How To Die On Facebook

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The New York Times reports on a phenomenon that is becoming more and more common as the average age of Facebook users rises: those times when an algorithm prompts you to reach out and connect with someone who is no longer alive.

Facebook says it has been grappling with how to handle the ghosts in its machine but acknowledges that it has not found a good solution.

“It’s a very sensitive topic,” said Meredith Chin, a company spokeswoman, “and, of course, seeing deceased friends pop up can be painful.” Given the site’s size, “and people passing away every day, we’re never going to be perfect at catching it,” she added.

This phenomenon is not limited to baby boomers and older.  Reading the article became quite eerie when I suddenly remembered that I also have a deceased Facebook friend.  Facebook does have a method of dealing with profiles of those who have died, though it needs improving.

At the moment, a dead person’s profile will sit unchanged (that is, unless the person’s survivors have their passwords), and it will continue to show up in the profiles and home pages of that profile’s friends.  The deceased’s survivors can either have the page removed, or “memorialize” it, which requires them to fill out this form, and include a link to an obituary or news article as proof of the person’s death.

What?  Oh, of course this has been abused.

A friend of Simon Thulbourn, a software engineer living in Germany, found an obituary that mentioned someone with a similar name and submitted it to Facebook last October as evidence that Mr. Thulbourn was dead. He was soon locked out of his own page.

Thulbourn eventually had to create a website, turn to Twitter, and get some tech blog attention before Facebook resurrected his profile.

There are a number of obvious ways in which Facebook could improve this feature, but it probably starts simply with making sure that users are aware of it.

The memorializing process has other quirks. Memorial profiles cannot add new friends, so if parents joined the site after a child died, they would not have permission to see all the messages and photos shared by the child’s friends.

Sending out a verification e-mail to the user of any profile nominated for memorialization, giving them X number of days to respond before they are locked out, would also probably be good.  But ultimately, with 350,000 users per employee, automation is the name of the game.

Ms. Chin said Facebook was considering using software that would scan for repeated postings of phrases like “Rest in peace” or “I miss you” on a person’s page and then dispatch a human to investigate that account.

“We are testing ways to implement software to address this,” she said. “But we can’t get it wrong. We have to do it correctly.”

No kidding.  But this uncertainty of how to handle death in secure or anonymous online spaces is not limited to Facebook, or even to social networking sites.  Geekosystem contacted a certified Elder Law attorney (specializing in estate planning and administration, among other things) , and she told us that:

The internet has has helped us locate heirs at less cost in time and research, but I worry that as people rely on the internet more and more as a storage space, bank, etc., the law will not be able to keep up with the new entities.

Of particular concern to her were “assets that are inaccessible because passwords to on line accounts are not known by the survivors,” and the ease of online identity theft once the real owner of the identity is no longer around to notice.

Makes me wonder who I should leave my World of Warcraft account password too… and how.  What if my authenticator is destroyed in the accident that kills me? The internet: it’s complicated… and serious business.

Read the entire New York Times article here.

(via Techmeme.)

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Susana Polo
Susana Polo thought she'd get her Creative Writing degree from Oberlin, work a crap job, and fake it until she made it into comics. Instead she stumbled into a great job: founding and running this very website (she's Editor at Large now, very fancy). She's spoken at events like Geek Girl Con, New York Comic Con, and Comic Book City Con, wants to get a Batwoman tattoo and write a graphic novel, and one of her canine teeth is in backwards.