finding out who’s dead—such as word triggers related to bereavement—
but no technical solution has shown much promise so far. The low-tech
solution proves still to be the best one.
But even two years after Virginia Tech, Facebook had not made any
public statement about its “memorialization” policy. Therefore, most
users had no idea of their responsibility to alert Facebook to dead users.
For more than two years following Virginia Tech, countless users must
have died (probably more than three million), but the vast majority
went unmemorialized, simply receding into Facebook’s dark corners,
out of sight and out of mind. This arrangement seems to have been fine
with Facebook—it continued not to make any public statement to promote memorialization. As long as no one protested, Facebook had little
reason to draw attention to a potentially upsetting topic. During this
two-year period after the Virginia Tech massacre, the situation must
have appeared to Facebook to be under control.
In October 2009, however, Facebook introduced its new “
suggestions” feature, which intended to create more connections between users
but had the unforeseen effect of making it very visible just how many
users had died and gone unmemorialized. The algorithm behind the
Suggestions feature identified unconnected users with large numbers
of mutual friends, a situation that suggests two users may know each
other in the real world. The ultimate motivations of this matchmaking
feature focused on less active users and prodded them into more engagement with the site. But targeting these most inactive users, the feature
had the unintended consequence of rousing the dead from their hiding places. Facebook might suggest you “Get back in touch with Sean!”
and there would be deceased Sean’s face. These encounters were all the
more haunting because Facebook launched the new feature just days
before Halloween, so pictures of dead friends were conjured up beside
other pictures of carved-up jack-o’-lanterns and living friends dressed as
ghouls and zombies.
The public responded with a backlash commensurate with their
horror. Within days, Facebook decided finally to make its first public
statement about memorialization. The message, however, read like a
rebuke and emphasized that it was the public’s responsibility to alert
Facebook to dead users.
We understand how difficult it can be for people to be reminded of those
who are no longer with them, which is why it’s important when someone