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Internet Ethics: Views From Silicon Valley

Death and Facebook

Death and Facebook

Death and Facebook

A number of recent articles have noted Facebook’s introduction of a feature that allows users to designate “legacy contacts” for their accounts. In an extensive examination titled “Where Does Your Facebook Account Go When You Die?,” writer Simon Davis explains that, until recently, when Facebook was notified that one of its users had died, the company would “memorialize” that person’s account (in part in order to keep the account from being hacked). What “memorialization” implies has changed over time. Currently, according to Davis, memorialized accounts retain the privacy and audience settings last set by the user, while the contact information and ability to post status updates are stripped out. Since February, however, users can also designate a “legacy contact” person who “can perform certain functions on a memorialized account.” As Davis puts it, “Now, a trusted third party can approve a new friend request by the distraught father or get the mother’s input on a different profile image.”

Would you give another person the power to add new “friends” to your account or change the profile image, after your death? Which begs the question, what is a Facebook account?

In his excellent article, Davis cites Vanessa Callison-Burch, the Facebook product manager who is primarily responsible for the newly-added legacy account feature. Explaining some of the thinking behind it, she argues that a Facebook account “is a really important part of people’s identity and is a community space. Your Facebook account is incredibly personalized. It’s a community place for people to assemble and celebrate your life.” She adds that “there are certain things that that community of people really need to be supported in that we at Facebook can’t make the judgment call on.”

While I commend Facebook for its (new-found?) modesty in feature design, and its recognition that the user’s wishes matter deeply, I find myself wondering about that description of a Facebook account as “a community space.” Is it? I’ve written elsewhere that posting on Facebook “echoes, for some of us, the act of writing in a journal.” A diary is clearly not a “community space.” On Facebook, however, commenters on one user’s posts get to comment on other commenters’ comments, and entire conversations develop among a user’s “friends.” Sometimes friends of friends “friend” each other.  So, yes, a community is involved. But no, the community’s “members” don’t get to decide what your profile picture should be, or whether or not you should “friend” your dad. Who should?

In The Guardian, Stuart Heritage explores that question in a much lighter take on the subject of “legacy contacts,” titled “To my brother I leave my Facebook account ... and any chance of dignity in death.” As he makes clear, “nominating a legacy contact is harder than it looks.”

Rather than simply putting that responsibility on a trusted person, Simon Davis suggests that Facebook should give users the opportunity to create an advance directive with specific instructions about their profile: “who should be able to see it, who should be able to send friend requests, and even what kind of profile picture or banner image the person would want displayed after death.” That alternative would respect the user’s autonomy even more than the current “legacy contact” does.

But there is another option that perhaps respects that autonomy the most: Facebook currently also allows a user to check a box specifying that his or her account be simply deleted after his or her death. Heritage writes that “this is a hard button to click. It means erasing yourself.” Does it? Maybe it just signals a different perspective on Facebook. Maybe, for some, a Facebook account is neither an autobiography nor a guest book. Maybe the users who choose that delete option are not meanly destroying a “community space,” but ending a conversation.

Photo by Lori Semprevio, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.

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