However, in that interstitial period, a profile would be “memorialized.”
Memorialization meant that a user’s log-in information would be deleted
to prevent any tampering; his or her contact information, no longer useful, was deleted; and status updates were deleted for “privacy reasons.”
On the other hand, photos and posts would remain visible, but only to
“friends” of the deceased. Then, after the thirty-day mourning period,
the page would be deleted. Rather than coming to terms with our mor-talities, the policy simply disallowed death. However, given the low
death rates of Facebook’s youthful clientele, this happened very rarely.
So a simplistic policy worked well enough.
But when the Virginia Tech shooting brought the Facebook Generation’s mortality into plain sight, Facebook’s obscure policy came under
close scrutiny. To the friends and families of the victims, it suddenly
seemed insensitive or possibly reprehensible to delete a user’s profile. At Virginia Tech, students campaigned, protested and petitioned
against Facebook’s policy. “That event made us reevaluate,” Ms. Barker
explained. Facebook seemed to recognize the importance of mollifying the local protest before it grew larger. By acting quickly, agreeing to
stop its practice of deleting dead users, Facebook was able to forestall
an interminable and controversial national dialogue about what to do
with the digital dead. Instead, Facebook’s response to the protest, and
the protest itself, almost entirely escaped media attention, except for the
single article quoted above, in a small blog several cursor clicks away
from USA Today’s main page.
What transpired after the shootings amounted to much more than
merely a secretive change in policy. Facebook’s decision to open its doors
to the dead meant that the website was fundamentally transformed.
Since Facebook’s birth, it had been a society without any enduring
practices for dealing with death. But as a result of the Virginia Tech
shootings, Facebook gained its first real death customs, a cultural milestone. Lacking these customs, the hub of Internet culture had all the
while been lacking the most basic requirement of culture. Now Facebook
users were permitted their messy mortality.
Still, despite becoming suddenly more reflective of the real world,
Facebook remained an essentially unnatural place. Now that the dead
were acknowledged, allowed to be visible, it was alarming how lifelike
they appeared. In every way, the dead looked indistinguishable from the
living, except, as in Neverland, they never aged.