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An eerie Facebook experience

By Jean-Claude Elias - Mar 12,2020 - Last updated at Mar 12,2020

Last week I went through a rather eerie experience with my Facebook (FB) account. I received a request for friendship from someone who passed away about a year ago.

There is a good explanation for this strange FB post that left me breathless for a few seconds. There are also a few questions to ask along the way.

First the explanation. It is actually a simple one. A little more than a year ago I decided to take a kind of sabbatical from FB. I had reached a point where it was just too much for me. I had the feeling that it was unreasonably wasting my time. So I published a post to the attention of all my good friends there, telling them that whereas I was neither cancelling nor closing my FB account, I wouldn’t be visiting the network page anymore, or at least very rarely, if ever.

Fast forward a year or so. Just a few days ago, and after this long absence, I decided to log in FB again and see what was going on there. This is when I saw the “Friend Request” by my late acquaintance. He must have posted it just a little before I decided to take a sabbatical leave, and of course, some time before he passed away.

Now the questions. There is definitely an antisocial side to these so-called social networks. When someone dies in real life, reporting the death to the civil status authorities is not a choice. It is a must and it follows clear regulations, like the short deadline allowed for example. The family must comply by the rules.

When this happens in the virtual life we live on FB there is a huge gap, a major shortcoming in the matter. Significant time can pass before someone cares to obtain a death certificate or any other proof of it and decides to send to FB so that an update can take place. Hence the strange situations like the one I experienced. If no relative or friend acts and sends FB a proof of the death of the departed person the network will do nothing, the account will still be there, displaying all the information, photos and posts that the creator and owner of the account published before passing away.

This is an idiosyncratic trait that is more or less common to all social networks, but the symptoms are particularly obvious and unpleasant on FB, because of the way the network preserves information “forever”. LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and others, also tend to hold on to the information though not as firmly as FB.

If social networks want to imitate real life, then they should do it well, to the end, not just partially or erratically. In countless real life situations the owner of an account must show either activity or a proof of life at regular intervals, otherwise the account is automatically terminated. This is true, for example, if you hold a bank account, receive a pension, etc.

We all maintain a certain number of digital online accounts, from simple email (Gmail, Hotmail, etc,) to audiovisual streaming services like Amazon, Netflix or Spotify. With these accounts, however, no mishap similar to the one I described above would happen because these are not social accounts that have been created for everyone to see and share like FB or Instagram.

There is a lot of fine-tuning and improvement that is still necessary to do before we trust social networks more than we do today. Through the years the creators of FB themselves have acknowledged some aspects of the issues and have taken corrective measures even if only partly – like ensuring better privacy for instance. At this point in time, however, nothing has been done about how the network would update the status of a deceased account holder without delay.

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