“Facebook is not designed with death in mind and that’s a problem. It was designed for purposes that do not scale to the level at which it is now used in our world.”
If you’ve ever used social media after the death of a loved one, you might understand the problems that Stacey Pitsillides is describing. As a university lecturer in design, Stacey is researching what happens to our online lives when we die and how grieving people use social media after the death of a loved one.
“Unfortunately, you have these uncomfortable encounters with something that hasn’t been well-designed,” she says, explaining how people experience social media after a bereavement. “The kind of design choices that make sense to Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn as a digital platform, don’t make sense to someone who is in bereavement.”
For example, Facebook has an ‘On This Day’ function, which shows you an old photo or status update, with the caption: “We care about what you share here. We thought you’d like to look back on this post from five years ago.” It’s a lovely reminder if it’s a picture of you and your friends at the beach – not so lovely if one of those friends has since died and seeing that photo brings back all your grief and pain.
Lucy Herd, a mother who lost her son when he was just two years old, described the impact Facebook can have on someone who is grieving. “Yesterday Facebook showed me an ‘On This Day’ reminder of a video I’d posted of Jack when he first learned to walk. Some days you think you’re okay, but it knocked me for six.”
“The ‘On This Day’ feature really shows that Facebook hasn’t learnt their lesson. They haven’t brought those principles of designing for death into their actual user experience,” says Stacey.
It seems that the designers and developers behind social media giants like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are lagging behind their users, who are routinely re-purposing social networks to act as memorials or grief support networks.
“These large social media platforms have a community, and that’s why a lot of the grief happens there,” she explains. “Those sites become ad-hoc spaces for memorial. They allow people to understand the dead in a new way and to talk to the dead through their profile. Those spaces, in some ways, are helpful to people.
“There is memorialization in all different environments and platforms, such as in online games and on social media. It shows the creativity of people’s own instinctive approach to bereavement.”
With the general public apparently one step ahead when it comes to using social media spaces for grief, Stacey, based at the University of Greenwich in the UK, is keen to explore how death can be factored into the design of new digital environments where people connect.
“The question is, not just why tech companies are not catching up, but how can we design for death, as a principle, in these tech environments.
“When you build something like that, when you want a community to grow, you need to consider not only the positive, happy moments in people’s lives, but the sadness too. Things need to be considered in equal measure – celebrating an anniversary, or remembering a death.”
These aren’t just abstract ideas or challenges for web developers to tackle. Issues about digital legacy and how we deal with grief online will begin to affect more people as living life online becomes more popular with each generation.
Stacey describes how a family from the Netherlands had to tackle some these issues when the social media site they used for a loved one’s memorial, called Hyves, began to disappear.
“As Facebook took over and as Hyves went down, people started leaving in droves,” she said. “It was a conundrum. What should they do with their loved one’s memorial as the community disappears?
“The family was wondering, do we move it onto Facebook with the community, onto a platform that she never existed on? Do we let the memorial die with Hyves and leave it to become derelict like a Victorian graveyard? Or do we print it off and archive it, so to speak?
“These are issues that will hit us, when Facebook and Twitter are inevitably taken over.”
As digital media becomes an increasing part of people’s daily lives, these questions will become more pressing. For now, it’s up to the developers and designers behind these digital spaces to realize that death and grief will not stay offline and begin designing with death in mind.
Find out more about Stacey’s research into digital death.