Yesterday, Facebook acknowledged its users may in fact like to have some say over what happens to their accounts in the long (long) run.
People with US accounts can now designate a “legacy contact” who may access their page after they die. They can also choose for their account to be permanently deleted upon proof of death. Previously, a dead person’s account could only be converted into a simple memorialized page.
This announcement couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. The country (at least online) seems to be having a collective #wtf moment in reaction to a slew of tragic deaths, including the execution-style murders of three beloved young Muslim Americans in Chapel Hill and the sudden loss of respected journalists David Carr and Bob Simon. And many a soul are pining for Valentine’s Day with a departed partner in love. People who normally don’t want to consider their mortality (that would be most of us) are likely more open to starting to think about how they’d like their on- and offline lives to be managed after they die.
Until now, the company has had a less-than-stellar track record in treating both dead and grieving people thoughtfully. Ok, let’s just call it terrible. In the last year or so, Facebook has received increasingly frequent (and viral) feedback from people taking it to task for the inadvertent algorithm cruelty stemming from that “It’s been a great 2014!” slideshow, and pleas for access to dead family member’s accounts so as to inject some happy memories into excruciating journey through profound loss. (And over here at Modern Loss, we’re still issuing a gentle plea for that “empathy” button.)
Regardless of how you feel about Facebook, your account is not only part of your legacy but also a real asset. Thinking about how you’d like that account managed and who you’d like to manage it is merely an extension of the traditional estate planning process. Sure, it’s a weighty task to figure out you’d trust to represent you online (I mean, even the term “legacy contact” sounds intense) – not to mention who’d stay on top of evolving social media tools and what would happen once that person eventually dies as well. But so is writing your will and deciding who might raise your kids in the event of sudden tragedy.
Personally, I think it’s terrific Facebook is recognizing that a) perhaps some of us may not want our final, eternal social media post to be about “Sharknado,” and b) some of us might be comforted knowing their account will be lovingly managed by a trusted person, who in turn could receive the comfort that comes posting #tbt photos and staying directly connected with the deceased’s person’s extended community (my mother never had a Facebook page but I envision this is how I would have used hers).
But on the flipside, some of us might not care, might want exactly that, or might want the account to vanish from the face of the Earth along with them. It’s all about giving people a choice in the matter.
The Internet is still very much the Wild West, allowing the dead to provide endless sneak attacks on us when we open up our Gmail or nostalgically look up our childhood home on Google Street View. We certainly don’t have all the answers in terms of how to compartmentalize the crazy bending of time and space that happens every time we check a device.
But the Facebook announcement is a start because it’s getting us to think about it. So I call it a win.
Rebecca Soffer is co-founder and CEO of Modern Loss.