As Facebook users die, ghosts reach out

The friend had died in April.

“It kind of freaked me out a bit,” she said. “It was like he was coming back from the dead.”

Facebook, the world’s biggest social network, knows a lot about its roughly 500 million members. Its software is quick to offer helpful nudges about things like birthdays and friends you have not contacted in a while. But the company has had trouble automating the task of figuring out when one of its users has died.

That can lead to some disturbing or just plain weird moments for Facebook users as the site keeps on shuffling a dead friend through its social algorithms.

Facebook says it has been grappling with how to handle the ghosts in its machine but acknowledges that it has not found a good solution.

“It’s a very sensitive topic,” said Meredith Chin, a company spokeswoman, “and, of course, seeing deceased friends pop up can be painful.” Given the site’s size, “and people passing away every day, we’re never going to be perfect at catching it,” she added.

Now, people over 65 are adopting Facebook at a faster pace than any other age group.  People over 65, of course, also have the country’s highest mortality rate, so the problem is only going to get worse.

Facebook’s approach
Facebook’s approach to the deaths of its users has evolved over time. Early on it would immediately erase the profile of anyone it learned had died.

Chin says Facebook now recognises the importance of finding an appropriate way to preserve those pages as a place where the mourning process can be shared online.
Of course, the company still needs to determine whether a user is, in fact, dead. But with a ratio of roughly 350,000 members to every Facebook employee, the company must find ways to let its members and its computers do that work.

For a site the size of Facebook, automation is “key to social media success,” said Josh Bernoff, an analyst at Forrester Research. “The way to make this work in cases where machines can’t make decisions is to tap into the members,” he said. “One way to automate the ‘Is he dead’ problem is to have a place where people can report it.”
That’s just what Facebook does. To memorialise a profile, a family member or friend must fill out a form on the site and provide proof of the death, like a link to an obituary or news article, which a staff member at Facebook will then review.

But this option is not well publicised, so many profiles of dead members never are converted to tribute pages. Those people continue to appear on other members’ pages as friend suggestions, or in features.

Scanning may help
Chin said Facebook was considering using software that would scan for repeated postings of phrases like “Rest in peace” or “I miss you” on a person’s page and then dispatch a human to investigate that account.

The scanning approach could invite pranks. A friend of Simon Thulbourn, a software engineer living in Germany, found an obituary that mentioned someone with a similar name and submitted it to Facebook last October as evidence that Thulbourn was dead. He was soon locked out of his own page.

“When I first ‘died,’ I went looking around Facebook’s help pages, but alas, they don’t seem to have a ‘I’m not really dead, could I have my account back please?’ section, so I opted for filling in every form on their web site,” Thulbourn said by e-mail.

When that didn’t work, Thulbourn created a Web page and posted about it on Twitter until news of the mix-up began to spread on technology blogs and the company took notice. He received an apology from Facebook and got his account back.

The memorialising process has other quirks. Memorial profiles cannot add new friends, so if parents joined the site after a child died, they would not have permission to see all the messages and photos shared by the child’s friends.

These are issues that Facebook no doubt wishes it could avoid entirely. But death, of course, is unavoidable, and so Facebook must find a way to integrate it into the social experience online.

“They don’t want to be the bearer of bad tidings, but yet they are the keeper of those living memories,” James E Katz,  professor of communications at Rutgers University, said. “That’s a real downer for a company that wants to be known for social connections and good news.”

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