In June, Jillian York began to notice that her father's Facebook profile, which had been dormant for some time, began "liking" things again. This didn't make much sense, as her father had died four years earlier.
York notified Facebook of her father's death and the odd online behavior in an effort to investigate. After confirming her suspicion that the account had been hacked, Facebook told her that the profile would have to either be "memorialized" or deleted. Access or changes to the account would no longer be possible. She was shocked: What began as a request for technical assistance had brought an abrupt end to the way her family had been using social media to mourn her father.
According to a cached copy retrieved via the Internet Archive from the end of May, Facebook's Help section used to read: "We'll memorialize the Facebook account of a deceased person when we receive a valid request." Given that wording, it's easy to understand why someone might think that memorializing a profile was optional. The text has since been changed to read: "If Facebook is made aware that a person has passed away, it's our policy to memorialize the account." It's a quiet update that illustrates the challenges Facebook faces in communicating its strategy for ensuring the harmonious coexistence of its users—both living and dead.
There are several (sometimes competing) factors involved in striking this delicate balance. On the one hand, Facebook wants to ensure dormant accounts don't become targets for hackers, as was the case with York's father. On the other hand, some people use Facebook profiles as a way to mourn, sharing messages of love and grief with the deceased person's Facebook friends. With a memorialized account, this is no longer an option. The memorialized account fixes other things, though—you won't get birthday reminders for the deceased person, or see their profile pop up under "People You May Know," which many people found upsetting. Until fairly recently, though, the one factor that wasn't being taken into account was the wishes of the decedent.
According to Vanessa Callison-Burch, the Facebook product manager for the feature, memorialized profiles have been around since 2007 (she's been working on them for close to two years). The company originally erred on the side of discretion: Profiles of the deceased would be deleted after 30 days. Then, after the Virginia Tech shootings, parents of some of the students killed created petitions asking Facebook to not delete their memorialized profiles—a request that the company honored. Facebook created the memorialization option, which originally reverted the profiles to friends-only and contact information and status updates would be removed in order to "protect the deceased's privacy."
Callison-Burch's first big change to the feature was implemented about 18 months ago. Rather than defaulting to friends-only, the memorialized profiles would inherit the last privacy and audience settings the user had while alive. This was done after examining user feedback that showed many people who weren't Facebook friends with the deceased would be distressed at being shut out from a previously more public profile.
It's tricky to decide what should happen to a Facebook profile in death, in part because there's so much personal information on Facebook. Callison-Burch told me that when she's examining product enhancements for memorialized profiles, she rejects thinking of them as strictly digital assets: "This is a really important part of people's identity and it's a community space. Your Facebook account is incredibly personalized. It's a place for people to assemble and celebrate your life. So as we were designing this, it wasn't a model of, 'I'm going to give my account to someone else.' It was that there are certain things that that community of people really need to be supported in that we at Facebook can't make the judgment call on."
Someone's Facebook is a representation of their personhood and to 'mess' with it after they have died is somehow a betrayal. – Heather Servaty-Seib
In a February presentation, Callison-Burch gave an example of one of these judgment calls that the company often gets asked to make: in this case, an elderly father who had heard that his dead son's friends were sharing memories on his son's profile. He started a Facebook account in order to see and read them, but couldn't because the profile's privacy settings were friends-only. Another example was a mom who wanted to change her daughter's profile picture to the something less fleeting than the image of a fish that she'd chosen before unexpectedly dying. For the vast majority of memorialized accounts, even seemingly simple requests like these are turned down because the company has no way of knowing for sure what the decedent would have wanted—no matter how sincere the anguish of the person asking.
According to Heather Servaty-Seib, a Purdue University professor who researches adolescent grief and social support, Facebook is right to be cautious in allowing changes to people's profiles after they die. Through her conversations with grieving people, she found that Facebook profiles were considered in many ways autobiographical: "Someone's Facebook is a representation of their personhood and to 'mess' with it after they have died is somehow a betrayal; it somehow messes with how the individual person chose and wished to represent themselves to the world."
