The Daily Northwestern

The psychology of postmortem Facebook

Tania Karas

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When Northwestern freshman Trevor Boehm died in November 2008, friends and family members flocked to a common gathering spot to mourn together and share their disbelief: Facebook. It was all many of them could do, since his three older sisters were back home in Monument, Colo., and high school friends were away at colleges all over the United States. Initially reported missing by his parents when they arrived for Parents’ Weekend and couldn’t locate him, 20-year-old Boehm’s body was found several days later in Lake Michigan near Chicago’s Montrose harbor. News of a candlelight vigil and two funerals, one at Northwestern and one at home, were spread through the “Rest in Peace Trevor Jon Boehm” memorial group on Facebook. Many friends posted photos in the group or wrote messages on his personal page, expressing their grief and saying how much they would miss him. But more than a year after his death, Trevor Boehm’s Facebook friends are still writing to him, updating him on Nip/Tuck episodes he’s missed and Thai dinners he couldn’t attend. “Writing on his Facebook gives me a way to communicate with him because I feel like somehow he knows what’s being written,” says Ali Boehm, his older sister. “I go on there whenever I have a memory or thought of him. It’s a good outlet for just proactively communicating with him.”

As Facebook and other social networking Web sites become more important to human interaction, these technologies are changing the way people cope with loss. In a world where our digital lives are as real those offline, a person’s Facebook profile postmortem is a virtual open casket. Loved ones and friends write memories of the person on their wall, post photos and create tribute groups. There are no real estimates on how many Facebook or MySpace users are no longer living, and the Web sites don’t disclose such information.

But a search of Facebook groups titled “In Memory of…” turned up more than 55,000 results, and a search for “Rest in Peace…” turned up more than 14,000. For the generation that spent high school on MySpace and college on Facebook, it’s only natural to seek out the Web in times of need. Carla Sofka, professor of social work at Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., says this is healthy and normal. “It’s fascinating that this generation has found a new way to cope with death,” says Sofka, who also wrote a chapter in the recently released book “Adolescent Encounters With Death, Bereavement, and Coping.” “They see Facebook as an extension of how they communicate with each other. And when somebody dies, it’s just a place that’s natural to go. It’s an incredibly comforting way for them to feel connected and cope with absence.” Unlike sites such as Legacy.com and CaringBridge.org, where people write their condolences to bereaved family members and close friends, those grieving on Facebook tend to write directly to the deceased.

NU senior Serene Chen, a close friend of Trevor’s, frequently visits his Facebook tribute group to view photos of him. She and Trevor met on a CATalyst trip his freshman year and often took walks together around the Lakefill. When Chen reminisces about those times, she logs on Facebook and reads through messages others have written him before leaving her own. “I don’t think when I post on his wall that he’s on the computer in Heaven somewhere reading it,” Chen admits. “But I do believe the thought gets to him somehow, and I don’t care if other people see it.”Maintaining a connection to someone after he or she has died is known as a continuing bond, a concept developed in the mid-90s to describe people’s tendency to stay connected with the dead. In the pre-technology days, this meant going to the cemetery and having a conversation with the person, talking to their photo or going into their bedroom.

Sites like Facebook and MySpace have created a new proxy for the old-fashioned ways people maintained relationships with the dead. Jocelyn DeGroot, a researcher at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, who studied group dynamics among 20 Facebook memorial groups, says such communication is therapeutic because it’s natural, especially when this is the way we communicate with living friends. “They’ll write, ‘Oh I just wanted to tell you I just got engaged.’ Or ‘Oh I wanted to tell you your brother looked so good at prom’,” DeGroot says. “If they were still alive, that’s the one person they’d want to tell. So they write it on the wall. They’re well aware that the person is not going to respond to them-it just helps them cope. And sometimes they hope that they might get the messages somehow.”

In October 2009, Facebook Head of Security Max Kelly posted a company blog entry reminding users of the profile “memorialization” policy, whereby sensitive information is removed from deceased users’ accounts, including contact information and status updates.

Facebook also hides a profile from public search, blocking anyone from locating the profile of a deceased person except those Facebook users who were already their “friends” before the memorialization. This also locks the account from future log-ins.

While the intentions behind profile memorialization may be good, the policy creates problems for family members or “next of kin” who wish to maintain the profile themselves. In Trevor Boehm’s case, his family has not requested profile memorialization, nor do they plan to in the future. Though Trevor Boehm did not give them his password, they are still able to access his account by using their home computer, where his username and password are saved on their Web browser.

When he initially was reported missing, Ali Boehm posted a status update to his profile asking friends to e-mail her with any information on his whereabouts.

“The act of being able to put something on his page that alerted all his friends made it feel like we were doing something proactive all the way from Colorado,” Ali Boehm says, even though the status change turned up no leads.

But taking our grieving online may not be such a new thing at all, says B.J. Fogg, director of the Persuasive Techonology Lab at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., and author of the upcoming book, “The Psychology of Facebook.” It is a modern twist on an old ritual, creating a central space for people to mourn together that wouldn’t otherwise be possible in an increasingly mobile society.

“In some ways Facebook is bringing us back to what we used to do,” Fogg says. “It’s like when people congregate in funeral homes after someone dies, and they exchange stories. Before people used to live and die in the same small town. Now people are scattered all over the place. Facebook gives us a place to share our grief.” Though personal messages to the deceased eventually decrease in number over the months and years, people still come back on birthdays, holidays and anniversaries of the death. The surprisingly personal nature of such public messages helps others feel they are not alone.

The sociologist Erving Goffman, who used a theater metaphor to explain most human behavior, would have called this “front stage” communication. Goffman says there’s a distinction between how people present themselves-their front stage behavior-and how they truly feel, which is typically kept backstage and hidden from one’s personal audience.

