As memories stay online, social companies like Facebook must find better ways to help grieving families

A Missouri man posted a video on YouTube(s goog) this week, asking “Mr. Zuckerberg” to pass on his late son’s Look Back video, a short movie montage that Facebook(s fb) recently gave to all its users. The man described his plea, which came two years after his 21-year-old son’s death, as a long shot — but it worked.
The YouTube video received more than 1 million views after it received attention on sites like Reddit and BuzzFeed, and Facebook soon responded:
FB screenshot
In response to an email inquiry, Facebook confirmed the man’s story but could provide few additional details. A spokesperson wrote:

With the number of people using our service, it’s often very difficult to act on behalf of one. But John’s story and emotion moved us to take action — so we did. This experience reinforced to us that there‚Äôs more Facebook can do to help people celebrate and commemorate the lives of people they have lost. We’ll have more to share in the coming weeks and months.

The episode is a moving story, but also raises hard questions about who owns family memories at a time when people’s memories are no longer represented by photos and letters, but instead consist of digital images stored with giant companies.

Facebook “memorials”

In 2009, a Facebook employee wrote a blog post explaining how the loss of a friend in a bicycle accident raised the question of what to do with his Facebook profile. The company’s response was to offer loved ones two options: 1) deleting the profile of the deceased altogether; 2) turning the Facebook profile into a locked memorial page.
In either case, friends or family must supply evidence of death to remove or memorialize a Facebook profile. For the memorial option, confirmed friends can post comments or tributes but no one, not even direct family members, can obtain access to the account itself.
These policies amount to a reasonable attempt by Facebook to balance a delicate situation: providing services to help loved ones cope with a loss, while also preventing mischief or invasion of privacy involving a deceased person’s account.
In the future, however, this won’t be enough as people leave beyond fewer physical artifacts and, instead, entrust their most precious images and documents to big tech companies.

Does control belong to Facebook — or the family?

While much of what people do on Facebook is shared with their friends or even the broader public, some things are not: messages, photos or posts marked as private, or features like the new Look Back video.
When someone dies, it is perhaps reasonable for Facebook to decide that these private things remain, well, private. Such items are personal to the user and, in any case, how is Facebook to decide who should receive the keys to an account and all those messages and photos — a mother? a brother? a boyfriend? an ex-girlfriend?
While the Facebook policy is understandable, it is still troubling. When people die, it’s normal for their loved ones to enter their house and curate the things they leave behind. And the most important things are not necessarily material ones, but sentimental ones: letters, journals, photos and so on. These are things that should belong to a family, not a company. In the case of Facebook, it’s like a company that rents storage lockers refusing to turn over a deceased person’s key to their family, but instead directing them to a window for the family to peer through instead.
These issues do not, of course, apply just to Facebook. Many of us are also using other big cloud-based companies such as Google or Microsoft(s msft) or Yahoo(s yhoo) to store important and very personal information. And, as with Facebook, it’s these companies, not our families, that will have the final say over what happens to this stuff when we die.
The solution to this lies in part with people demanding more control, and with the companies giving them new tools to control their data in this life and the next. Google, for instance, already offers a tool that lets you tell others how to get into your Gmail in the event your account goes silent for an abnormal amount of time.
Ultimately, it will be necessary for governments to update the ticket of probate and estate laws already on the books to take account of our new digital lifestyles. But governments move slowly and, until they do, we can expect to hear more stories like the one about the grieving father on YouTube.