As our lives go digital, Jed Brubaker is studying what happens to all that data after we die.
If Jed Brubaker were to die tomorrow, his husband, Steven, would become the steward of his Facebook page.
His profile picture would remain as it is today, a neat headshot of the 36-year-old assistant professor sporting a goatee, pale blue glasses and a slightly mischievous smile. His cover image might be switched to the lake in Utah where he’d like to have his ashes spread. Above that picture would be a single word, “Remembering,” carefully chosen to alert visitors that he was gone but, in this sacred online space, not forgotten.
Brubaker has painstakingly thought through this scenario, not because he is obsessed with death or Facebook, but because it’s his job to think about it.
As one of the few scholars in the nation to study what happens to our data — including our social media presence — after we die, he’s been instrumental in developing Facebook’s Legacy Contact, the feature that enables users to determine the postmortem fate of their profile. Now, as a founding faculty member in CU Boulder’s new information science department, he’s working to further improve the ways people experience death online, via new algorithms, apps and features designed to sensitively acknowledge a fact tech companies have tended to ignore: People die.
“In social computing, companies think about designing for all kinds of different aspects of our lives — wedding anniversaries, birthdays, you name it,” said Brubaker. “But they have overlooked perhaps the most profound one of all, which is when those lives come to an end.”
That’s where he comes in.
“I’m that guy,” he said. “I’m the death guy.”
Brubaker’s circuitous career path wound through the arts, psychology and tech before leading to a nascent field that manages to incorporate all of the above.
Growing up in Utah, where he was an avid dancer, he dreamed of a career in theater. But his empathetic nature drew him toward psychology. He earned that degree at University of Utah while doing web design on the side, a gig that detoured him into the tech startup world for five years.
Once that life ceased to fulfill him, he pursued a master’s in communication, culture and technology at Georgetown University. When his adviser suggested he get a PhD in information science, he shot him a blank look: “I said, ‘What is information science?’”
The field, which explores the messy intersection of social science and computer science, seemed a perfect fit.
“I tend to gravitate toward the stuff that doesn’t make sense yet, where the fundamental research question is WTF?” he said.
In 2009, while working toward his PhD at the University of California Irvine, he was scrolling through the Facebook page of an acquaintance when he sensed something odd.
Posts on her “wall,” or digital message board, seemed to come mostly on birthdays and carried a somber tone. A few more minutes of scrolling confirmed his sinking feeling.
She was dead, but Facebook had continued to send out birthday reminders and advance her age in her profile. Online, she was 23. In the flesh, she never made it to 20.
“It was eerie,” he recalls.
Not long after that, Facebook launched a well-meaning algorithm called “Reconnect” which sent a message to users encouraging them to “share the latest news” with Facebook friends who hadn’t logged on for a while. The launch, shortly before Halloween, was a PR disaster, as many users got messages nudging them to post on the walls of people who hadn’t logged on for good reason. They’d died.
“It was a technical screw up with very deep social consequences, but how could Facebook have done any differently?” Brubaker recalls. “If people are dead, they can’t remove their own accounts, and if Facebook doesn’t know they are dead, how can they exclude them from these algorithms? It was a bigger problem than anyone realized at the time.”
As Brubaker watched heartbroken family members express their frustration on social media — one woman was asked to contact a friend who had recently been murdered; another was encouraged to post on the wall of her deceased son — he arrived at his next research project.
He would spend the next five years interviewing hundreds of social media users about their encounters with postmortem accounts.
“He saw this issue emerging and took it upon himself to completely redefine a new research area,” said Gillian Hayes, a professor of informatics at UC Irvine and Brubaker’s adviser at the time.
Almost overwhelmingly, people he interviewed about their interaction with the pages of dead loved ones said they liked having a sort of “digital tombstone” where they could post messages, share stories and grieve.
But privacy settings often had sad unintended consequences.
At the time, Facebook managed member deaths — if it learned of them at all — by “memorializing” or freezing their account. The profile still existed for people to post on, but no one had access to control it or manage it.
In some cases, adolescent users died suddenly, leaving behind a profile photo their parents found objectionable (a party pic, a snarky cartoon). When loved ones asked to have the photo changed, Facebook — lacking any idea what the deceased person would have wanted — would decline. In one case, a grieving father who was not friends with his son on Facebook asked if he could be added as a friend so he could participate in the remembrances. He couldn’t be.
I’m that guy— The death guy”
Once the company got wind of Brubaker’s research, it enlisted his help, not only to provide insight into the problem, but to help solve it.
In February 2015, when Brubaker was still a student, Facebook launched Legacy Contact, allowing users to designate a steward of their account who could write a final post, change or update profile or cover photos, add friends and even download photos to share with loved ones not on Facebook.
The carefully chosen word “Remembering” would gently indicate the person had passed, while inviting visitors to interact.
“It can often be so hard for young researchers to get the outside world to care about their research,” said Hayes. “To have Facebook launch this product based on his research while he was still writing his dissertation was just amazing.”
Brubaker continues to work with Facebook to study and refine Legacy Contact, and his research has inspired other social media companies to explore how they deal with user deaths.
At his Identity Lab on the CU campus, Brubaker also has begun exploring other challenges related to online discourse about life, identity and death.
Because social media enables us to rediscover acquaintances we haven’t spoken with for decades, for instance, we are now subjected to more individual deaths than any generation that has come before us. That raises sticky questions.
“How are you supposed to grieve the death of someone you would have otherwise forgotten?” he said, noting that when people grieve too openly online, they’re often accused of “rubbernecking” or “grief tourism.”
In one recent study co-authored with Katie Gach, a doctoral student at CU’s ATLAS Institute, the duo analyzed thousands of online comments responding to the deaths of Prince, David Bowie and actor Alan Rickman. They found that commenters routinely mocked others. Some even dissed the dead.
“These people were fighting in what was essentially an online wake. This would never happen in a normal, prenewsfeed world,” said Brubaker, who believes subtle changes could be made to algorithms so the most toxic online comments (which tend to get the most clicks) don’t necessarily rise to the top.
I hope death is a little bit kinder to people”
He and his students are also mulling outside-the-box ideas that could someday extend the way we interact with the dead via their data.
Want to go to grandma’s favorite restaurant and order her favorite dish on her birthday? Maybe you could tap into her Yelp data to find out what it was.
Missing an old friend? Maybe you could summon a data-driven, holographic representation of her.
Brubaker knows this sounds creepy. But there was a time when photographs or videos of the dead seemed creepy to the living. As technology changes, we change too.
“Whether it will be acceptable or not all depends on how it is designed,” he said.
How would he like to see his own memory live on?
“I just hope that as a result of my work, death is a little bit kinder to people.”
Illustration by Josh Cochran/ Photo courtesy Jed Brubaker