Last month Facebook sent me an email to remind me that it was Ken’s birthday. A delightful man, Ken. Right up to his death, two years ago. There’s nothing so heartless as an algorithm, but really …
Facebook says it’s doing what it can to avoid such insensitivities. And you can see the problem. When a Facebook user dies, they often take their log-in details to the grave. So even if Ken’s widow or children wanted to halt the computer-generated reminders that they haven’t talked to Ken for a while or, indeed, that his birthday is approaching, there’s not much they can do.
On social media we all know what would happen if unverified users were allowed to declare someone dead. Facebook says it’s looking at the idea of “legacy executors”, a person that could be designated to control our online presence posthumously. Because, in a digital world, many people’s memories of a loved one are to be found, not in photo albums any more, but on Facebook. Closing down the page and deleting everything on it would destroy that archive of recollections.
The trick is to turn the Facebook page of Ken, and millions like him, into a virtual obituary without creating opportunities for trolls. It’s all about the status of the user. In our brave new world we are either “active” or “inactive”. For millennia we were “alive” or “dead”.
Faceless behemoths like Facebook generate an aura of infallibility. But no medium should be immune to questioning. My own experience of challenging a seemingly incontrovertible reality is more than two decades old.
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