Courtney Purvin got a shock when she visited Facebook last month. The site was suggesting that she get back in touch with an old family friend who played piano at her wedding four years ago. The friend had died in April. She said,It was like he was coming back from the dead.
Facebook,the worlds 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. Its a very sensitive topic, said Meredith Chin,a company spokeswoman. Given the sites size,and people passing away every day,were never going to be perfect at catching it, she added.
James E Katz,a professor of communications at Rutgers University,said the company was experiencing a coming-of-age problem. Now,people over 65 are adopting Facebook at a faster pace than any other age group,with 6.5 million signing up in May alone,according to the research firm comScore. People over 65,of course,also have the countrys highest mortality rate,so the problem is only going to get worse.
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 cant 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. Thats 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.