Facebook becoming a ‘digital graveyard’

Within 50 years, the dead are expected to outnumber the living on Facebook. Max Towle asks if being ‘friends’ with our deceased loved ones helps or hinders the grieving process.

For a few months after her partner Mario’s sudden death, Vernette Roberts would still message him on Facebook. “Why did you leave me?” she asked. “What’s going to happen next?” And most often, “I love you.”

Mario collapsed and died after playing squash in Papua New Guinea, where he ran a hotel. Roberts, who is from Invercargill, moved back to New Zealand a short time later, devastated. She says sending him messages was calming.

“I just felt the need to send him something. For some reason, it felt like maybe he might reply to me.”

Roberts says for a long time, Mario’s death “felt like a dream”.

She no longer sends him messages on Facebook, but often writes to him in her journal.

She is still reminded of him when she logs in, though. Facebook often sends her notifications about Mario, including reminders of his birthday or old photos of them together. “Even a year ago I’d fall apart when he popped up and there’d always be tears, but I’d still be glad to get them.”

Facebook’s ‘digital tombstones’

Since its creation, Facebook has struggled with death. In 2009, the site introduced memorialisation, whereby a deceased user’s profile can be turned into a memorial page. But there were no checks required, beyond someone having to send the site an obituary or death notice. This led to a spate of people being digitally killed off as pranks.

Six years later, Facebook announced that users could name a “legacy contact,” who would be responsible for managing their account after their death. Users could craft a morbid message to send to that person if they unexpectedly died.

Photo: RNZ / Luke McPake

But some people remain critical of Facebook’s attitude to the afterlife. Unlike Roberts, who appreciates being reminded of Mario, others have complainedabout receiving ghoulish notifications about their dead loved ones.

Some say information about memorialisation is buried several menus deep and can be difficult to find. RNZ spoke to a woman whose son died a decade ago, and who had no idea Facebook pages could be memorialised.

In April, after a decade of complaints, Facebook chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, announced new updates, including a tributes section for memorialised accounts, more options for legacy contacts, and, perhaps most importantly, changes to its algorithms to prevent the site from suggesting people’s dead loved ones should be invited to events.

“These changes are the result of feedback we heard from people of different religions and cultural backgrounds as well as experts and academics,” Sandberg said.

“We’re grateful to them for helping us understand how we can … help people find comfort in times of grief.”

Facebook chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg. Photo: AFP

It was high time Facebook re-focused its attention on death. The same month the social media giant announced its changes, Oxford University researchers suggested the dead could outnumber the living on Facebook in 50 years. Their study shows the importance of social media when dealing with death, but also the concerns that come with the commercialisation of our deceased digital selves.

“We have just begun asking these questions and we have a long way to go,” says co-author Carl Öhman.

The research likens Facebook to a “digital graveyard” and memorial pages to digital tombstones. The social media giant was created to connect people, but as so much of our lives take place online, so too will our deaths.

‘A rare warm feeling’

Sonya Rockhouse’s youngest son, Ben, 21, was one of 29 men who never returned from his shift at Pike River Mine in 2010. She had never paid much attention to Facebook before the disaster, only occasionally cautioning him on swearing too much online.

“He posted something the night before he was killed. I replied to him and he didn’t reply,” she recalls. She had only recently signed up to the site, but her page was flooded with supportive messages and condolences. It felt overwhelming, but looking back, she says it made her feel less isolated.

A simple message such as, “Thinking of you” may seem trivial and detached to some, but not to Rockhouse.

“Everyone grieves differently, and you often feel like no one else knows what you’re going through. You might not want to talk or have people popping around. For a long time I wouldn’t say a word, but I was reading messages and it was nice.” She says it didn’t take the pain away, but was a “rare warm feeling”.

She now views Facebook as a “revolving door of memories” and an online photo album. “I don’t have many photos of the boys together, so I often re-share photos of my grandchildren when they were first born.” The father – Rockhouse’s middle son, Daniel – walked out of the mine shortly after it collapsed.

Ben Rockhouse’s Facebook page sits idle. “I’d heard that if it becomes inactive for a certain period of time, it gets taken down, so I still post on his wall every so often,” she says. That includes on birthdays, Christmases, and often when there’s been progress regarding the mine. “I’ve posted updates telling him where we’re up to and that we’re getting closer.”

Relatives of mine victims Anna Osborne and Sonya Rockhouse embrace after the announcement of the re-entry plan. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

On the road north to Pike River at Atarau, there are 29 boulders and a condolence book for those who died. Rockhouse lives in Christchurch, which means she’s unable to visit the site as much as she’d like. Yet in a small way, posting on his Facebook page makes her feel like she’s close with him again. “It’s something you can continuously go back to and be able to say things and sometimes, especially early on, late at night, I would lie awake feeling sad and I would go back to his page.”

A couple of days before Rockhouse spoke to RNZ, Ben would have celebrated his 30th birthday. She made sure to post on his wall. “This week I’ve just felt angry and cheated. He hasn’t been able to experience all the things others have, like fall in love, get married, travel and follow his dreams.” She sighs and says, “My gosh, he would have been 30. He was only a young boy and he would be a man now.”

When the mine was reopened in May, Rockhouse says she looked down into the blackness and was reminded that what happened was real. “Sometimes you can get away with telling yourself it would be just the same as if he were on a big OE or something.”

When asked if she’s considered memorialising Ben’s Facebook page, Rockhouse says, “I don’t know too much about that. I guess it’s something I should look at. She’s been sent notifications about her son, and when they pop up, she says, “I am shocked and it does take my breath away and bring tears to my eyes, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I don’t want to forget my son.”