Grief and loss are largely backstage emotions, hidden under the mask of our everyday routines. Unlike love, which is apparent to others through hand-holding and affectionate gestures, no one can see grieving. Facebook brings our feelings to the front stage, making it easy for others to see that we, too, are hurting.

Typically this display of mutual loss is a kind of support only available right after people die, says Soyka. “(A funeral) brings people together to cry on each others’ shoulders and tell funny stories and laugh together,” Soyka says. “That’s when the support happens, at the funeral. That’s when people help each other deal with sadness. But they don’t have to be in the same physical bu
ilding for this to happen. They can still be helping each other grieve if it takes place in cyberspace.”

Long a taboo in American culture, talking about death and grief is becoming more common in cyberspace. Online support groups have been proven to be beneficial: People who post to these groups, whether using their true identity or remaining anonymous, feel a sense of mutual grief in online communities where they feel the support and concern of others. Facebook and MySpace hold similar benefits, except that they are more personal because all members of a tribute group or those who are “friends” with a deceased person are dealing with the same loss. Soyka says such online grieving has the potential to be equally helpful to face-to-face mourning.

After Trevor’s body was discovered in Lake Michigan, the Boehms decided as a family they would leave his profile the way he left it-his default photo, a picture of two light-up engagement rings from Wal-Mart, is the same, and his “About Me” still says, “Thug means never having to say you’re sorry.” Ali Boehm says she and Trevor’s mother have occasionally logged on to his account to accept friend requests from people who had not yet added Trevor on Facebook or childhood friends who had lost contact with him over the years and found out about his death recently. Other than that, they have mainly left the page untouched. But under memorialized profile settings, they would be unable to log in to the account. “It’s kind of sad because if something were to happen to that computer, we no longer have access,” Ali Boehm said. “We try to hold onto all the pieces of him that we can.

That’s a piece of him that we still have.” The Boehms have contacted Facebook’s Help Center to try to obtain the password, but Facebook responded that it is against their policy to give out the passwords of deceased users. Facebook’s terms of use, however, say nothing about granting access to the next of kin in the event of a user’s death or incapacitation-only that users may not transfer their accounts to anyone without Facebook’s written permission. Facebook’s public relations chief Brandee Barker declined to comment on whether written permission has ever been granted deceased users’ families. But the situation raises a crucial question: Who owns the content we post on our social networking accounts?

It’s a tricky question, one that digital privacy experts are still struggling to answer. The more often we go online, the more likely we are to claim ownership of the content we post ourselves. But by their terms and conditions, most social networking sites are the owners of any user-generated content. This enables them to remove or change content at their discretion. When it comes to who gets a say in what happens to the accounts of deceased users, most sites’ terms of service are very loose on what happens to content they posted to the site. Facebook points to a privacy clause in its terms and conditions, which states Facebook is the owner of all content. Profiles of deceased users can be taken down or memorialized per the next of kin’s request if proof of death, such as a newspaper obituary, is provided. As part of memorialization, sensitive and personal information is removed, which often means artifacts that made a profile personal to one user, like “25 things About Me” notes they had written or their “What’s your Jersey Shore nickname?” quiz results.

Over the past few years, sites like LegacyLocker.com, VitalLock and others have cropped up to provide a means of protecting one’s digital assets after death. In April 2009, Jeremy Toeman launched LegacyLocker.com, where people can store online account passwords and other “digital assets” like domain names to be sent to selected individuals after they die. Toeman says he founded the site in response to a lack of legal means of transferring one’s digital properties to next of kin the way one can give away their house, car and jewelry. “We recognize it’s highly unlikely for social networking sites to offer post-life service,” Toeman says. “In fact executives at those sites will point to us to provide those services for people. If you take a look at Facebook’s terms of service, Facebook owns my profile, not I. Even for sites like Google and Yahoo, it’s their property that we have a license to use. We don’t foresee any changes in their policies anytime soon.”

But third-party sites have no say in the privacy policies of the social networking sites they service. Even if Trevor Boehm had used a site like LegacyLocker.com to transfer his Facebook account password to his family, Facebook’s terms and conditions ultimately dictate what happens to the account. Toeman says it may take a lawsuit or aggressive legal action for such policies to change.

The messages people write on a Facebook wall are surprisingly deep and sensitive, much more emotional than they would be had they been written in person. Mario DeCiccio, 34, created a Facebook group for his only sister Sheri Weiss Coleman and her two young sons, who were all murdered in their Columbia, Ill., home in May 2009. The group, “In Memory Of Sheri Ann, Garett and Gavin,” has been a source of comfort for its nearly 4,000 members. In the group’s first weeks online, however, people were using the site to bash the family’s husband and father, who was charged with their murder and is still awaiting trial. “When the group was first created, some people used it to express their anger towards the accused,” Weiss said. “A few of Sheri’s close friends and I made it abundantly clear that we did not want that to occur. We want the group to be used in a positive way out of pure respect for my sister and the kids.” DeCiccio also said the Facebook group has been a place where he can learn stories about his sister and nephews that he wouldn’t have known otherwise. On the tribute group, he has posted messages asking group members to share memories. He has also posted several photos he retrieved from the Coleman household, asking people if they knew the stories behind the photos. The group provides a central forum where anyone who knew the Colemans can help identify such memories.

For Chen, Facebook helped give her a window into what Trevor’s life and childhood was like before the tumultuous college years. “When I go on Facebook to see what other people posted, I got to know Trevor better,” she said. “There are posts from his friends from home and random people he’d met over the years. It was interesting to see how people perceived him and their friendships with him. And just to see how many people remembered him and are affected by one person’s life.”

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