Facebook's death problem

As older users join Facebook, the social networking behemoth is struggling to find a way to sensitively and efficiently deal with users who die

Facebook doesn't have a set way to determine if a user has passed away.
(Image credit: Getty)

Facebook now has 500 million users, and a growing share of them are over the age of 65 — both signs of the social networking site's success in the marketplace. But the shifting demographics of Facebook's users is forcing the company to confront a delicate question — how to manage the accounts of users who pass away. Here's a quick guide to Facebook's struggle with death:

What's the problem?

It's twofold. The first challenge is finding a way to efficiently determine when users die (the company currently has no such mechanism in place). The second is figuring out what do with a person's profile after he or she has died.

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Why don't they just delete them?

That was the initial policy, but over time, Facebook has realized that some users find comfort in visiting the profiles of the deceased, and posting messages to their departed friends. After the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, users asked Facebook to preserve the victims' profiles, and the pages were transformed into memorials.

Can users report a death to Facebook?

That's currently an option — family and friends must fill out a form and provide proof of the death, such as a newspaper obituary — but many people are unaware of it. One concern with the current system is that pranksters have been known to report deaths and offer fake proof.

What uncomfortable situations can dead Facebook friends create?

Users may get notifications asking them to "reconnect" with a dead friend. Awkward. There are also issues with memorial profiles. Because memorial pages can't add new friends, parents who join the site after a child's death aren't able to see his or her memorial page.

What are some new ideas Facebook is considering for dealing with the dead?

The company is currently working on a piece of software that would automatically scan wall postings for repeated "Rest in peace" or "I miss you phrases." Such phrases would arouse suspicion of a death, and a human would be assigned to investigate.

What are some other ideas they might consider?

"Given that Facebook is, these days, more important that any government or other social institution... countries might just pass a law that death registries should immediately inform Facebook of every single passing that occurs," says Chris Matyszczyk at CNET. "Thankfully, this would also offer excellent advertising opportunities for undertakers, casket makers, probate lawyers, and, of course, party planners."

Sources: The New York Times, CNET

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