Facebook, the world’s biggest social network, knows a lot about its roughly 500 million members. Its software is quick to offer nudges about friends you have not contacted in a while. But the company has had trouble automating the task of figuring out when one of its users has died.
Facebook says it has been grappling with how to handle the ghosts in its machine but acknowledges that it has not found a good solution. “It’s a very sensitive topic,” said Meredith Chin, a company spokeswoman. Given the site’s size, “and people passing away every day, we’re never going to be perfect at catching it,” she added.
Early on Facebook would immediately erase the profile of anyone it learned had died. Chin says Facebook now recognises the importance of finding an appropriate way to preserve those pages as a place where the mourning process can be shared online. Of course, the company still needs to determine whether a user is, in fact, dead.
For a site the size of Facebook, automation is “key to social media success,” said Josh Bernoff, an analyst at Forrester Research. “The way to make this work in cases where machines can’t make decisions is to tap into the members,” he said. “One way to automate the ‘Is he dead’ problem is to have a place where people can report it.” That’s just what Facebook does. To memorialise a profile, a family member must fill out a form on the site and provide proof of the death. But this option is not well publicised, so many profiles of dead members never are converted to tribute pages.