Facebook's ghosts in the machine

One writer discovers how, even amid questions about privacy and digital rights, Facebook has become a shrine to the dead

For some, the social networking site has evolved into an altar that pays homage to the dead.

For some, the social networking site has evolved into an altar that pays homage to the dead.

Photo illustration by Priscilla Garcia

A friend of mine died this past August. Instead of learning about it via a phone call from a friend or family member, I found out about her death on Facebook, when I noticed that mutual friends of ours had posted status updates about her passing. She was only 39 years old and the first friend I made when I moved to Sacramento, 17 years ago. I hadn’t spoken to her in over a decade.

As soon as I found out, I visited her profile page. As I scrolled through the dozens of posts from friends and co-workers that had known her over the past 10-plus years, not only did I catch a glimpse into some of the things she’d done before her death—a big move, a new job, etc.—but it also brought her back to life for me. It had been so long since I’d last spoken with my friend. She was little more than a memory before I visited her Facebook page.

Facebook is this strange beast that we are trying to tame when it comes to issues of privacy and rights to personal content. It is a way for high-school sweethearts to rekindle their romance, a place for long-distance friendships to stay relevant, and even a way for parents to keep track of their kids—much to their dismay.

It’s also a place to keep memories alive, even as the social network’s policies raise questions about privacy and digital rights.

As I read through remembrances left on my friend’s page, thoughts of her came back into the forefront and she emerged as a whole person again. When I first found out that she had passed, I felt sadness, but not a sense of mourning.

Now, after visiting the virtual imprint she left behind, I cried. She was real to me again.

Since its inception in 2004, Facebook has grown into a social-networking force that boasts more than 1 billion members globally. So, perhaps it’s not surprising then that it’s also become a place to remember those who have left us. The longer Facebook exists, the more often we see someone’s profile live on after he or she dies.

Sacramento artist Trina Fernandez recently lost a friend to cancer. She discovered that her friend was dying through a status update from her friend’s spouse. When she learned that her friend only had a week to live, Fernandez sat down and wrote a physical letter to her instead of a message through the social-networking site.

“I didn’t want to send something so impersonal,” Fernandez said. “I felt like a physical letter was more reflective of our relationship than a Facebook message.”

Still, Fernandez was able to use the site as a means to keep track of her friend’s status on a daily basis, leading up to her death. When cancer finally claimed the woman’s life, the husband posted a poem his wife had written along with the date of her death.

“It was very uplifting, but sad,” Fernandez said.

After, Fernandez visited her friend’s Facebook profile and read remembrances posted by others.

“A lot of people were saying things about her [in] memory,” Fernandez said, adding that she wished people had said those things to her beforehand instead of after she had died.

“They only posted things after she passed away,” she added. “Wouldn’t they have wanted to share that with her before now?”

Facebook allows users to memorialize the account of a deceased person. The social-networking site’s help page outlines the ways in which the service allows friends and family members to view the person’s profile.

Previously, when a page was memorialized, Facebook restricted its visibility only to verified friends of the deceased, and even then only offered limited content. For example, friends could no longer see old status updates.

In February of this year, however, the company added a feature which keeps the account as-is and viewable to the public. According to a press release on the subject, the new Facebook policy “will allow people to see memorialized profiles in a manner consistent with the deceased person’s expectations of privacy.”

Now, users can send private messages to the deceased and family members can memorialize a deceased person’s Facebook page by filling out a form and submitting an obituary. Facebook then “locks” the account so that it is no longer accessible, even to those who previously had authorized access. The profile page can no longer be modified. Simply put, users can no longer add or remove pictures, add or remove friends, or delete any status updates that were there before the page was memorialized, not even a family member.

Facebook’s policy regarding access to the content after a person dies brings up new issues. Family and friends essentially lose the rights to that media.

Anthony Lew, a Sacramento-based legal consultant for the California State Assembly, noted that Facebook’s policy, as well as those of other tech companies with similar rules, are contentious.

While there have been prior attempts in California to pass legislation regarding postmortem digital access to the likes of email or online “cloud” storage, none have been successful.

“None of it really got off of the ground because major tech companies, like Google and Facebook, opposed efforts to regulate it,” Lew said.

In August, however, Delaware became the first state to pass a related law drafted by the Uniform Law Commission, a national organization that drafts model laws, which can then be implemented across all states.

Delaware’s HB 345, the “Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets and Digital Accounts Act” essentially forces tech companies to hand over access to digital media of the deceased to authorized persons.

Lew believes that California will follow suit soon.

“I’ll bet you anything that, within the next year, when the legislature comes back [into session], someone will tackle this and try to adopt it in California,” he said.

Delaware’s law covers the whole of a person’s online personhood, including email, digital property, social-media accounts and more.

“The benefit is that the commission is trying to get it passed in every state, so that it is the same everywhere,” Lew said.

Lew has a personal interest in the issue: A former law-school colleague was killed when a truck hit her while she was riding her bicycle in Seattle. Lew discovered the news via Facebook. When he visited his friend’s profile after her death, however, he found little evidence of her passing.

“There wasn’t really any remembrance posted on her profile, if you looked at her Facebook page right now, you couldn’t even tell she had passed away,” he said.

“She had just gotten married and she and her partner have a seven-month-old daughter,” he noted. “The last thing she posted was a picture of her with her wife and her baby.”

In a way, a person’s Facebook profile keeps him or her alive in our memories in a way that humanity has never experienced before. Previously, we could only visit a grave or lay flowers near an accident site. We had to physically participate in remembrances.

Thanks to the Facebook phenomenon, however, online users can visit a deceased friend or loved one anytime and from anywhere. With just a click of a mouse, they can watch videos of loved ones playing with kids, view pictures of a holiday party they attended, and even read about how hard one particular workday was. It’s a way to keep them alive for the rest of us.

In the week after my friend’s death, I learned that her family held a memorial service for her here in Sacramento. It was organized thanks to a post on Facebook. I have a sort of love-hate relationship with the social-networking phenomenon, but in the end, I’m glad it exists, if only because it gave me a place to not just learn about her death, but also mourn her passing and celebrate her life.