An email from my mom, who died in mid-pandemic, arrives in my inbox without even announcing it. It reads, “Beverly Blum just comment on a link that you shared,” and then I open it: “Great piece — Father.” My 82-year old father didn’t want to have to create his own Facebook account so he keeps it under my mom. “Thanks Beverly Dad,” she replies. When I rise to make tea, I notice that the digital photo frame in our kitchen displays a photo of my mother on a DC subway when she visited us in freshman year. She looks happy and content. We’re heading to the zoo. I recall the other images that Google Photos will show: my mom in my apartment, or in the hospital singing Ray Charles, or connected to a bunch of tubes. I’ve been letting algorithms dictate how I grieve for over a year. I realize that there is an easy way to fix this. I can hide my mom’s photos and block her zombie Facebook account. But this is how I have gotten used to grieving. Because technology has dictated my memories and when they should be remembered, I’ve allowed it to do so. Katie Gach, a digital ethnographer at University of Colorado Boulder, spent years trying to understand people like me on Facebook. Gach has spoken to more than 80 people about their interactions with deceased profiles. Gach claims that the official tally of the deceased’s Facebook friends is not publicly available. However, she says that “very few” people have used Facebook’s memorialization tools. These allow them to name “legacy contact” who can help them manage their profile and avoid unnecessary triggers. A legacy contact can edit a profile photo, post tributes, but cannot make new friend requests or access messages. It takes some legwork to memorialize an account, including providing documentation about the death. Facebook has other ways to keep the dead from appearing where they shouldn’t. For example, if you go on a six-month off-the grid trip to Nepal, Facebook’s machine learning software will automatically assume that you are dead and remove your name from invitation suggestions and birthday notifications. Gach says that Facebook has this sense of divine omniscience. “But when has a system ever known that someone died?” Telemarketers don’t stop calling. We don’t see Facebook as an entity that requires telling us about anything, because it automates so many other aspects of our lives.”

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