Coping With Death in the Age of Facebook

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In May, 6.5 million people over the age of 65 joined Facebook, more than any other age group. The over-65 set also has the highest mortality rate, according to this splendid Sunday story in the New York Times, so what's a growing social network to do? Dealing with dead users has been tough on Facebook, as they work to balance the emotions of half a billion users in a "sensitive" way, while also trying not to get tricked into 'killing' users who are merely victims of pranks. Computers are hard! And algorithms are insensitive. One expert calls it "the 'Is he dead' problem." Well, is he?

Courtney Purvin got a shock when she visited Facebook last month. The site was suggesting that she get back in touch with an old family friend who played piano at her wedding four years ago.

The friend had died in April.

We've all been there. "It was like he was coming back from the dead," Purvin told the paper.

Facebook's "ghosts in its machine" hang around for two reasons: 1) they're forgotten or 2) friends and family hope to use their profiles as digital memorials. Both create problems, the former for unsuspecting users and the latter for the company, which has yet to find a foolproof way to "determine whether a user is, in fact, dead."

Working hard not to let you forget this story is about old people, the Times quotes one woman who sounds at the age of 37 like she's 77. She's worried about stumbling upon a dead friend, still included in computerized recommendations:

"The service is telling you to reconnect with someone you can't. If it's someone that has passed away recently enough, it smarts."

To prevent this, Facebook memorializes pages if a friend or family member fills out a form including proof of death. This welcomes internet fun:

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 Mr. 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," Mr. Thulbourn said by e-mail

It's a work in progress, but it comes with lessons: "death, of course, is unavoidable," the Times concludes, "and so Facebook must find a way to integrate it into the social experience online." Uh. Excuse me while I run through the window; someone delete my account.


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