The social media platform Facebook has a problem, and it is not just about the privacy measures or safety of users. According to calculations made by scientists, in a couple of decades the number of dead Facebook users will be greater than the number of living ones.
After a the passing of a close one, modern people have another thing to take into account, in addition to funeral planning and all kinds of paperwork: What to do with the remaining social media account?
In times when social media and all the communication happening in this domain are becoming a more and more significant part of our lives, expressing grief, as well as the topic of death in general, has become a much more usual thing to encounter while visiting social media portals. Annika Maksimov, who studied journalism and communication at the University of Tartu, wrote her bachelor’s thesis about grieving on Facebook.
During her research, she conducted interviews with Facebook users who had lost their friends, and following that, expressed their grief on communication portals by themselves, or had seen others do so.
Because of the sensitive nature of the topic, Maksimov picked the people to interview from the circle of her personal acquaintances.
“A warm and trusting relationship with people making up the sample helps to decrease the risk of my study causing them some emotional or mental damage,” she explained.
The importance of Facebook must not be underrated
The study showed that Facebook is an important place for expressing one’s grief nowadays. The participants considered sharing information as one of the positive qualities of the platform. That the information would reach the friends is especially important when it comes to searching for a person who has got lost or telling people about the time and place of the funeral.
“For young people, there’s no point in putting the funeral announcement into a newspaper, as it just wouldn’t reach them this way. Instead, Facebook is a great place to share those kinds of messages,” Maksimov said.
Finding people to talk and share thoughts with, as well as socializing with other grievers, were also deemed by the participants to be positive uses of Facebook.
On the other hand, tagging a dead person in posts or liking posts dedicated to grieving were seen as negative. Maksimov explained that while now there are five possibilities to react to something on Facebook (Like, Love, Sad, Surprise, Anger), not long ago there was a single one: “Like.”
“At first, clicking ‘like’ after someone’s death was seen as a nice thing to do, as it indicated support. But nowadays it is a total taboo, because it gives an impression that the sad event is something the person clicking the icon likes,” Maksimov said.
What will happen to the lost one’s account afterwards?
What to do with the dead person’s account afterwards constitutes another important question. There are many possibilities. The most common solution is doing nothing – after the person is dead, the page just hangs on there. But such inaction brings about the risk of someone breaking into the account and taking it over.
“As far as I know, it is not a major problem in Estonia right now, but in the US there are estimated to be millions of hacked pages, where the deceased stranger’s identity is being abused,” Maksimov said.
With the death certificate used as a proof, close ones can order the account to be deleted. Then again, it can be turned into a memorial page instead. In this case, the page includes information that its owner has passed away, but visitors might find something there to commemorate them.
Maksimov mentioned the Facebook page of the writer Margus Karu as an example. Margus Karu died in June 2017, but his friends still post on his profile page. The Facebook profile of Signe Lahtein, a journalist that died in a car accident this spring, has been turned into a memorial page as well.
To make sure that the ones left behind after a person’s death wouldn’t have to worry about the question of vacant social media accounts, each owner of the account can, while still alive, determine if the account would be deleted or a certain person, and only they, would acquire limited access to it.
The person chosen wouldn’t be able to read the messages, but they’d have a right to decide what to do with the account.
Most of the people interviewed by Maksimov found that a dead person’s Facebook account should be closed, but not immediately after the death – rather a little later. Closing down the account after the funeral was seen as the most sensible choice. That way, Facebook friends have some time to visit the page and deal with their memories, i.e., download some photographs from there.
The possibility of the grievers becoming too stuck to the social media page of the deceased, which might hinder their coming to terms with the passing, was seen as a potential danger.
The interviews indicated that while expressing grief through social media, many unwritten rules are being followed. People closer to the deceased were thought to have a greater right to mourn in public. Deleting the dead person from the friends list was seen as unsavory.
The people interviewed hadn’t felt much change in traditional grieving and burial customs, rather having spotted the addition of new customs. Such new rituals include mourning on social media.
According to the participants, Facebook has made the grieving culture more public, faster, as well as emotionally easier. One can write out their feelings on the lost friend’s page.
Maksimov said that scientists don’t view posting on the deceased’s Facebook wall to be a bad idea, actually, because it offers the visitors a chance to express their emotions and share the mutual experience, helping them to cope with grief. The interviewed people considered it to be a good custom when a picture and a nice story about the lost one was posted to their wall – some good memory, for example. According to her study, this is seen as more suitable practice than just an outpouring of emotions.
The researchers who have touched on the topic before have recommended sending a private message to the deceased person’s account, where one could describe their thoughts and emotions in writing. In this way it is possible to say everything one didn’t have time to say when the friend was alive, while no one is supposed to access such messages.
It is thought to be impolite when folks start to discuss the causes of death on Facebook and ask publicly what happened, especially when news about the death have made it to the media. In Estonia, too, there have been tragic fatal accidents with the unfortunate aftermath of strangers moralizing in comments sections about all the ways the death could’ve been prevented.
The author of the study considers it to be meaningless at best, as condescending comments won’t bring back the one who has left, while having the power to hurt grievers even more. Thus, one should give serious thought if the comment really is of a decent nature, as well as needed.
Positive influence toward mourning
In conclusion, Facebook is thought to be rather a positive influence for living through the feelings or mourning, but its impact has a lot to do with the way it’s conducted.
Mourning on such a communication platform is a relatively new topic, as Facebook, for example, has been actively functioning just 14 years, and that’s why strict rules and principles haven’t yet been formed.
This and many other questions brought about by the widespread use of Facebook make studying this topic interesting and important, Maksimov said.
The longer Estonian version of this article was published in Universitas Tartuensis, the journal of the University of Tartu.