Putting a stop to ‘all the noise’

A year-and-a-half ago, Carey Buck’s 48-year-old husband, Chris, suddenly collapsed and died at work. A few hours later, a colleague of his and a few police officers came to her home to tell her the “earth-shattering” news.

A few hours later, Chris’ brother in England posted about his death on Facebook.

“I hadn’t even told a third of the people I wanted to … I was so, so angry,” she remembers. “For me, it wasn’t his place or his story to tell. [The post] came across as being all about him, and it only created rumours about how Chris had died.”

Carey Buck was thrust into a world she had previously tried to avoid. “Chris and I, being a bit older, didn’t put everything about our lives on Facebook. I know he wouldn’t have liked it. I much prefer a personal conversation, but the choice was taken away from me and it really hurt.”

Carey Buck says it meant far more when friends and family supported her in person while she was grieving. Photo: Supplied

At that point, she felt it necessary to post about his death, even though she would have preferred to tell people in person or over the phone. Over the next couple of weeks, she says she found comfort looking at his online photos. He used to joke that if he posted an image that included her, it would get more likes.

“But I felt like there was the danger of it becoming something that you would just spend all your time looking at.”

She memorialised his profile. “People were still finding out what had happened and messaging me and posting comments … it’s hard to cope when there’s this thing pinging at you all the time.” She’s glad she acted quickly.

“It was good for me. The memorial page looked respectful, and put a stop to all the noise.”

Carey Buck understands that people often mean well, but unlike Sonya Rockhouse, to her brief messages of support and sympathy were meaningless.

“We can just press a button and everything is instant and we don’t necessarily have to worry about the consequences … it’s easy to click “Like” and post a teary face; Facebook makes us a bit thoughtless about the whole thing.” She says she would much rather receive a condolence card, or have a friend bring round a plate of sandwiches.

Words, she says, have come to mean much to her in her grief. “Someone might tell me that it’s lucky we had paid off our mortgage, or at least we had just gone on an amazing holiday, but there’s nothing lucky about what happened.”

She says if people really wanted to reach out to her, they would.

“I don’t want to live my life on Facebook.”

Our digital souls

In response to a series of recent privacy-related scandals, in March founder Mark Zuckerburg posted a lengthy blog outlining his vision for the next few years: to transform Facebook into a “privacy-focused platform.”

But what about the data of the dead? The Oxford University research says the question of who has a right to their data, and how it should be maintained, is becoming more urgent. “The management of our digital remains will eventually affect everyone who uses social media, since all of us will one day pass away and leave our data behind … It is, or will at least become, part of our global digital heritage,” says Öhman.

Adding a “legacy contact” on Facebook. Photo: Screenshot / Facebook

Victoria University PHD student Alex Beattie, who is studying technologies and disconnection, has a rather cynical view of Facebook. He says as a company that monetises data, it has a vested interest in keeping users around until, and beyond, death. “What Facebook fears most is a mass departure … the idea of a memorial page is Facebook future-proofing the loss of a user account and turning a disconnection into an opportunity for new types of data to be generated.”

Beattie says that while a dead user is inactive, the friends of that person are not. “Facebook is encouraging social grieving – users are nudged to give public tributes with the implication that grieving becomes entangled with performance.”

Yet the survival of our digital selves could be positive, if a little macabre. In an essay for the BBC in 2016, writer Brandon Ambrosino said, “It used to be that only certain prominent people were granted legacies … but digital technology changes that.”

In an episode of British sci-fi series Black Mirror, a grieving woman discovers technology that allows her to communicate with an artificial intelligence that is able to imitate her dead boyfriend by analysing his past posts, comments and messages. Ambrosino says this isn’t beyond the realms of belief.

“If [recent]programs … succeed, not only will my grandchildren be able to study my mother’s life, if they want they’ll be able to ask her avatar – their intelligent, digital ‘great grandmother’ – questions and receive answers that my mother, before she passed away, would have probably given them.”

‘The door is never entirely closed’

Claire Laurenson has been a grief counsellor and educator for 20 years. She entered the field 10 years after the death of her four-month-old son. A few months ago, for the first time, she posted a photo of him on Facebook. “That was a really big deal for me as I’m a very private person, but the response I got was quite heartening. It just felt right to do it this year.”

She says there should be no time limit on grief. “My son would have been a 33-year-old man now. It’s not that I’ve lost him once, there’s been 33 years of not having him around.”

When she was a child, most Sundays she would visit the local cemetery and refresh the flowers on family graves. She says visiting or posting on a dead loved one’s Facebook page is a modern equivalence. “This can be really healthy, and actually goes against the old way of thinking about having to let people go, but the door is never entirely closed on a loss.”

She is often asked whether it’s a good thing to hold on to someone for too long. “But it’s not necessarily the person we’re holding on to, but the love – the love doesn’t go away – over time we just invest in life again and our life gets bigger around that loss.”

It’s been three years since Mario collapsed and died after playing squash in Papua New Guinea. A few years ago, his eldest daughter, asked Vernette Roberts for his password so she could memorialise his account. Before doing so, Roberts said she would log-in to his profile so she could remove personal messages between them. But as soon has she got to the log-in page, she panicked. It was too difficult. She is yet to try again, and his page still sits idle.

“I’ve been avoiding going into it for so long. I’m coming to a point where I think I should memorialise it, but I still haven’t. I’m not sure it’s the right time to do that just yet,” she says. It would represent another “ending” she’s not yet ready for.

She still loves the man, and gets a big lump in her throat when she imagines his Facebook page memorialised. “I’m sure [Mario’s family] will get back in touch again, maybe in a year or two, and perhaps I’ll be ready then.”

This story was originally published on Radio New Zealand.

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