Separating the living from the dead on Facebook

In a previous post, I looked into how we group our friends on a day to day basis depending on interests, ideology, personality and our relationship to them. This doesn’t occur to the same degree in our online communities, because it’s more convenient not to and platforms are not yet designed to accommodate nuances in our social graph.

In real life, we also compartmentalise the ways in which we honour our dead.

Recently I attended a school reunion. This is the sort of event that I would ordinarily avoid, but it was a special occasion. My brother and I were both pupils at the same school for many years. Following the news of his death, they elected to hold a chapel service and unveil a memorial plaque in his name at their annual old boys and old girls day.

The service was deferential and took place in the darkened, quiet, solemn environment of the chapel. Prayers were offered, sympathies and reminisces were shared. And then… the congregation headed outside to the lawns where the sun was conveniently shining, to mingle and sip on Pimms while consuming delicious indulgent treats such as strawberries with cream and chocolate cake.

Shrines, graves, areas of worship, significant landmarks provide havens for reflection and commemoration. As a society, we assign times when a community unites to remember thofacebook-memorialization-afterlife-digitalse who have died. Through events, rituals and designated locations, we have times to mourn or reflect and times to live in the present.

Yet our online lives do not reflect this reality and I suspect this is why some people find it difficult when they continue to see a ghostly presence of their deceased friends on social media – on their friends list, tagged post-mortem activity, or automated suggestions in their newsfeeds.

None of the mainstream social networks allow people to separate profiles of deceased friends or acquaintances from their living present-day active ones. Relatives of those who have died might have the option of closing their accounts or (in the case of Facebook) continuing the account but memorialising it. Of course, few people are likely to be aware that memorialisation options even exist, and if they do, the options are fairly black and white.

These limited options do not do justice to the memory of those who have passed away. Nor do they assist our need for ritual to remember them. Personally, I think there’s a huge opportunity for social media platforms to develop separate community spaces designed specifically to commemorate those who have died, where the network connections of the deceased can reflect on past memories together.

Doing this would enable this type of memorial activity to be separate to other day to day social communication with still living connections, connections who may otherwise have no association with those being remembered.

Birthdays, important dates or events in the deceased’s history could be marked in a separate, sincere and respectful environment, fostering a quality of discussion that is more personal and relevant to those who were part of their life. It would  help to ameliorate the awkwardness that death often evokes in other day to day conversations with the living.

Lastly, by introducing separate commemoration areas on social networks, we would publicly acknowledge a person’s death on these relatively new platforms. In a previous age – and today still – a person’s passing was published in a newspaper or community annals to record that person’s existence and history in records.

Currently, anyone who didn’t know of my brother’s death would have no way of knowing via his social existence. He doesn’t show up in Facebook search given his account is memorialised. This is surely restricting the opportunity for greater engagement in the future, when members from extended communities want to reminisce or pass on messages of condolence. In an age when individuals are connecting and searching for connections online, this type of status omission will become more striking by its absence, over time.

How to manage someone’s Facebook community after they have died

facebook pages-memorialisation-digital afterlife-death

Recently I wrote about some of the issues that memorialising a Facebook profile raises for relatives or next of kin managing the Facebook community for someone who has died. (What is Facebook memorialisation?) The user’s account is made inactive by Facebook meaning that no one person is responsible for moderating or content on that account any longer. This can present issues if any friends of the deceased post inappropriate comments or remarks that the former account holder may have removed while they were alive. Settings are also locked into the status that they were when the request for memorialiation was made – so if privacy was set to “Public” or the account is given permission to link to search engines, there’s potentially a larger community to manage.

Facebook may or may not be evolving its memorialisation options in the future. News of someone dying will evoke a tremendous wave of activity on social networks as friends come to terms with the loss of someone they knew or were close to. In the event that you are managing a Facebook profile that belongs to someone who has passed away, or wondering how to deal with particular online grieving messages on an account wall that has already been memorialised, here are some suggestions based on our family’s recent experience losing someone.

