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(Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
(Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Technology

How to die on Facebook Add to ...

It has been almost two months since Amelia Shaw's friend took his own life, but she still sees his face every day.

She can't escape the image of Karl, the energetic soul with a rollicking sense of humour who taught her to play polo on bicycles instead of horses. But the 25-year-old doesn't see her friend's face only in her mind's eye or in a photo on a shelf: She sees it, almost daily, on her Facebook home page.

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"Facebook has this thing, 'Suggestions,' " Ms. Shaw says, referring to a function on the site that urges users to send particular contacts messages or to "poke" them (a playful way of saying hi). Lately, Facebook has been relentless in suggesting that she poke Karl.

"He's the one who pops up the most. It's quite creepy," she says by phone from her Montreal home. "Actually, I just logged into Facebook. ... He's up there at the moment."

Many people today have a second self online, complete with photos, hobbies, deep thoughts and personal news from the monumental to the mundane. But few think about what happens to their digital doppelganger after they die. At the moment, scores of Facebook souls are left out there, stranded in the ether.

Now, partly in response to inquiries by Canada's Privacy Commissioner, Facebook wants people to help the company manage their virtual afterlives.

"Obviously with 300 million users, we don't know who has passed away," says Brandee Barker, a Facebook representative. "We really rely on the network of people to share that with us."

The company's privacy policy has been revamped, in part to make it clearer to users what happens on Facebook when you die: Friends or family can fill out an online form to notify the company of a user's death. Administrators then "memorialize" the account by removing sensitive information while leaving photos and friends' public messages on display. The profile becomes hidden from the view of anyone but confirmed friends. The company will also take pages down altogether at family members' request.

This clarification was one recommendation Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart made after investigating complaints. She has said she is "satisfied" with the response.

But Ms. Shaw still doesn't know how to make the daily reminders to improve Karl's Facebook experience go away. Is there more the site could do to raise awareness? "Facebook has a very loud voice as it is," she says. With all the notices it sends to users, she is convinced that news just gets lost in the din.

Technology meets tragedy

Facebook's memorial practices grew out of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. The bulk of the site's members then were college-aged, so the deaths of 27 students and five professors hit its user base hard.

"The shooting happened three weeks before many of us were to graduate and move across the country," says John Woods, whose friend Maxine Turner was killed. He is now a graduate student at the University of Texas in Austin.

"I can't go visit Max's grave, or any of the others, for that matter. It's a 22-hour drive. Facebook is a way for me to leave little notes for her, notes that our mutual friends can see and respond to."

At the time, Facebook's policy was to memorialize pages for only 30 days, and then to delete them altogether. The students "kicked up quite a fuss," Mr. Woods says. Facebook listened and extended the memorials indefinitely.

Mr. Woods is grateful, but he thinks Facebook is too involved with policing pages of the dead: Ms. Turner's mother, he says, can't access the account because her daughter hadn't accepted her "friend request" before she died.

"They're missing out on the spirit of the rule," he says. "If you've lost somebody, [what happens]should be in your hands, not theirs."

But who owns what on the Internet, legally, is still being debated, says Suzana Popovic-Montag, a partner at Toronto-based firm Hull & Hull, which specializes in estate law.

"I don't think it's really been tested," she says. She now suggests that clients consider online issues in their estate planning. "We've got to be ahead of the curve."

There may also be times when Facebook lags behind. Ms. Barker says the company requests proof that a member has really died. But is that enough to prevent pranks? "Certainly," she says.

Yet no one came to Simon Thulbourn's aid the day his friend decided to kill him.

Last month, the 23-year-old software engineer posted a link to Facebook's submission form to memorialize accounts and, as a joke, encouraged friends to knock each other off: "I just wanted to see how reliable it was," he says from his home in Munich.

His friend Johnny did just that. As proof, he submitted an online obituary - for a woman named Margaret. The only link was that the minister at her funeral had a name similar to Mr. Thulbourn's. He says he doubts Facebook staff even looked at the evidence before he was locked out of his memorialized account.

The problem took about five days to resolve. Facebook did apologize for any "inconvenience" Mr. Thulbourn experienced as a result of his premature virtual demise.

Despite such errors, Ms. Barker argues that the site can be a powerful tool of remembrance. The first memorialized account belonged to a Facebook staffer who died when the company, based in Palo Alto, Calif., was still quite small.

"We all realized the value of keeping his profile up on the site as a way to mourn his loss," Ms. Barker says. "There is an element to Facebook that is creating a history of a person's life."

But for Amelia Shaw, the "eerie" prompting to connect with her friend Karl online only reminds her that in reality it's no longer possible.

"It's my first encounter with suicide. I see it as such a waste that he went and did that. He is someone I'm going to miss a lot."

Susan Krashinsky is a reporter for Report on Business.

Follow on Twitter: @susinsky

 

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