The central tragedy of human existence is that our lives on the earthly plane are finite. Saint or sinner, the time must come when each of us departs this mortal coil. But whether or not you believe in an afterlife, there is a higher power that dictates how one small slice of your legacy lives on – that power is Facebook.
As is the case with your other important assets and heirlooms, it now appears to be a key responsibility of your social media persona to arrange for a successor for your Facebook page. Even if you have a legal executor for your “real world” estate, Facebook has recently determined that our state laws don’t apply to them and that you will need to name a manager to administer your page after your passing. This Facebook as decreed.
Previous to this policy change, Facebook simply “memorialized” the pages of people who died when advised of their death. The deceased’s profile would be identified with a “Remembering” status, which allowed friends and visitors to share memories on the Timeline. While family members could request that a page be taken down – a challenging process to be sure – they were not permitted to make any changes to the page.
Facebook’s new policy encourages you to predetermine a “legacy contact” to administer your postmortem profile. Once named, the friend or relative can post information on funeral arrangements and other related details, as well as respond to new Friend requests. However, the legacy contact will not be able to log into your account, change any content, or read Facebook messages from friends. In order for a page to transfer to the legacy contact, the social media colossus still requires that your profile be memorialized and requests proof that you are indeed dead. The preferred evidence is a link to a published obituary.
Some of the permissions that will be available to your administrator will depend on choices you make when setting up the legacy contact. In terms of long term consequences, the most important is probably the option to give your Facebook executor access to the posts, photos, videos and information in your “about” section. They will be able to see everything except your personal messages. If you are not the sentimental type, you can also choose to have your Facebook page taken down permanently following your death.
One word of advice: make sure to alert your candidate for posthumous executor before you officially sign them up on the Facebook form. This will help to reduce their alarm when they receive the notification e-mail that your online request will generate: “Hi ___, Facebook now lets people choose a legacy contact to manage their account if something happens to them: Since you know me well and I trust you, I chose you. Please let me know if you want to talk about this.”
The flip side of naming a successor for your social media is the challenge of what to do if a close relative dies without naming a legacy contact. Facebook provides a form for friends or family to request changes following a death. However, you will need to know a fair amount of the deceased’s account details, including the exact version of the name on the page and the e-mail account used to create the page. They also require documentation in the form of a death certificate, a birth certificate or other proof of authority.
Obtaining this material could be upsetting in the aftermath of a death, but we have to understand Facebook’s position as well. They need to establish a high bar of legitimacy to prevent sabotage and pranks. Once you have established your credentials, you have the option of either removing or “memorializing” the page. But Facebook won’t do anything unless you proceed according to their protocol, so the page will remain online as a potentially disturbing online artifact until Facebook changes their policy again. For all these reasons, it is far easier to have legacy contact status set up beforehand. If you don’t want to name anyone, you can simply opt to make the whole thing disappear.
Not everyone will immediately see naming a Facebook legacy contact as a priority in their lives. Even though society has been awash in social media for over a decade, it is fair to say that our culture has not had time to assimilate whether or not a Facebook page constitutes part of one’s inheritance.
But it may well be useful to give the matter some thought. A bit of foresight now could help remove at least one source of anxiety for your family in the case of your untimely demise.