Tips for community management & social etiquette

Ask people to think about what your deceased friend or family member would have posted his/herself and how they positioned themselves on their social networks. What would the profile owner have tagged or un-tagged? Sweaty, crazy pictures at a nightclub posted by a friend might indicate they had a good night out with the person who has died. If the latter was proud of their appearance though, pictures where they are looking worse for wear, might not be something that they would have tagged and kept on their wall when alive.  We found that people generally talked about Facebook at my brother’s funeral as well as other commemorative or memorial events. Friends often checked in with family members about what would be appropriate and still do. Use these occasions to ask people to consider updates from the perspective of the deceased.

Set the example in posting the types of photos/updates to set the tone and enlist the support of friends to do so. My immediate family were all in a state of shock for days after we heard the news. Fortunately, some very close friends of my brother’s took on the task of posting updates to his communities.

Message people directly when you’re trying to manage messages from within the community. If you’re concerned about posted photos or messages that do not conform to the image the person would have wanted to convey or is likely to offend others in their network, don’t hesitate to drop them a private message asking them to remove the content. People tend to respect these wishes if offered with an explanation.

Take a social media sabbatical. If you find yourself or others getting wound up by comments or photos posted, take a break and encourage others to do the same. When emotions are running high, comments or photos may be misinterpreted and you may find yourself stressing about what others might do. The best advice I can offer is to move away from the screen if you’re feeling affected. And you can enlist the help of trusted friends to monitor it or communicate with network members while you take time out.

If you want to build an ongoing community on a memorialised profile, set this expectation as well as the tone. Use the account to commemorate major ongoing milestones – birthdays, anniversaries, significant dates. News amongst friends in the deceased’s network could also be shared. New friendships may be forged and old ones reignited or strengthened when a mutual friend dies.

Any other recommendations? I’d love to hear them. Post your thoughts and questions below.

The pen v. the keyboard and privacy in death

Digital afterlife_ estate planning &issues & privacy

A few weeks after my brother’s death, Mum and Dad received eight large cardboard boxes of his personal effects from where he was stationed in Afghanistan as well as from his UK base living quarters. His laptop was included amongst these.

We had and still have an insatiable desire to find out more about him, piecing together strands of his life story like a jigsaw puzzle as we look through old photos and have conversations with his friends.

Our curiosity extended to his laptop but at the same time, we felt uncertain about whether we should look into its contents. The existence of a username and password on a laptop changes the way that you feel about accessing someone’s information contained within, whether they are alive or not. It’s generally considered taboo.

We wouldn’t have thought less of him, regardless of (almost) anything we discovered.  Our concern was though, would he have wanted his family or friends to know what was beyond his screensaver? He was rigorous about changing passwords frequently.

Despite our initial reticence, our solution was to ask an acquaintance who didn’t know him to crack into and look through the laptop’s content, deciphering what he might have wanted to share with family or friends and what he was more likely to want to remain private. That way, conversations, photos, old internet searches, notes and chat via apps such as WhatApp that he may have wanted to stay confidential, remained confidential.

It seemed to be a good compromise.  We could continue to find out more about my brother’s adventures through previewed items such as photos or snapshots of his most recent selections in music and movies via download histories or databases. Meanwhile, we felt he kept his dignity.

I considered it a straightforward process and thought that would be the end of the matter.  That is until over time, more and more belongings were unpacked and we discovered his diaries.

My brother was a meticulous note taker and asides from the occasional lapse, a writer of regular diary entries.  He had notebooks that came back from Afghanistan, his various postings as well as journals from his London work life and school days. As soon as we discovered these, I realised we had assessed his digital memoires very differently from the ones he jotted down on paper.

He wrote several online notes and entries on his laptop, usually in note taking programs or in word documents. Initially I felt that we should avoid or wipe these, perhaps because in my mind they seemed off limits and were less structured. By comparison, it hadn’t occurred to me that we should destroy his penmanship.

