UCI Researcher Helps Social Media Get an Afterlife

By: Mohsin Khan

Legacy contacts, Facebook’s latest feature, allows users to pass along their account information to a trusted contact in order to ensure their social identity will be maintained and memorialized after they die.

The addition of this new feature allows a designated contact to gain control of a person’s account after they die. The designate will be allowed to change the person’s name and profile picture, as well as adding a post to the top of the deceased’s wall that will change their profile into a memorial. Additionally, the designated user can also be allowed to download a full archive of the deceased’s images and posts.

The research of Jed Brubaker, a UCI informatics Ph.D candidate and member of UCI’s Laboratory for Ubiquitous Computing and Interaction, was central to the development of the new feature.

“350,000 or so Facebook users will pass away in 2015 and each of these people has an average of over 300 friends,” said Brubaker. “Before, death has been observed in specific place and time, like a cemetery or a funeral home. With the amount of people connected in today’s society, using social media outlets for memorial content is just another way to keep everyone notified and remembered on a broader scale.”

With the constant prevalence of social media services in peoples’ lives and now with the possibility of extending social network identities after death, questions are being raised about the intrusiveness of these services.

According to Brubaker, however, these services aren’t so much intrusive as they are changing the way people interact with each other.

“I think what you already see [are] aspects of ideas from social media being applied to our daily lives,” said Brubaker. “It’s not changing who we are, but how we interact with each other. And I think the way social data has become a part of how we communicate and look into things will play a bigger part of our lives moving forward.”

These changes in data have a particular effect for the ever-growing presence of activism and social movements online. These online social spaces aren’t designed to replace tangible organizing, but serve as an alternative means for individuals to foster communities.

“People are provided new spaces to engage in familiar activities and will allow them to grow on an even larger scale due to all these new ways to connect and interact,” Brubaker said.

When asked if these new forms of communications are taking away from real-life connections, Brubaker said that it’s not merely one or the other, but rather an extension of existing forms of interaction.

“Don’t think of it as it replacing our lives or anything like that. It’s not enhancing the way we live or becoming an alternative. What I like to think of it is as expansion,” said Brubaker. “But with things such as memorials online now, it isn’t replacing the actual funeral. It’s adding on to it, expanding the amount of people who’ll learn about it faster, and can help remember and support those affected by it if they choose to use it.”

Brubaker explained that this type of expansion can be applied to other aspects of life, such as medical records that could be shared with not just doctors, but anyone who be concerned with the health of their loved one.

He also said there could also be implications for higher education, with students being able to see on a registrar’s website which professors would best suit them without having to do their own research.

“It’s condensing what we already do into an easy-to-use way by using methods and ways of communication people are quickly adopting through the use of social media.”

With studies showing that the average college student spends roughly 3.8 hours a day using social media, Brubaker believes that there is a fundamental shift in the relationship between online and real-life identities.

“I don’t think you can separate online identities and real life anymore,” said Brubaker. “They’ve become a part of each other now, and both are always updating.”