Some Day, the Dead Will Rule Facebook

How social media changes our relationship to the deceased

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

In November 2016, a Facebook glitch occurred that labeled wide swaths of living users as deceased. Even Mark Zuckerberg’s account seemed to be affected. The banner at the top of his profile page read, “Remembering Mark Zuckerberg: We hope people who love Mark will find comfort in the things others share to remember and celebrate his life.” It was estimated that over two million accounts were impacted. After some tongue-in-cheek ridicule on Twitter, Facebook profusely apologized, fixed the glitch, and the world promptly moved on.

Humans have never been good at dealing with death. When the topic comes up, the conversation is usually forced. We all take a get-through-it mindset, barely acknowledging the subject, let alone working through how we as a society should honor our dead, especially in a digital world.

Facebook, to some surprise, is one of the few tech platforms that have acknowledged and implemented some tools for handling the death of a user. Any Facebook user can set up a legacy contact for their account. When that Facebook user dies, that account will be transferred to their legacy contact. In addition, after verification, the deceased user’s account can be memorialized, causing a banner to appear on that account marking it as so, and removing it from public recommendations and searches.

Earlier in 2016, Brandon Ambrosino, writing for the BBC, states that, “By 2012, just eight years after the platform was launched, 30 million users with Facebook accounts had died. That number has only gone up since. Some stimates claim more than 8,000 Facebook users die each day.” Some estimate that number to be even higher, putting the number of dead Facebook accounts today roughly at 52 million this year, and in less than a century the living could be outnumbered by the dead. Kristen V. Brown, writing for Splinter, zeroed in on when exactly this could happen. A liberal estimate puts it some where in the 2060s while the most conservative estimate puts it in the 2130s.

The point being that imagining a world where Facebook becomes more digital graveyard than anything else is not that far off.

Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

What’s the value in reliving what’s lost?

The often accepted resolution to grief is moving on, but in an age where whole lives are lived online, how can we?

Bill Bischoff, writing for MarketWatch, estimates that, “the sad truth is that most of us — some 70% of adult Americans — have neglected to write a will.” Truly emblematic of our unwillingness to confront our untimely demise. We prefer to think of ourselves as immortal, in some sense we are.

Brandon Ambrosino, in that same article for the BBC, continues “We might think of our public social media record as some type of digital soul: those perusing my Facebook know my religious beliefs, my political reservations, my love for my partner, my literary tastes. Were I to die tomorrow, my digital soul would continue to exist.”

We often rage against being tracked by mega-corporations, while simultaneously spilling are lives onto those platforms, often in search of acceptance or validation. Most of the time, we are the ones tracking our peers, continuously scrolling passed innocuous updates that act has a window into each other’s lives, and without Facebook’s signifier, we wouldn’t know if that profile you are currently looking at is still rocking their earthly coil.

It eerily reminds of that idea that every single person you interact with online is a bot except you. The same could apply here, but in this scenario, they are all dead.

What we do know is that the grieving process is subjective. No conclusive evidence exists that using Facebook frequently decreases face-to-face interaction, but there seems to be some indicators that Facebook can amplify feelings of loneliness, especially after the loss of a loved one.

Remembering those lost is important but the value of escaping from normal life to a cemetery or graveyard or memorial to honor the dead is exactly that. An escape. A private occasion. A way to let go. All things that are becoming harder and harder to come by in this modern day and age. It’s hard to imagine the permanence of an online memorial bringing long-term value to those grieving.

Maybe, what’s required is a digital funeral. I can imagine Facebook being squeamish at the thought of assuming that responsibility, but just maybe the profile is still emblazoned with the “Remembering” banner and all friends of the profile are invited to share for a time. Facebook even creates a video for the deceased in the vein of its anniversary-style videos. Close family members can write words that are featured prominently, and then after a certain amount of time, the full profile is deleted. Full stop. A digital gravestone would take its place, something clean and simple, with an epitaph preferably of the deceased’s choosing.

What a world that would be.

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