The email from my dead mom casually arrives in my inbox one mid-pandemic afternoon, barely announcing itself. The subject line says, “Beverly Blum just comment on a hyperlink you shared.”
One glorious millisecond, I let myself live in fantasy land where my mother uses social media from a perch high above the vast beyond.
The email opens and I reply: “Great piece, Dad!”
Ah, yes. Oh, right. My father of 82 years never desired to create his Facebook account so he uses my mother’s username. “Thanks Beverly Dad,” I respond.
As I rise to make tea, something happens: The digital photo frame that I have in my kitchen displays a picture of my mother on the DC subway when I visited her freshman year. We’re heading to the zoo and she looks happy like never before.
The dog is frightened and turns into a soft lump on my leg. Next, I recall the other images Google Photos will undoubtedly show me: My mom in my apartment singing Ray Charles and connected to a bunch of tubes.
Since more than one year, I have let algorithms determine how I grieve. The code that searches through my photos and displays them in random order in an algorithm has greatly influenced my emotional life.
This is something I know there is an easy solution to. It’s possible to hide photos of my mother or disable her Facebook zombie account. This is how I have grown to grieve. Because technology has dictated my memories and times, I have let it.
Katie Gach is a University of Colorado Boulder digital ethnographer who has worked for years trying to understand Facebook users such as me. More than 80 participants in research have been interviewed about their interactions with the profiles of the dead.
She says that Facebook has revealed “a lot of very steep misalignments” in terms of what users need and how the system actually works.
One problem with the United States is their inability to plan for their deaths.
She says, “We have all options, but they don’t communicate that you are going to be responsible for this and how it works. It doesn’t really help those who survived.”
Memorialized accounts are essentially frozen in digital amber: They can’t be tagged and aren’t included in birthday reminders, but are allowed to exist on the platform for as long as the company’s servers are whirring. A legacy contact may change the profile picture and pay tributes but cannot make friend requests, read messages or send new friends.
It takes a lot of work to memorialize an account, and you must also provide documentation about the death. Facebook offers other ways to keep the dead out of your account. For example, you can take a 6-month off-the grid trip to Nepal and the machine-learning software assumes you might have died and will proactively delete you name from invite suggestions and birthday notifications. But that’s it.
Gach says that Facebook gives him a sense of divine omniscience. But when was the last time a system knew that someone had died? Telemarketers don’t stop calling. Because Facebook is automated in many areas, we don’t see it as an entity that requires telling us about.
Others have very different views on how to escape or remain enmeshed online after death. Twitter does not offer any tools to transfer an account or data to someone who has died; Instagram can, however, freeze that person’s account, but it cannot be managed by anyone (which might prove useful for organizing memorials). Apple announced recently that iOS 15 will allow legacy contacts to be named after years of requiring family members to file court orders to access their accounts.
Google, meanwhile, can be configured to automatically delete your account if you’ve been inactive for a predetermined period of time. It’s possible to simply disappear from Google and enter the dark, much like you are leaving a boring party.
Facebook’s memorialization tools are arguably the most extensive of any social media site, and include the option of deletion upon death, which can sometimes traumatize living relatives, Gach says. Facebook deletes a person’s profile, but also their comments and private messages.
Gach says that people are saying “delete me my profile” because they don’t want their presence being evoked on the platform, and trigger their loved ones. They don’t know what this really means. “They’re asking Facebook for their house to be sold and Facebook is burning down it.” Gach states that memorialization is the better option for those who wish to remain in touch with loved ones following death, while also removing automated reminders about their existence.
My situation is very different: Facebook thinks that my mom is still alive. As long as my father continues animating my mother’s account, Facebook’s algorithms will continue to operate under this falsehood.
This is something I think I need to tell my dad. My mom was recently tagged with spam by Ray-Ban. He’s a widower and I don’t want to ruin the comfort that logging into Facebook gives him. Facebook is more important to boomers than I think.
A part of me longs for my mother’s constant presence to trigger it, even those ridiculous birthday reminders. The philosopher Patrick Stokes has written about how we use Facebook to talk to the dead as if they’re still alive, mourning in a way that’s neither temporally nor spatially bound. No wonder online memorials are nearly as old as the modern internet.
Over the last year it’s been frighteningly easy to forget about remembrances and to rationalize my grief while distracting myself with news articles that are more relevant. Unbidden emails from my mother are like a fresh punch in the face. One that I strangely desire.
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Publiated at Wed 25 August 2021, 12:29.51 +0000