As more Facebook users die, ghosts reach out to reconnect

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.

“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 imminent 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.

James E. Katz, a professor of
communications at Rutgers University, said the company was experiencing “a
coming-of-age problem.”

“So many of Facebook’s early users were
young, and death was rare and unduly tragic,” Katz said.

Now, people over 65 are adopting Facebook
at a faster pace than any other age group, with 6.5 million signing up in May
alone, three times as many as in May 2009, according to the research firm
comScore. People over 65, of course, also have the country’s highest mortality
rate, so the problem is only going to get worse.

Tamu Townsend, a 37-year-old technical
writer in Montreal, said she regularly received prompts to connect with
acquaintances and friends who had died.

“Sometimes it’s quite comforting when their
faces show up,” Townsend said. “But at some point it doesn’t become comforting
to see that. The service is telling you to reconnect with someone you can’t. If
it’s someone that has passed away recently enough, it smarts.”

Purvin, a 36-year-old teacher living in
Plano, Texas, said that after she got over the initial jolt of seeing her
friend’s face, she was happy for the reminder.

“It made me start talking about him and
thinking about him, so that was good,” she said. “But it was definitely a
little creepy.”

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 recognizes the
importance of finding an appropriate way to preserve those pages as a place
where the mourning process can be shared online.

Following the Virginia Tech shootings in
2007, members begged the company to allow them to commemorate the victims. Now
member profiles can be “memorialized,” or converted into tribute pages that are
stripped of some personal information and no longer appear in search results.
Grieving friends can still post messages on those pages.

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 much of that work.

For a site the size of Facebook, automation
is “key to social media success,” said Josh Bernoff, an analyst at Forrester
Research and co-author of “Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by
Social Technologies.”

“The way to make this work in cases where machines
can’t make decisions is to tap into the members,” he said, pointing to Facebook’s
buttons that allow users to flag material they find inappropriate. “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 memorialize 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 publicized, 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 like the “reconnect” box, which has been spooking the living since it
was introduced last October.

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.

“We are testing ways to implement software
to address this,” she said. “But we can’t get it wrong. We have to do it
correctly.”

The scanning approach could invite pranks –
as the notification form already has. 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 an ‘I’m not really
dead, could I have my account back please?’ section, so I opted for filling in
every form on their website,” Thulbourn said by e-mail.

When that didn’t work, Thulbourn created a
webpage 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 memorializing 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,” Katz, the
Rutgers professor, said. “That’s a real downer for a company that wants to be
known for social connections and good news.

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