When Someone Dies, What Does Facebook Do With Their Profiles?


A life beyond the one we are living will succeed us. Much like cave art, writing, and grave stones mark the lives of those who have passed, Facebook has become something entwined and integrated into the lives of the millennial generation that will continue to live on beyond our time here on Earth. Facebook has become this entity that we leave a record of ourselves on in a way unlike any before. With over half of the world's internet users on Facebook, we are in a period where people are essentially maintaining their real-time autobiographies. It has become a reference book for our own existences that can be visited and augmented at any time.

The problem lies in what we should leave of our legacy on Facebook, if they admittedly report that our information never really disappears from their servers.

About five years ago, a good friend of mine passed away and his Facebook still survives. I can search his name and leave a comment on his wall at any time. His Facebook has become a memorial that will last as long as Facebook remains part of our reality. In fact, Facebook has even made a “deceased” memorial option that freezes the profile of the deceased person so that people cannot write status updates. The option even goes as far as to bar the person from appearing in news feeds or in Facebook “suggestions” so as not to remind people of their deceased loved ones. Facebook realizes the implications of the vast stores of lives and information they hold and they take their job very seriously. Facebook is currently holding some 30 million deceased profiles on the site.

But, like all things, what goes up must come down. While Facebook has done very well for itself with steady growth for the better part of the past decade, some recent dips in users have made some wonder what the Facebook saturation point is. As Brett Ryan pointed out in his piece for PolicyMic, while a dip of 1.4 million users in Facebook terms is nothing to be alarmed at, it is enough to prompt the discussion of: How much is too much Facebook? And furthermore, what will Facebook do with all of us?

As Facebook appears to be in a period of leveling, the issue of making sure Facebook completely deletes information comes into question. In 2011, Austrian law student Max Schrems emailed Facebook for a record of his data just to see how much information Facebook had. He was shocked to find out that Facebook still had records of information he had supposedly deleted in the three years since he joined the site.

The amount of information Facebook had, according to Schrems, was potentially damaging and if it is assumed that something once deleted is deleted forever, then it is criminal to still have the information. Schrems ultimately got to sit down with Facebook execs for six-hours to tell them everything he disliked about the site. As a result of his court case Europe v. Facebook, Facebook has made even more of their recorded information available to users. If you ever wanted to see every person you poked, send Facebook an email and they'll tell you.

In a related story that ran in the Huffington Post this past August, Facebook has also come under fire for taking years to ultimately “kill” the URLs of deleted photos. But, like most things brought to Facebook's attention, they have since cleaned up their act, so that the links to photos are killed within minutes of being deleted. Historically, Facebook has been quick to react to such criticism as they are running a business and it is in their best interest to keep all of us relatively happy.

Information is most definitely power, but a very modern problem is the willingness of people to share information with an online service. Facebook offers a free service to curate, what I called earlier, an autobiography of the user. It is the responsibility of the user to share the information that they find reasonable.

The whole concept of an online program that manages the personal information for millions of people for them to share and connect with other friends is somewhat ridiculous. It is more ridiculous to naïvely demand that Facebook take care of the information that is on the site. Facebook is built to hold information, not clean it up for us. Facebook is not the CIA, but their open and free policy of accepting information makes them confusingly tantalizing, especially when considering them as a record of ourselves. We all have a desire, at some level, to leave a part of ourselves behind for others to see; Facebook is the most obvious platform we engage in, consciously or subconsciously, to preserve ourselves and show others where we've been and what we've done and, in turn, to get that information from others.

The responsibility of privacy is not so much in the hands of Facebook as it is in our own to decide what Facebook should have. With great freedom comes great responsibility, on everyone's part.

As people start to have desires to “take a break” from Facebook, there are some options available such as “deactivating” a Facebook profile which saves the users information, but makes them invisible to anyone searching for them. In the case of a full-blown, gone forever “delete,” Facebook has claimed that they get rid of all information in such a way that makes it virtually gone. However, they do say that some fragments remain, much like when something is deleted from a hard-drive. It is indecipherable to everyone, but pieces of the information will always remain.

Facebook will one day, like everything else, become obsolete. But, for the foreseeable future, Facebook is here to stay and here to curate our lives through life and death. So, while we continue to pour our lives into their servers, keep in mind that Facebook won't forget us, even if we forget them.