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.

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