Jan. 4, 2013 at 4:21 PM ET
While vacationing with his wife in Cancun, Rusty Foster did something many would find inexplicable — he didn’t check his Facebook account. Not once.
But when the couple returned to their home in Peaks Island, Maine earlier this week, Foster learned much to his surprise that he was dead — at least as far as Facebook was concerned.
“Everything seemed OK, but I didn’t try to post anything until Thursday,” Foster told NBC News. Foster says he attempted to log on to his Facebook account, and got the “pink box” instead — the one that reads:
This account is in a special memorial state. If you have any questions or concerns, please visit the Help Center for further information.
Turns out, while Foster was away, his prankster pal had him declared dead on Facebook, where it’s surprisingly easy to falsely memorialize an account. Since Facebook has no realtime customer service hotline, getting one’s profile resurrected in this case required outside intervention ... from BuzzFeed. When Foster couldn't get Facebook's immediate attention, he wrote a note to the social news site asking for help.
How did BuzzFeed's intrepid reporter Katie Notopoulos help out? By turning around and Facebook murdering her colleague John Herrman, of course.
Being dead — at least on the Internet — is “a little bit anticlimactic,” says Herrman. "I’ve been worrying about it my whole my life and it turned out to just be a Facebook status update."
Unbeknownst to him, Notopoulos had reported him dead for the purposes of investigating Foster's claims, not to mention the possibility of an awesomely annoying (and some might say, dark) prank made possible by Facebook's service for the grieving.
When NBC News turned to Facebook to make sense of this apparently slipshod policy, a spokesperson emailed the following statement:
We have designed the memorialization process to be effective for grieving families and friends, while still providing precautions to protect against either erroneous or malicious efforts to memorialize the account of someone who is not deceased. We also provide an appeals process for the rare instances in which accounts are mistakenly reported or inadvertently memorialized.
Prior to 2009, Facebook users who sloughed off this mortal coil had the unfortunate habit of haunting the living — their pictures popping up on the profiles of their former friends, along with the friendly suggestion from Facebook that y’all should “reconnect.” Four years into the network's existence, and with more than 300 million active users at the time, Facebook realized it had had its fair share of user fatalities, and the pile of creeped-out user complaints that came with it.
So the “Memorializing” function came into being, allowing loved ones to alert Facebook to their friends’ passing and preventing the social network from making potentially upsetting, wildly inappropriate suggestions. Any profile that has been memorialized is locked down: Only friends previously approved by the deceased can even view it, and personal information such as phone numbers are removed.
Before contacting BuzzFeed, Foster had attempted to resuscitate his profile by following Facebook’s appeal process — filling out the online form titled “My Personal Account is in a Special Memorialized State.” But he wasn't keen on killing time in social-media purgatory, and the automated reply Foster first received didn't inspire his confidence. “We are very sorry to hear about your loss,” it read, along with some reassurance that his report would be reviewed in according the site’s policies.
“Since I couldn't get on Facebook, I had a lot of time to kill on the Internet,” Foster said. “So I Googled.” Foster says he found more than a few search results about similarly pranked users who had difficulty getting the memorial status removed from their accounts, dating back to 2009. Finally, he sent his note to BuzzFeed.
Like Foster’s puckish friend, Notopoulos filled out a memorialization form for Herrman, and included “proof of death” in the form of an online obit. For Rusty Foster, 36, who lives in Maine, his pal sent a link to the obit for a Russell Foster, 80, of Mississippi. Sure, the names more or less match, but the ages and places of residence do not.
For BuzzFeed’s Herrman of New York, Notopoulous sent in an obit for John Herrmann of Nebraska, who, as Notopoulous noted “is way older” than her coworker. In addition to the age and geographic discrepancies, there's a small matter of the last names being spelled differently.
Like Foster, Herrman didn't know he was "dead" until he tried to access his account. Herrman told NBC News that he attempted to log on, got that pink box telling him he was dead, filled out the form to get things fixed and received the same perplexing “sorry for your loss” automated response.
Yet less than an hour after Notopoulous’ story “How Almost Anyone Can Take You Off Facebook (And Lock You Out)” went live on BuzzFeed, Herrman’s account rose from the grave. Herrman also received another response that may very well be from a real human, which read:
It looks like your account was suspended by mistake. I'm so sorry for the inconvenience. You should now be able to log in. If you have any issues getting back into your account, please let me know.
Foster, meanwhile, says he finds it interesting that Hermann, who was Facebook-dead days less than himself, got the Lazarus treatment before Foster. His own profile did get reinstated eventually on Friday — but without a cheerfully apologetic note.
The spookiest part of the social media ghost story, at least for Foster, wasn’t getting declared dead. It’s what he says happened after he created a second account in order to troubleshoot his problem. He friended just one person, and almost immediately Facebook started suggesting he friend people who were linked to his “dead” account. The thing is, these people are not Facebook friends with the new account's only acquaintance; Facebook was digging deeper into its data to reconnect Foster with his people.
“It’s weird how Facebook is so good about knowing things about you, but you find this one little hole where they pretend they don’t know you at all.”
There's no word itself from Facebook on precautions regarding pranks, but then again, it’s not like there are a lot of jerks on the Internet.