Social media sites, so good at chronicling the ins and outs of our lives, have been uniquely terrible at handling their inevitable end.
On Facebook, for instance, a reported death has long stuck friends and family with a static and almost ghostly memorial account—one disconnected from the lives of others even as it continued to display posts from the bereaved and the clueless alike. (For a while, accounts of the deceased sometimes mysteriously continued to “like” things as well.)
Fortunately, that’s starting to change. Today, Facebook is announcing a new feature that lets people choose a representative—a family member, friend, or someone else they trust—to manage their account and data if they pass away. These “legacy contacts,” as Facebook calls them, can effectively maintain the profile as a living memorial to the deceased.
As Facebook explains in its press release, the objective is to give people more control over what happens to their accounts after their deaths and to better support grieving people who have lost a loved one.
Facebooking With The Dead
“One of the most important things we can do when it comes to memorializing someone is to tell stories about who they were, what they meant to you, and therefore what you have lost,” says Jed Brubaker, an “academic collaborator” on Facebook’s legacy contacts project, which is directly related to his doctoral research on digital afterlives at UC Irvine.
See also: How We Die On Social Networks
In my research, people consistently describe the memories posted about the deceased, and the ability to share their own, as one of the most powerful aspects of memorialized profiles. However, sometimes people find these profiles uncomfortable. They don’t know how to act.
Ideally, Facebook “legacy contacts” will ensure that memorial profiles remain just that. These caretakers will have the ability to change profile and cover photos, accept new friend requests, and post messages that they can pin to the top of the deceased person’s timeline—a useful way, for instance, to ask for obituary details or announce the time and place of a memorial service.
See also: How We Talk About Death On Social Media
You can also explicitly allow a legacy contact to download an archive of your Facebook profile and timeline after your passing. Legacy contacts, however, won’t be able to log in as you, and won’t have access to your direct messages.
Of course, no one has to choose a legacy contact. And if you’d rather not leave a digital legacy at all, Facebook will now also let you request deletion of your account and associated personal information upon your death.
Reporting a death to Facebook remains the same. Someone who knows the deceased person can request that the account be memorialized via a form on the Facebook Help section.
Grieving Online, In Public
Today’s public and social-mediated communication about death represents a big shift from the private and closely held practices most Americans are familiar with. It is reminiscent of earlier times when deaths created public conversations, as in Victorian post-mortem photography.
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Today’s proliferation of funeral selfies—often shot by teenagers to express their feelings about death, a topic typically far removed from their regular lives—aren’t too far removed from such older practices. Posting such photos online not only allows people to express their conflicting reactions to death, it offers a visual way of connecting with others who might be experiencing similar feelings at the same time.
Social media can also make encounters with death a more commonplace occurrence. On Facebook, it’s normal to come across posts about someone’s death sandwiched between BuzzFeed quizzes, cat videos, birth and wedding announcements, and links to news stories. And if you think about it, that makes perfect sense; death, after all, is another part of life.
“It isn’t only that death is part of our social media streams, but also where we are reading those streams,” Brubaker says. “We’re looking at the newsfeed on our laptops, sure, but also on our phones while walking from our cars in the parking lot. The result is that encounters with grief and death can be everyday experiences, part of our everyday lives.”
Lead photo by Eddy Van 3000