Facebook has rolled out a new feature which allows individuals to decide who controls their account after they die. Through their security settings, users can assign a "legacy contact," or steward, to manage their Facebook account.
"This has been an incredible opportunity to support the development of a product that can help millions of people," said Jed Brubaker, candidate in informatics at University of California, Irvine. On behalf of the deceased account holder, the legacy contact is able to post an obituary or message, update profile pictures and cover photos, respond to new friend requests, and moderate the posting of condolences and memories from existing friends.
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With additional permission from the account holder, the legacy contact can download an archive of profile information and posts. Facebook will also make changes to "memorialised" accounts, adding the word "remembering" before the person's name. "Memorialised profiles can be unsettling, particularly right after someone dies.
It's not always clear that someone has died, and details can get buried in the flood of messages that friends post," Brubaker said. The alterations to the memorialised account are intended to reduce ambiguity and provide a more supportive environment for the community.
Gillian Hayes, Brubaker's PhD adviser, said there are a growing number of collaborations between information and computer science researchers and Facebook. Brubaker's study advances postmortem solutions meeting the needs of both account holders and their survivors.
This concept of stewardship, Brubaker said, centers on individuals caring for accounts and data they do not own. People's social media identities persist after they die, and even though no one is managing their profiles, others continue to use these spaces.
In the context of Facebook, stewardship provides a way to tend postmortem accounts and balance the needs of the dead with the needs of those left behind. Additionally, stewards let the online community collectively grieve and memorialise a departed loved one.
Facebook product developers took into consideration Brubaker's insights and adopted some of his recommendations in determining how best to improve the demoralisation experience and give people more after-death control over their accounts. "The most gratifying aspect of Facebook's new features is knowing that these changes will make Facebook a more supportive space for people during challenging times," Brubaker added.