilege kept only for kings and emperors, philosophers and artists. We don’t know anything about billions of people who died until the 20th century, and we practically are going to know EVERYTHING about the generations to come. This is why it is important that people will shape and design their own digital legacy, and as we say in Willook, ‘Be remembered the way YOU want to be remembered.’” While Alfonta readily admits that people looked at he and his staff like they were crazy when they first explored the notion of “leaving a digital legacy,” he’s adamant that his work is an important one and helps with the “acceptance” part of Kübler-Ross’s grief model. “I would say that we are using technology and social networks to fulfill one of humanity’s most basic needs – dealing with one’s own death. Our customers are recording messages to their families before they fly and travel, others are building a long-term legacy document, and updating it occasionally. Some are new parents, while others are 60-70ish, newly exposed to Facebook, and seeking to tell their life stories to their grandchildren. So in that regards, we are giving people accessibility to the ‘acceptance’ part of grief, in a way they never had before.”
“Your generation will have more encounters with death than ever before because we’ll never have lost anyone.”
Data Never Dies
In a piece for ReadWrite in 2012, writer Bernard Meisler asked the question, “Why are dead people liking stuff on Facebook?” and offered as the lead, “Last month, while wasting a few moments on Facebook, my pal Brendan O’Malley was surprised to see that his old friend Alex Gomez had ‘liked’ Discover. This was surprising not only because Alex hated mega-corporations but even more so because Alex had passed away six months earlier.”
It’s no secret that corporations use social media as a means to move products and promote endeavors, so the notion of “phantom liking” isn’t so much a strange phenomenon unto itself, but the idea that these companies see more value in the “user” than the actual person is quite alarming. Meisler continued, “Friends of mine [were] showing up as ‘liking’ things that I know they don’t like, such as liberals ‘liking’ Mitt Romney and a guy with no car who ‘liked’ Subaru.” Without the proper notifications regarding a person’s death, advertisers will continue to add consumerism as one of the stage of grief.
“There aren’t really any norms around death and social media yet. People are kind of making it up as they go along,” says Jed Brubaker. “But what’s known is that this Facebook generation will have more experiences with death than any generation before it. Because anyone you ever knew, people who have naturally faded from your life, will remain there and you will stumble into them and realize they are dead.”
That’s the new bottom line.