March 20, 2014

Social Media and Immortality

I suppose everyone who uses social networks like Facebook eventually comes up against the situation when that network presents a dead friend in some context that only makes sense about someone who is alive and actively maintaining a social media presence. I just did, again.

In this particular case it was triggered by the suggestion from LinkedIn that I might like to add a fellow Learning Tree instructor to my roster of friends. He died, quite young and to most of his colleagues' surprise, about fifteen months ago (if my memory can be relied upon, which I wouldn't necessarily recommend as a strategy). I've seen similar reports on Twitter from other friends.

Now, I'm just a guy who chose to eschew the corporate career ladder and work on small systems that do demonstrable good, so I freely admit that the young devops turks of today are able to develop far more capable systems that I could have conceived of at their age. That's just the nature of technological progress. At the same time, I have to wonder why nobody appears to have asked the question "Should we take special actions (or at least avoid taking regular ones) for users who haven't logged in in over a year?"

Do they have no business analysts? Must we geeks be responsible for avoiding even the most predictable social gaffes?

Sidebar: I once designed the database for a system that monitored the repayment of student support funds by those who had accepted assistance from the federal government to train in teaching disadvantaged students. There were certain valid reasons for deferring repayment (such as military service), and of course these deferrals had to be recorded. I remember feeling very satisfied that all I had to do was associate the null value with the deferral duration for "Dead" as the referral reason to have everything work perfectly well.

The answer to my question of two paragraphs above, by the way, would be “yes”. This will be the last time I give free advice to the social media companies, so Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and the rest, I hope you can find some benefit in this advice. Anything further will cost you dearly. (I should be so lucky).

Quite separately from the above speculations on human frailty, I can't help wondering what kind of immortality a continued existence on these platforms represents (even though this will probably lead to hate mail from all kinds of people the concept offends). I had an email from Google a couple of days ago asking me to log in with a particular identity* within a month or have the account go inactive. That's a necessary second step to whatever palliative actions you choose to take when presenting the account to others. Google, for all their execrable support,** get that you have to log in now and again just to assert your continued existence.

It strikes me this is a reasonably humane way to proceed. If you want to keep someone's memory alive on a social media platform then you must know them at least well enough to log in to their account, after which it's basically your shrine to them if you want it to be. I really don't like to think about what kind of complications the lawyers will dream up about this, though. Otherwise, well, we are after all all born to die (Ray Kurzweil notwithstanding).

*Note to the Google identity nazis: no, of course I was joking, I only have one identity
** Hint re Google customer service: if you aren't paying you aren't a customer, so expecting service might seem presumptuous