Wednesday, September 01, 2021

Haunted on the net

It's happened twice in the last month. When I drop in to post my most recent blog entry on Facebook, the social media behemoth reminds me to wish "Happy Birthday" to a dead friend.

I find it disconcerting. Sometimes I'm thankful for the reminder of the one who is gone. Other times, I wonder whether any of the other suggestions that Facebook passes along for birthday greetings are to dead people whose expiration I've missed. That seems a bit ghoulish. It feels as if it would be terrible blunder to wish someone well who is dead. But would it be so terrible?

Steven Blum at Wired explored his feelings when Facebook throws up notifications from his dead mother's data stream. Along the way, he investigated how Facebook and other social media deal with the accounts of dead people.

Facebook has an explicit option to set up a "memorialization" function -- but finds that few of us do it. As in most of life, we're not into contemplating our departure while we're still around.
Though [Katie] Gach [a digital ethnographer at the University of Colorado Boulder] says the official tally is not available to the public, “very few” people have taken advantage of Facebook’s memorialization features, which allow them to name “legacy contacts” that can help manage their profile after their death—and thus avoid the unnecessary triggering of loved ones. 
“We can give [people] all the options that they want, but if they're not communicating ‘Hey, you're going to be in charge of this, and this is how it works,’ it doesn't actually help the surviving loved ones that much,” she says. ... 
Memorializing an account requires legwork, including providing documentation of someone’s death. But Facebook has other tricks to prevent the deceased from popping up where they shouldn’t be seen: If you take, say, a six-month, off-the-grid trip to Nepal, the platform’s machine learning software will assume you may be dead and proactively remove your name from birthday notifications and invite suggestions, Gach says. But that’s it.
My experience suggests the algorithm isn't quite as smart as Facebook thinks. So what's new?

According to Blum, other platforms offer even less nod to human mortality. Twitter offers no tools for survivors. Apple used to require a court order to clean up a dead person's cloud but says they are changing that. Google lets you set up to have your account automatically delete if you have been inactive for a designated period.

I imagine, as life becomes even more thoroughly online, we'll learn how to incorporate the limits of human life among the Xs and Os more gracefully. It's a broadening concept to contemplate. After all, we are stardust ... what are all those electrons?


Anonymous said...

I just got a friend request from someone who’s been dead for 6 months!

Bonnie said...

I set my settings to fb to remove my account when notified I died. The only person that knew that was our daughter who happened to die in March. I don't know who set up her memorialize acct. that no one is commenting on. Did their system find my notice she had died and set it up? I'd like to have them take it down but do I have that right?