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Dying on Facebook Is More Complicated Than It Seems

a lone gravestone
Last month, more than 6 million senior citizens joined Facebook, representing the fastest-growing age demographic among the site's entire membership base. With this surge in elderly users, though, comes a surge in dying users -- something that Facebook has struggled to handle with grace.

As part of its effort to connect us with people with we fall out of touch with, Facebook uses a system of algorithms to cook up a list of "friends" we should re-connect with. The only problem, though, is that the algorithms have a hard time determining when someone has passed away. "Sometimes it's quite comforting when their faces show up," 37-year-old Tamu Townsend told the New York Times. "But at some point it doesn't become comforting to see that. The service is telling you to reconnect with someone you can't." Others, however, derive a unique sense of relief seeing deceased friends pop up on their homepages. Courtney Purvin, for example, was initially startled to see the image of a recently passed away family member, but eventually came to appreciate the reminder. "It made me start talking about him and thinking about him, so that was good," she says. "But it was definitely a little creepy."

Whereas the site used to immediately erase a user's profile upon confirmation of his or her death, it now allows members to turn deceased friends' pages into memorial spaces. Even that system, though, has its flaws. For starters, the option isn't well publicized, and requires users to fill out a form that asks them to provide proof of death, which is then reviewed by a Facebook staff member. Even after the memorial space is set up, the dead user cannot add new friends, meaning that family members who aren't on Facebook can't access their late relatives' photos or Wall posts.

Facebook's most worrisome problem, though, remains simply determining whether or not a member has actually died. With one employee for every 350,000 members, the social network has begun exploring new, automated mechanisms to detect when one of its users passes on. Spokeswoman Meredith Chin says the company is now considering implementing new software that can scan profiles for key phrases like 'Rest in peace,' or 'I miss you.' Yet even that proposal could prove vulnerable to pranks or false alarms -- a reality of which Chin seems fully aware. "[W]e can't get it wrong," Chin acknowledges. "We have to do it correctly." [From: New York Times]

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Tags: death, elderly, facebook, privacy, SocialNetworking, top, web

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