Facebook gets a bad rap a lot of the time, but it is good for some things. These include: keeping on top of your group chat with 13 former school friends who now live on different corners of the earth, watching funny cat videos, or providing a helpful log of all of your worst haircuts and outfits over the years in an array of embarrassing photo albums.
It has become something far less mundane for those of us who have lost loved ones and are left to deal with their digital legacy, which can bring both comfort and distress. Yesterday, Facebook announced it would harness artificial intelligence to halt what it admitted had been intrusions into users’ grief: from suggestions they invite dead friends to events to reminders to wish them happy birthday.
It’s not the first instance of Facebook’s mishandling of the digital afterlife. In 2014 the company apologised for its ‘Year in Review’ feature – which algorithmically turns users’ posts into videos, regardless of their content – after a Eric Meyer's featured his recently-deceased daughter against a backdrop of balloons. Others have complained of being shown ultrasounds posted before a miscarriage, or recommendations to add a cousin’s dead son as a ‘friend’.
Even Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg admitted that she didn’t have the power to keep her late husband, Dave Goldberg’s name from appearing on the platform in unexpected places after his sudden death in 2015. “It would show up as if he were still alive, or suggest a friend, and there were things that were happening that I think were really painful,” she said, calling this update “very, very close to my heart.”
Facebook became a similarly treacherous place for me after the death of two of my best friends in 2015. Amy Watts died in the March, aged 37, after a painful battle with cancer. Just three months later our mutual friend, my best friend of ten years, and ex-boyfriend of three years, Ish Sahotay died in his sleep of sudden arrhythmic death syndrome (SADS), aged just 26.
The devastation I felt in those months is hard to think about, even now. These were two people who I loved, and who loved me, most in the world – and we had been close as a trio. Now suddenly neither of them was there. One had been taken from me gradually and in torment, the other was here one day and simply no longer existed the next.
I found that social media provided a strange solace in the weeks following both Amy and Ish’s deaths. I used it to pay tribute to my friends, to unleash my grief and tell the world how much I loved them. It helped me feel less alone, and I could chat to people who were as heartbroken as I was. I would scroll through photos of us together, and read old messages: it was the only part of my friends that still tangibly existed.
As time passed, however, I had to try not to focus so much on the things which had turned my life upside down so dramatically. I quickly realised that Facebook wasn’t going to make it so easy for me to try and pick myself up.
Because of my closeness with both Amy and Ish my page was littered with our memories; reminders of shared jokes, photographs of nights out and holidays we had taken. The ‘Memories’ function on Facebook, which shares with you all of the interactions and posts on your page from the same day over every year you have been active on the site, was something I genuinely dreaded.
A message on my wall from Amy telling me that she would always love me “to the moon and back” left me in tears on the tube on my way to work. A photograph of Ish, Amy and I arriving at Universal Studios in Los Angeles together for a day out in 2010 popped up one day. Looking at the smiles on our faces as we leaned in for the picture consumed me with loneliness. I was the only one left from that photo, and that we could never have even conceived of that possibility at the time made the photograph even more heartbreaking.
Sometimes I was feeling strong enough to laugh if an old joke between Ish and I, or a stupid photo of Amy and I on a road trip, popped up. Mostly, though, it was rubbing salt into a wound which just didn’t seem to be healing.
Like many millions of Facebook users, algorithms turned my 2015 into a ‘fun’ video of the year’s memories, presumably selected for being the ones with the most likes and comments. Mine was now made up of my tributes to my dead friends.
By the end of that year I had developed crippling anxiety, to the point where I could barely travel on the tube - so scared had I become of being underground with my own thoughts, which would always turn to my grief, and traumatic memories of my friends’ funerals.
One thing I could easily do to stop myself drowning in self pity was to deactivate my Facebook page. It seemed impossible to me that I would be able to move on if I was reliving old memories every day – even if they were happy ones. For at least a year I would leave my Facebook deactivated when things felt like they were getting on top of me. I still leave it switched off for Amy and Ish’s birthdays now, four years later.
It is now possible to ‘memorialise’ a Facebook or Instagram account, with a legacy contact left to oversee the page. This is aimed to stop upsetting content including those wacky Year in Review videos being automatically generated, or to stop their name coming up for event invites.
You don’t have to keep a loved one’s page there at all, of course. When my friend Toby Lovegrove died suddenly in 2016, his family and closest friends made the decision to archive his page and started a separate account for people to share their favourite photographs and memories of him instead. I liked the idea that the account he had when he was alive wouldn’t become a place which was now solely about death.
Although we’re now a decade in, grieving in the era of social media is still pretty uncharted territory. There is no right or wrong way to do things. If you don’t post a tribute on Facebook or Instagram it’s not wrong: you don’t care less than those who have written a 1000 word account of their friendship. There is increasing pressure to do so, as if public acknowledgement could ever represent what’s going on for a person privately. Removing yourself from Facebook during those times to avoid upsetting memories isn’t hiding from grief. As I found: sometimes it’s the only way to cope with it.
Has social media become a 'treacherous' place following the death of a loved one? Or have social networking sites allowed you to pay tribute to those you've lost? We want to hear from you in the comments section below. You can also send your experiences of grieving in the digital age to [email protected].