Servaty-Seib has also heard stories of parents that decided to delete information the deceased wanted shared but which they didn't like—things like images of alcohol consumption or being open about being gay. Granting outright control of an account has consequences—like one mother, who creepily posted from her dead son's profile, "Thank you to whoever put the flowers on my grave."
Watch: What Happens to a Family When Their Child Is Struggling With Severe Mental Illness?
Facebook's first step in trying to remedy this came this past February with the introduction of legacy contacts. This was the first time that users themselves could give Facebook some guidance on what to do in the event of their death. Previously, next of kin would be allowed to notify Facebook of a user's death and decide whether to memorialize or delete the account altogether, but this could only be done after the fact. A legacy contact is selected by the user while alive and can perform certain functions on a memorialized account; they can also download someone's data if the deceased pre-selected that option. Finally, users are now given the option to direct Facebook to delete their profiles upon notification of their death.
In cases where a legacy contact has been chosen, both of the requests mentioned by Callison-Burch can be accommodated in a way that is mindful of the wishes of the deceased. Now, a trusted third party can approve a new friend request by the distraught father or get the mother's input on a different profile image. The person can also add a pinned update on the decedent's profile as a way of signaling their presence.
This unique approach came from more than just examining user feedback: Callison-Burch also consulted a network of hospice staff that she knew, as well as the research of Jed Brubaker—a PhD candidate with extensive research on how people interact with the dead on social media.
Screenshot from Facebook.com
One change that also occurred in February that was informed by this research was the addition of the word "Remembering" above the names of all users with memorialized profiles going back to 2007. Brubaker's research found that people will flock to someone's Facebook profile upon hearing of their death, often unsure if what they've heard is true and wanting confirm. Other times, they want to find out the cause of death or information on services. Subtle changes like the "Remembering" banner give people ways to grieve while also not altering the profile it often took a person years to build.
Facebook hasn't made exact numbers public, but in her presentation, Callison-Burch said that "hundreds of thousands" of people had assigned legacy contacts in the first two weeks after the option became available to users in the US and Canada. When taken as a percentage of the 160 million or so daily active users in these countries, it's a drop in the bucket. For the families of people like York's father, who died many years ago, the Legacy Contact option isn't available at all.
Given the initial numbers, it's safe to say legacy contacts probably haven't yet achieved universal acceptance—but neither have the memorialized profiles in general. When I queried the members of a grief support group about how they incorporated visits to the profiles of dead loved ones, a few people told me it was helpful to their grieving process. These people hadn't reported their loved ones' Facebook profiles as belonging to someone who had died. In York's case, this was primarily due to not wanting to relinquish control to Facebook—even though no changes were being made to the account.
For Servaty-Seib, the most important thing that Facebook can do for the bereaved is offer flexibility in the face of what are very distinct approaches to grief. "All people grieve in unique ways. We would like to believe that it moves in stages or that there are clear steps that are universal, but the research just does not bear that out—neither does clinical work with grieving people." She gave me an example of a woman who would hide her sister's posts about their dead father "because that is not the way that she needed to grieve." Other tools on Facebook, like Groups and Pages that can be set up to memorialize someone in ways specific to a group of people, are designed to help people grieve in their own ways.
What might the future hold for the dead on Facebook? When I spoke with Callison-Burch, I offered a recommendation of my own: Give users the ability to create an advance directive. Rather than assuming the user's last settings on their memorialized profile, give people the opportunity to decide what should be done with their profile—who should be able to see it, who should be able to send friend requests, and even what kind of profile picture or banner image the person would want displayed after death. We could let people design their post-mortem Facebook profile much like commissioning their own gravestone.
Will Facebook adopt my suggestions? We'll see. For her part, Callison-Burch says legacy contacts are "just the beginning."
Follow Simon Davis on Twitter.