Why Facebook Wants you Dead

Late last week — about the time everyone was checking out for the weekend — a banner quietly appeared atop many Facebook profile pages. This banner, adorned with a simple blue flower, didn’t remind you of past memories or tell you about recent events you’d been invited to.

It simply alerted you — and any friend who visited your page — that you were dead.
Mark Zuckerberg’s death notice

The problem was, many of the people who received the banners — including Mark Zuckerberg himself — were undoubtedly very much alive.

For many, a social-media-style “stages of grief” set in: surprise to despair to horror to anger to bewilderment — and ultimately complete and utter confusion. The Internets pounced; people shared, commented, dissected and lambasted. Reporters lunged at the opportunity: The Washington Post said they “‘raptured’ a bunch of users” and the Verge noted they “killed everyone”.

Facebook was apparently equally horrified, and as Friday came to a close, they rapidly backpedalled and the notices vanished as suddenly as they had arrived.

Many consider the banners a complete mistake — an A/B test gone too wide, in too short of a timeframe. Someone pushing the wrong code to the wrong server, so on and so forth. But suppose it may not have been a mistake at all, but a savvy conscious decision: a “beg forgiveness” test intended to evaluate the intersection of social media and death. The results would provide rich data about how people respond to death, clarity on whether Facebook’s data science is working and, as a bonus, a bit of PR foreshadowing their interest in the space.

We’ll probably never know the answer. But it doesn’t really matter. Because the question isn’t really what happened. It’s why it happened.

Facebook recognizes that dealing with death isn’t a choice for them: it’s an element of humanity and interpersonal connection they have to be involved in. People who have profiles on Facebook die. And when they do, the profile page becomes collateral damage.

Facebook recognizes this all too well, and has assigned VP of Product Vanessa Callison-Burch to help them figure out how to “care for the accounts of people who have passed away”. Apparently the focus has been important enough to be designed as 1 of only 3 internal Compassion Projects: something Facebook feels is right to do — for the world and their users — but is unlikely to deliver them immediate revenue opportunities (c’mon, it’s cosmically bad juju to put advertisements on dead people’s pages).

Facebook could, of course, choose to do nothing. But if you’ve ever stumbled upon an actual deceased person’s profile page, you realize this isn’t a choice at all. It becomes a life frozen in digital time; a creepy reminder that many of us never know when death is coming. One minute you’re posting a status update about your ridiculous bellyache from gorging on Halloween candy, and the next post…well…it never comes. Then of course there are morbidly inappropriate birthday reminders and friendship video montages. One wrong notification and someone’s day may be ruined.

Facebook will undoubtedly figure much of this out. They are smart, tenacious and willing to persist even with mini setbacks and failures (remember the privacy issues early in their rise to prominence).

Vanessa and her team have already made significant progress. “Memorializing” a page immediately puts into motion an entirely new ruleset about how posts work. They’ve turned off notifications and reminders and hidden all ads. And they’ve inserted the concept of a “Legacy Contact” designed to honor last requests, provide information surrounding the death, preserve the memory of the deceased, and facilitate memorializing practices. [see the link below for a bit of research on their approach to that]

Even with all of this effort, one has to wonder if Facebook can actually solve this. The very design of their business and platform are counter to memorialization; Facebook is about the lives we’re living, not about the life that once was. And if they’re doing to solve for the deceased, they have two major hurdles to overcome.

Facebook’s 2 big Challenges in Solving Death

  1. Funeral homes. Who do you call when someone dies? Your local funeral home. In the “fog of grief” the funeral director becomes your savior of sorts, explaining to you the options for the cremation of burial (the “body disposal”), and arranging the funeral service, the eulogy preparation, the flower delivery, and hundred other things. They often provide frameworks for dealing with distant family members, how to move through the grieving process and — yes, what to do about social media accounts. In short, the funeral director directs how the family will deal with social media (every day they are getting better at that). At the last major industry get get together — the National Funeral Director Association conference in Philadelphia this past October — Facebook was nowhere to be found. But can Facebook really design a solution without partnering with the 22,000 funeral homes across the country?
  2. Obituaries. It just so happens that there are tens of millions of obituaries online, and nearly ever death in the world is associated with one. Just ask Legacy.com, the deathcare industry’s 800 lb. obituary gorilla, whose model it is to gather obituaries, and sell associated services — think newspaper listings and online condolence forums. According to one major regional newspaper, their web traffic spikes everyday at 8:55 AM, 5 minutes before their daily posting of new obituaries at 9 AM (save for major national news, this is the highest spike of the day). Funeral Home websites are designed to maintain the obituaries (the major tech providers here are CFS, (Joe Joachim’s) Funeral One, Frazier, Front Runner, etc.) The problem is obituaries don’t have a persistent role inside of Facebook. Without aligning with obituaries, can Facebook ever really be a part of death care?

In Gates of Heaven, errolmorris‘s’ pre-social media 1978 documentary about the Pet Cemetery business, Floyd McLure offered, “Death is for the Living...”. He’s exactly right, and the burden on the living is nothing to sneeze at.

For many, the death of a loved one is the beginning of a major journey. This is because the relationship with the dead doesn’t just end. Rather, it evolves. Many describe what might be called a transformed relationship with the deceased; that while the physical form is no longer present, the emotional connection persists. Psychologists call this phenomenon, “Continued Bonds,” and it can be a key part of the grieving process.

For Facebook, the reaction to Friday’s (potentially planned) snafu is a reminder that the living take death very seriously. I think we all were reminded of that — the question, then, may not be whether Facebook will continue tinkering with the dead, but whether they can appease the emotions of the living.

People, if you got this far, please hit the ❤ below. It’s part of living!