The online entries fortunately survived and both laptop and handwritten entries remain mostly unread.  But a conundrum remains.

Currently I’m contemplating whether or not it’s okay to read a person’s private thoughts when they are gone regardless of where they are written.

Diaries are often read and published post-mortem. In an informal poll with friends and family, their response tends to be that it is a question of personal choice whether or not you read the inner thoughts of someone close when they’ve gone.

Not having spoken with him about his views on the matter and in the absence of any last wish guidance, my opinion wavers regularly. However, whatever the outcome, his thoughts from the laptop will have equal weight.

Planning and managing a digital afterlife

Planning & managing digital death; photo credit Thomas Edmondston-Low

Towards the end of 2012, my younger brother was killed in Afghanistan.

While we knew the work he was doing was dangerous and acknowledged there was a risk he could be killed while serving, my parents and I didn’t entertain the possibility that he would.  This is the beginning of the rest of our lives without him.

My brother crammed so much into his 29 years, it’s hard to fathom how he managed it.  Our family continues to receive letters from friends and colleagues offering insights into his adventures, expanding our knowledge and repertoire of stories about him as a boy, a man and later, a soldier.

He lived and worked in five countries, spoke three languages and trained in places such as Nepal and Brunei. He was a keen sportsman, taking up competitive boxing and tributes on his social networks consistently referred to his talent with a cricket, rugby or hockey ball.

As well as being nauseatingly accomplished, he had a wicked sense of humour, was popular and remembered by friends and acquaintances as a gentleman. The nature of his job and the travel involved meant that he had friends all over the world. On the cold, grey, rainy day of his funeral in the North of England, I met people who had travelled from Australia, Germany, Japan, Kuwait, Japan, the Netherlands and the United States to say goodbye to him.

So why am I introducing you to my brother? Mostly because I’m so proud of him that I want everyone to know and remember him.  The initial shock experienced by family and friends is starting to subside and the occasions we’ve had to commemorate his life, have been and gone. Life goes on as updates on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn illustrate and it has done for a while.

But in the midst of the emotional aftershocks, there are some aspects of his online life that our family has grappled with recently.  My brother has left behind a digital estate and we’re not sure how to administer it.

As well as the many physical mementos he’s left behind, he’s endowed us with an abundance of online memories and content. He applied common safeguards and was security conscious but didn’t consider what he wanted to happen to his digital footprint in the event of his death. This isn’t surprising. Discussions around this subject are not standard procedure during the execution of a will.

We’ve inherited his memories via data in the cloud, email accounts, social media and mobile accounts. While policies and administrative access are some of the items we’ve had to work out, we’re continuing to have philosophical and often difficult discussions on whether we’re managing his online presence in the right way, in the way he would have wanted.

Social plays a significant role in the grieving process for younger generations. With his active, social and well travelled lifestyle, the variety of his in-person relationships and social groups was mirrored in his online life. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about how to communicate online with grieving friends, the management of his communities and other general social media etiquette. Often we’ve received questions from people uncertain about appropriate online behaviour while mourning. Weeks after his death, one of my brother’s friends dropped me a line asking when it would be appropriate to update the tribute cover photo on her Facebook page that she posted at the time of his death.

I’ve also mentioned that I want people to remember my brother but how do you do this with  his digital profiles? In the famous words of Laurence Binyon, those who have fallen… “shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.” We have memorialised his online presence on Facebook but will we change the way he is remembered? At what point should we consider taking down his profile.  Or should we?

So, from time to time, I’m going to share some of the experiences that our family has had since we inherited my brother’s digital legacy and how we’ve resolved the discussions I’ve mentioned. At the same time, I hope to offer practical insights on what to think about in planning a digital will as well as some thoughts on etiquette around death in the digital age.

We don’t have the answers and are working through scenarios as they come up or we think about them. I hope you’ll share your experiences and thoughts here as I write about ours.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 331 other followers

%d bloggers like this: