Personal Archives, Facebook Profiles and the Afterlife Online

Engagement with social network sites like Facebook has become part of the daily activities of over a billion of people worldwide. In 2015, Facebook reported over 1.44 billion active users per month.[1] The increase of active users has brought with it an unanticipated challenge for users and developers of social network sites: an increase in deceased social network users remaining in the same online spaces as the living following biological death.

You may be wondering why this would matter to an archivist. Facebook and other social network sites function as “repositories for visual culture and social memory” and act as personal archives for individual users.[2] Although archivists may appear primarily concerned with the past, preserving records for the future and ensuring ongoing access to those records are the main goals of archival activities.

What is a social network site?

A social network site (SNS) is a web-based service that allows users to “make visible and articulate their social networks” and maintain connections with their “extended social network."[3] SNSs are designed around a user profile, a page that encompasses the user’s online identity on that platform. The profile is created both by the user themselves and through their relationships. Users who are a part of other users’ networks are included in the list of “Friends” or “Followers” who are allowed to access and engage with the profiles of other users within the system. On Facebook, 'friends' are permitted to post content in the form of text, links, digital images and videos to each other’s ‘Walls,’ the central commenting space on user profiles. Access and engagement is dependent on the user’s privacy settings.

How is Facebook a personal archives?

In 2011, Facebook introduced the Timeline, a new way of organizing Wall posts chronologically according to ‘life events.'[4] The new features allow users to add content within the stream of posts, instead of being limited to posting only the top of the page. The ability to suppress or delete old posts, add new content to the past, and shape the way other users access and view the profile page, led to users treating Facebook as a personal archives in addition to a mode of online communication. The definition of archives, as a material, is “the whole of the records made and received by a juridical person or organization in the conduct of affairs, and preserved."[5] As a place, an archives is the repository for records selected for permanent preservation.[6] Facebook is a personal archives according to of the definitions above, both as a group of digital records that are part of the ‘whole’ and as a digital repository.

The conception of Facebook and other SNSs as personal archives has resulted in the expansion of the definition of ‘personal archives’ to include “the collections of potentially any individual with an archival impulse to document his or her life."[7] In a recent letter asking Facebook to allow users to download the contents of Facebook pages, the Society of American Archivists (SAA) commended Facebook for allowing users to download an “archive” of their personal profiles in a zip file. From the SAA: 

This data is of great use to archivists because it allows donors to easily collect their Facebook activity when they are donating their materials to an archive. The data presents a unique snapshot of the individual’s activities on Facebook. Visitors using the donated materials in an archive can view this content in the context of other materials. Most importantly it is authoritative because it comes directly from Facebook and the donors themselves.[8]

Facebook, death and the afterlife online

Although SNSs are primarily the domain of the living, an exception to this is in the event of the death of a Facebook user. When a Facebook user passes away, other users within the deceased’s network appropriate their Facebook profile for memorialization and commemoration. [9] Commemoration of the dead online is not a new concept; in the 1990s, virtual cemeteries began to emerge as informal online spaces for mourners to grieve and commemorate the dead.[10] In a clear parallel to physical cemeteries, the dead are removed from the spaces of the living and sequestered in an “accessible but separate” online space.[11] With Web 2.0 and the rise of social network sites, mourners can engage directly with the social media presences of the deceased.[12] On Facebook the dead remain in the same online spaces as when they were alive, permitting social relationships to continue after death. Facebook friends of the deceased can continue to connect to the deceased’s “real self that has been fully captured by digital recording."[13]

Facebook Help Center: What will happen to my account if I pass away? Click on image to visit page. 

Facebook Help Center: What will happen to my account if I pass away? Click on image to visit page. 

Although the persistence of the dead on SNSs can be comforting for loved ones, others report that they are haunted by the digital presence of the dead.[14] Prior to the implementation of procedures for dealing with profile pages of the dead on Facebook, friends could receive invitations to “catch up” with the deceased, as if they were still alive![15] The introduction of ‘memorialized profiles’ in 2009 helped to mitigate online encounters with the dead. After the passing of a Facebook user, a family member or friend can submit a “Memorialization Request,” which allows users to continue to interact with the profile while ensuring that it does not appear in birthday reminders and other inappropriate contexts.[16] 

Access to memorialized profiles on Facebook is an ongoing issue. Initially, the memorialization of a profile automatically restricted the visibility of the profile to ‘friends-only.’[17] In 2014, Facebook addressed this issue and announced that the privacy settings that the deceased had in life would continue in death.[18] Another issue is the inability to login to an account following memorialization.[19] Although login continues to be an issue, earlier this year Facebook made overtures towards providing for the management of memorialized profiles through the appointment of a ‘legacy contact.’ A legacy contact is a Facebook user appointed by the deceased with the ability to add featured posts to the top of the Timeline (such as a link to an obituary), respond to new friend requests, and update the profile picture and cover photo in the event of the memorialization of the deceased’s Facebook profile.[20] Unless specified in a valid will, a legacy contact cannot access the deceased’s Facebook messages.  

