Facebook doesn't see dead people

One of the more fascinating issues Facebook enjoys is that it doesn't know when its users aren't merely lapsed, but dead. How might it solve the problem?

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

I used to live in a haunted house. The lady who wandered around it in a white nightdress seemed benign enough. She never deliberately startled me or said "boo" and never made a mess. I think she was simply looking for something or someone she'd left behind. It wasn't me, as she had died, I believe, somewhere around 1672.

Facebook now has a similar issue to deal with. Around its vastly populated house, there are people who waft away to the next firmament without leaving a note or even saying goodbye. But they're still there. Out there. Somewhere.

Which is frightfully inconsiderate. It makes Facebook look frightfully inconsiderate too.

Last week, for example, extremely famous tech person Dave Winer wrote on his blog that he was a little tired of Facebook suggesting he contact his friend Guy Kewney.

"Their algorithms must have noticed that he's not getting a lot of messages," wrote Winer. "And that alarmingly he isn't even posting very much! Let's wake Guy up, the 'bot at Facebook seems to be saying. Only one problem. Guy is dead. Like the parrot in the Monty Python sketch, he's pushing up the daisies. He's an ex-Guy."

Facebook, perhaps in response to this difficult tale, has poured its heart out to The New York Times.

It used to be, apparently, when Facebook was full of young people who rarely snuffed it, the company would, if it ever heard of a dead member, simply erase that member from its pages.

However, particularly since the Virginia Tech shootings, you can now memorialize your dead friend or loved one, so that people can still leave messages of condolence or, perhaps, IOUs.

People have many ways to announce deaths. CC Paul Lowry/Flickr

Facebook's Meredith Chin explained to the Times that Facebook would love to be able to catch certain obvious phrases like R.I.P.. But there clearly are difficulties associated with such semantic interpretation. Without direct input and proof of death from someone's Facebook friends, trying to track a phrase like, as was suggested in the Times, "I miss you" could lead to quite unnecessary grief.

And then there's all those people who are blessed with that unfortunately subjective thing called humor. The Times recalls the story of Simon Thulbourn, whose friends reported him to Facebook as being dead. They merely found an obituary of someone with a not entirely dissimilar name.

"When I first 'died,' I went looking around Facebook's help pages, but alas, they don't seem to have a 'I'm not really dead, could I have my account back please?' section, so I opted for filling in every form on their Web site," Thulbourn told the Times.

But while many might grapple with some of the nuances concerning, for example, the fact that only a recently deceased person's existing friends at the time of death can participate fully in a memorialized page on Facebook, I am more fascinated by the more truthful, and therefore more seedy, side of things.

What if people want to suddenly tell the truth about the person they used to know? What if these memorialized pages turn into the worst kind of funeral party? You know, the kind where someone suddenly says, after a sherry or seven: "I hated that bastard. He slept with my wife."

Last week, for example, a fan page set up for a dead killer in the UK, Raoul Moat, enjoyed some of the more colorful exchanges that might be offered by those speaking well (and ill) of the dead.

If every death of a Facebook member was immediately turned into a memorial page, one shudders to think of the sociological and psychological consequences society might suffer.

However, given that Facebook is, these days, more important that any government or other social institution, surely countries might just pass a law that death registries should immediately inform Facebook of every single passing that occurs. After all, everyone on Facebook uses their real names, so one would hope it would be easy to transfer profiles from the living box to the dead one.

Thankfully, this would also offer excellent advertising opportunities for undertakers, casket makers, probate lawyers, and, of course, party planners.