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What happens to your Facebook account when you die? It gets frozen in time, finds Nishita Jha

Illustration: Naorem Ashish
Illustration: Naorem Ashish

THE YEAR 2011 has been one of electronic grief. An icon passed away, a Tiger burnt brightly and faded, the voice of love and a thousand ghazals was silenced, the Junglee broke our hearts and an evergreen hero decided it was finally time to leave. As each legend passed away, we became sub-editors and video jockeys — anguished, aptly worded status messages and YouTube videos were our eulogies at the largest funeral in the world — on Facebook.

The new-age equivalent to “is a noise in the woods a noise, if no one hears it” seems to be — did it happen if it didn’t appear on your news feed?

It is hardly surprising in a universe of blue boxes, that ‘Death’ also has a page on Facebook. The latest of the morbid yet- kindly updates on the page reflects, “When the rich and famous die, the world stops to pay tribute. From substance-abusing musicians, philandering tycoons, scheming politicians to deserving humanitarians. But doesn’t the impoverished mother who struggles to raise a child deserve to have her life remembered too? But hey, I’m just Death… what do I know.”

The sentiment finds some resonance in Facebook’s prism of faux-celebrityhood. News — global and personal — is shared, photos uploaded and tagged with feverish speed. As our communication and our memories become increasingly virtual, so do our imprints on the lives of others. We may not pick up the phone to call old classmates anymore, but we are aware of each phase of their lives as it unfolds — vacations, promotions, marriages and births, much like the way we once read and ogled film magazines. Given this careful documentation of one’s life online, the question arises unbidden — what happens to your Facebook profile when you die?

With the many painful logistics that the death of a loved one forces upon us (of the body, of possessions, of wealth) deactivating a social networking account should be the least traumatising. But a quick glance at Facebook’s ex-Chief Security Officer Matt Keller’s blog in 2009, announcing the company’s decision to ‘memorialise’ profiles of deceased people, will shatter such insulated assumptions. ‘Memorialising’ is essentially freezing an account. Once Facebook is informed of someone’s death (and sent a news link or an obituary verifying the information) no future attempts can be made to log in to the account, or access prior conversations the user might have had. What well-wishers can do, is visit the static profile as a place of remembrance, write on the ex-user’s wall, leave tributes like songs, poems and photographs.

Hundreds of Facebook users have commented on Keller’s blog begging Zuckerberg and Co to revoke memorialisation — as one comment by a heartbroken mother states, “It may sound crazy but the amount of work and life energy that goes into some people’s accounts is priceless. It is a shame to lose this information forever.”

Then there are the profiles that escape mummification. Pia Mukherjee, 23, lost her best friend Karan to a car crash when the two were 18, and Facebook had just begun connecting the world. Karan’s profile continues to be ‘managed’ by his friend — “Occasionally, he gets new friend requests from people who want to reach out to his family. But every year, friends write on his wall for his birthday and death anniversary, sometimes just to share some good news,” says Pia.

Hundreds of Facebook-users commented on Keller’s blog begging Zuckerberg to revoke ‘memorialisation’ — the freezing of deceased users’ accounts

Writer Zadie Smith, in her review, Generation Why, an analysis of David Fincher’s The Social Network and Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget, expresses her misgivings about people who will write “missing you babes” on a murdered teenager’s wall. She asks, befuddled, “Do they genuinely believe, because the girl’s wall is still up, that she is still, in some sense, alive? What’s the difference, after all, if all your contact was virtual?”

Fiza Jha, 17, who lost her best friend Aarushi Talwar in the country’s most widely debated double murder, barely had time to grieve before images of Aarushi and her friends at birthday parties began flashing on news channels. “There were pictures of us in sleeveless shirts being flashed with disparaging captions. Aarushi was relatively inactive on Facebook, and we immediately realised they were being taken off our profiles. We had to delete every one of our photographs with her to stop the rumours. I barely had time to look at those photos and think about what I had lost.”

THE FACT that Aarushi’s Facebook profile still lies buried in cyberspace (her last status update, three days before she was murdered — “Yippee! School’s closing!”) is testament to the fact that as her friends grow up, they like the idea of having a space, even a virtual one — where they can revisit the memory of the conversations they shared. “I wouldn’t want that last bit of her to go away. I know that she isn’t around anymore, but I don’t want to feel like she never existed,” says Fiza.

If the idea of Facebook-driven existentialism sounds fantastic, consider the death of 17-year-old Kusum Kumari at St Xavier’s College in Ranchi. Kumari had been seeing her boyfriend Vijendra Prasad for five years when her grandparents arranged for her to marry someone else. Enraged, Prasad waited outside Kumari’s examination hall armed with a khukri, seized her by the hair when she stepped out of the hall and beheaded her. Dropping the khukri on the spot, he fled the campus. Eyewitness accounts claim that outraged friends and faculty thrashed him and handed him over to the police. But what happened next was more chilling than the crime of passion itself — students filing out of the classroom gathered around the body, held up their smartphones and began uploading pictures of it on Facebook. As friends of friends began to be tagged to the image of Kusum’s decapitated body, the news went viral and condolences began pouring in. “Love Aaj Kal”, the image said. A clever caption for every moment.

It’s easy to dismiss digital tears. They don’t smudge your make-up and you can always change the tab if the death updates get too depressing. One can only thank the universe that Camus wrote The Stranger before Facebook and Zuckerberg could memorialise the mother’s death.

Nishita Jha is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
[email protected]

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