You can finally decide what happens to your Facebook account when you die.
In a change of heart, the world’s most popular social network will begin allowing its members to designate someone—what they call a “legacy contact”—to manage parts of their accounts posthumously. Members can also choose to have their presence deleted entirely.
Facebook and other Internet services walk a difficult tightrope between respecting the privacy of the deceased and the demands of grieving friends and family. Previously, Facebook automatically froze the accounts of members it learned had died, angering some heirs who wanted to edit the deceased’s online presence. It will roll out the new options to members in the U.S. on Thursday, with others to follow later.
Asking us to make plans for a digital afterlife may sound morbid, but it can bring clarity to an issue that’s both legally and emotionally challenging. In 2013, Google became the first major Internet company to allow users to select digital heirs for its Gmail, cloud storage and other services, dubbed “inactive account managers.”
What’s the point of maintaining a social network after death? Facebook legacy contacts will be able to manage accounts in a way that can turn the deceased person’s Facebook page into a kind of digital gravestone. Legacy contacts can write a post to display at the top of their friend’s memorialized profile page, change the friend’s profile picture, and even respond to new friend requests on behalf of the deceased.
If they’re granted prior permission, legacy contacts can also download an archive of posts and photos from the deceased, but not the contents of his or her private messages.
All of this is optional. If you do nothing, when Facebook finds out you’ve passed, it will simply freeze your account and leave posts and pictures at the privacy settings you determined, a process it calls memorialization. Facebook says it has done this to hundreds of thousands of accounts to date. (As before, Facebook won’t show advertisements on memorialized accounts.)
Being a legacy contact is different from simply logging into the account of the deceased, and there are important things legacy contacts can’t alter. They can’t edit what the deceased has already posted, or what his or her friends post on the page. If you chose to post a photo while you are living that looks embarrassing when you are gone, your legacy contact can’t do anything about it. A legacy contact also can’t decide to delete a whole account.
These restrictions might upset some people who think their job as a caretaker is to maintain a Facebook page as the nicest possible memorial. “We gave this a lot of thought, and ultimately decided against it for this first version,” said spokeswoman Jodi Seth. Facebook feared that curation responsibilities might add an extra emotional load to grieving, among other concerns.
To select your legacy contact, go to Settings and choose Security and then Legacy Contact at the bottom of the page—it is the same for the Facebook website or mobile app. There you can designate an existing Facebook friend (in other words, only someone who’s already part of the social network), grant that person permission to download an archive of your data, or choose to have your account deleted after death.