July 03, 2010

Should Social Profiles Live On When People Die?

There is a friend of mine on Facebook who is just three weeks younger than me. He's interested in women, single, and is looking for friendship, dating, or a relationship, should things progress. He says he's an Orthodox Christian, and graduated college the same year I did, in 1999. But there's one thing different about Michael's profile from most of my other connections online. You see, Michael passed away in January and was laid to rest after a six month public battle with lung cancer, which he shared on his Facebook, Twitter and FriendFeed profiles. While he may have left us, his memory lives on - and Facebook continues to ask me to "reconnect" with him or to "suggest friends". It's something algorithms don't understand.

The first time Facebook suggested I "reconnect" with Michael, or suggest friends, I was a little annoyed. But despite the fact I have almost 1,800 connections, the reminders have come at an increasing rate. Whatever algorithm Facebook has going, it no doubt looks for frequency of updates or adds from that person, and the fact that Michael's Wall and friends have stayed steady has flagged the account. Brilliant.

So what should happen? We all talk about using Twitter and Facebook for "status updates", but one can't exactly post an update saying they have passed. Should Facebook have an option to change one's status to "Deceased" if they have passed on, and remove them from the algorithm?

Michael Passed On, But His Wall Still Lives

For people like Michael who shared their trials with illness with the community, their profiles have become something of a shrine to their memory. As their birthday rolls around, connected friends drop in and wish happy birthdays, like they would anybody else, and when Facebook said to reconnect, I went and wrote on his wall. But there's something odd about the whole thing.

Today's leading social networks might do fantastic work for connecting people at various stages of their lives. They can find friends from high school and college, or link up colleagues from your work history. They might find you new dates or even spouses. But it looks like they stink when it comes to dealing with one's data when they actually pass on. Is it too morbid for them to think about? Would it be too nuts if there was a "Report Person as Deceased" button on the account? Should it be treated with an editorial process, similar to Wikipedia, where you have to cite a source and show an obituary?

Either way, the way we just leave things hanging in a position of suspended animation doesn't work for me. If social networks are to celebrate births, celebrate life's milestones and mark bad news as well, they should be ready for the final passage to whatever's next. I welcome good ideas.

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