So, what can you do?

Screenshot from Facebook's blog post on "Adding a Legacy Contact." Click image to visit page.

Screenshot from Facebook's blog post on "Adding a Legacy Contact." Click image to visit page.

Currently, a legacy contact cannot be appointed after the death of a user. Ensure that your privacy settings are up to date and appoint a legacy contact to take on the stewardship of your profile in the event of your death.

In addition to managing a memorialized account on behalf of the deceased, a legacy contact can download an “archive of information” that includes photos and videos uploaded by the deceased, wall posts, profile and contact info, events, and friends lists.[21]  As outlined in the SAA letter, this downloadable data is incredibly valuable and ensures that this important part of the ‘whole’ of your records will have the chance to be included in your family's private archives or donated to a public archives for long-term preservation. If we don't capture our personal digital archives now or plan for their capture and management, they won't be available for future researchers. Click here to learn how to add a legacy contact!

For a list of online services related to this topic, see The Digital Beyond's Digital Death and Afterlife Online Services List.


Works Cited

[1] Irfan Ahmad, “Fascinating #SocialMedia Stats 2015: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+,” Digital Information World (blog), January 2, 2015, accessed August 3, 2015, http://www.digitalinformationworld.com/2015/02/fascinating-social-networking-stats-2015.html

[2] Jessica Bushey, “Convergence, connectivity, ephemeral and performed: new characteristics of digital photographs,” Archives and Manuscripts 42, 1 (2014): 34.

[3] Danah M. Boyd and Nichole B. Ellison, “Social Network Sites: Definition, History and Scholarship,” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13 (2008): 211.

[4] Molly McHugh, “Everything You Want to Know About the Facebook Timeline,” Digital Trends (blog), December 29, 2011, accessed August 2, 2015, http://www.digitaltrends.com/social-media/everything-you-want-to-know-about-the-facebook-timeline/.

[5] The InterPares 2 Project Glossary, s.v. “archives,” current July 11, 2015, accessed August 2, 2015, http://www.interpares.org/ip2/display_file.cfmdoc=ip2_glossary.pdf&CFID=5873668&CFTOKEN=91206663.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Amelia Acker and Jed R. Brubaker, “Death, Memorialization, and Social Media: A Platform Perspective for Personal Archives,” Archivaria 77 (Spring 2014): 3.

[8] Society of American Archivists, "SAA Calls on Facebook to Enable Content Downloading for Pages," August 5, 2015,   http://www2.archivists.org/sites/all/files/Letter%20to%20Facebook_SAA.pdf.

[9] Martin Gibbs, James Meese, Michael Arnold, Bjorn Nansen, and Marcus Carter, “#Funeral and Instagram: death, social media and platform vernacular,” Information, Communication & Society 18, 3 (2015): 256.

[10-12] Ibid. 

[13] Grant David Bollmer, “Millions Now Living Will Never Die: Cultural Anxieties About the Afterlife of Information,” The Information Society 29 (2013): 145

[14-15] Ibid. 

[16] Facebook Help Center, “What will happen to my account if I pass away?”, last modified February 2015, accessed August 3, 2015, http://www.facebook.com/help/103897939701143.

[17] Chris Price and Alex DiSclafani, “Remembering Our Loved Ones,” Facebook Newsroom (blog), February 21, 2014, accessed August 5, 2015, https://newsroom.fb.vom/news/2014/02/remembering-our-loved-ones/.

[18-19] Ibid.

[20] Vanessa Callison-Burch, Jasmine Probst, and Mark Govea, “Adding a Legacy Contact,” Facebook Newsroom (blog),  Febrauary 12, 2015, accessed August 7, 2015, http://newsroom.fb.com/news/2015/02/adding-a-legacy-contact/.

[21] Facebook Help Center, "What data can a legacy contact download," last modified July 2015, accessed August 20, 2015, https://www.facebook.com/help/40804433935473.

To cite this post (Chicago Style):

Parker, Marisa. “Personal Archives, Facebook Profiles and the Afterlife Online.” The Family Archivist's Notebook (blog). August 22, 2015. http://www.parkerarchivalservices.com/blog/2015/8/personal-archives-facebook-profiles-and-the-afterlife-online.

N.B. This post was adapted from a paper written earlier this month for ARST 575F: The Digital Photographic Record, taught by Jessica Bushey at The School of Library, Archival and Information Studies, UBC.