As of February 12th, Facebook has established a new policy regarding the accessibility of pages belonging to users after their death. The new policy allows users to choose a “legacy contact” from among their family and friends who also have Facebook profiles. These “legacy contacts” have the right to manage certain aspects of the account, including to change profile pictures and cover photos, accept and reject friend requests and write a pinned memorialization note for their profile—a digital eulogy. The legacy contacts will have no access to messages or the right to log in as the user.
Welcome to mourning in the digital age.
Previously, after the death of a user had been verified, Facebook “memorialized” the account, which meant freezing the page in the condition it had been left in. However, Facebook chose to revise its previous policy after increasing requests for friends and family members to have certain rights to access their page.
Facebook’s new policy enables us to work out some real issues with how we choose to grapple with death in today’s world. Expressing grief has become “RIP” posts on social media before the wake, heartfelt personal messages to family members before the funeral. In some sense, social media has brought us closer together, given us a common (albeit virtual) space in which to grieve.
However, what do we do once we express our sympathies? How do we let go? Fortune Magazine tells us that Facebook is “trying to make death less complicated,” but the grieving process cannot be streamlined. By attempting to skip a step in the process, we only complicate the issue.
Memorialization through social media is ultimately not a healthy way to mourn the loss of our loved ones. Though it may be comforting to look back at old pictures or read messages filled with inside jokes, you cannot put the Internet in a box and forget about it. Digital memorialization interferes with an essential part of the grieving process: forgetting and letting go.
All of this is not to say that Facebook should not revise its policies—because its previous policy clearly was not giving family and friends the closure they were so seeking, either. However, we need to keep considering these issues, have an open dialogue about grieving and revise our current laws regarding the ownership of digital assets after death.
As it stands now, Facebook still gives its users the option to have their profile deleted after their death—and maybe this is what we should all do. Besides, is the self you’ve invented on social media really the self you want your friends, family and the world to remember?