Social media algorithms are controlling my way of grief


From One afternoon in the middle of the pandemic, my dead mother arrived in my inbox casually, barely announcing herself. “Beverly Blum just commented on the link you shared,” the subject line reads.

In a glorious millisecond, I let myself live in a fantasy world, where my mother was using social media from a distant habitat.

Then I opened the email: “Great work-Dad.”

Ah yes. My 82-year-old father never wanted to be insulted by creating his own Facebook account, so he lurked under my mother’s name. “Thank you Papa Beverly,” I replied.

When I stood up to make tea, I noticed another thing: the digital photo frame in my kitchen was showing photos of my mother on the Washington subway when she came to my freshman year. She has never looked so happy as she is now; we are on our way to the zoo.

I felt dizzy, so I sat on the sofa until the dog felt something unusual and turned itself into a warm lump next to my thigh. Then I remembered the other discordant images that Google Photos would inevitably show: my mother was singing Ray Charles in my apartment or hospital or connected to a bunch of tubes.

For more than a year, I have been letting the algorithm determine my way of grief. No matter who created the code that flipped through my photo album and found the most important person in my life, and then displayed the code of these photos in random order, it greatly shaped the emotional contours of my day.

I realized that there is a simple solution. I can hide my mom’s photo or block her zombie Facebook account. But I am used to such sadness. Technology determines what and when I remember, because I have let it.

Katie Gach, a digital ethnologist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has been on Facebook for years trying to understand users like me. She talked with more than 80 study participants, sometimes for hours, discussing how they interacted with the personal data of the deceased.

“We found that there are many serious deviations in people’s needs for this system and how it actually works,” she said of Facebook.

Part of the problem is that Americans are not good at Plan their death. Although Gach stated that official statistics are not available to the public, “very few” people use Facebook’s commemorative feature, which allows them to name “Legacy Contact“, which helps to manage their personal data after they die-so as to avoid unnecessary triggering of loved ones.

“We can give [people] All the options they want, but if they don’t convey’Hey, you will be responsible for this, this is how it works’, it doesn’t actually help the surviving relatives much,” she said.

Memorial account Basically frozen in digital amber​​: They cannot be marked and are not included in birthday reminders, but they can exist on the platform as long as the company’s servers are running. (Old contacts can change their profile photos and post tributes, but they cannot make new friend requests or read messages.)

Commemorating an account requires running errands, including providing documentation of someone’s death.But Facebook has other tricks to prevent the dead from appearing where they shouldn’t be seen: If you go to Nepal for a six-month off-grid trip, the platform’s machine learning software will assume you possible Gach said that after death, take the initiative to remove your name from birthday notifications and invitation suggestions.but That’s it.

“Facebook has a sacred sense of omniscience,” Gach said. “But when does the system know that someone is dead? Telemarketers won’t stop calling. We just don’t think Facebook is an entity that needs to tell anything, because it has automated many other areas of our lives.”


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