Promoting the Dead on Facebook

Why did my News Feed suggest I like a page for a stranger who died in 2013?

Late last month, I noticed an odd post in the News Feed of my Facebook mobile app. It was a black-and-white picture of a girl wearing snorkeling goggles and winking at the camera. And it linked back to a page titled, "In Loving Memory of Binland Lee."

In the weeks since then, Facebook showed me more of Lee. The original photo, plus other personal shots—Lee smiling with friends, Lee as a toddler with her mother, Lee swimming in Belize—appeared in my feed again and again.

I don't mind these posts. They don't ask me for anything. I don't have to like them, I don't have to comment on them, I don't even have to visit the page. But they are unsettling to see, especially when sandwiched between status updates from my friends.


Lee was a 22-year-old Boston University student who died in a fire in her attic bedroom on April 28, 2013, two weeks before graduation. As the Boston Globe reported, she had come home from a party the night before, gone to bed, then woke up to flames and smoke trapping her inside. And most recently, in August 2014, her family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the landlord and brokers of the building.

Nothing about the lawsuit or the circumstances of Lee's death—she had been living with 13 other tenants in a building that had a history of overcrowding and code violations—appear on the Facebook page memorializing her. Instead, what I see are photos celebrating Lee's life. There's a Mother's Day card she sent a few years back, a letter she wrote to her childhood best friend, a certificate of membership into her high school's National Honor Society. Scrolling through them, I learn who Lee was: an only child from Brooklyn; a passionate marine biology student; a close friend to many.

But her appearance in my feed baffled me. I didn't know Lee. I had never heard of her before seeing her portrait. I didn't attend Boston University and I don't live in Boston. None of my friends liked or commented on the photo, and, as far as I could tell, none of them had liked the page either.

So what was the memorial page of a stranger doing in my News Feed as a "Suggested Post"?

After the images continued showing up in my feed in January, I wondered if others were confused about seeing the posts as well. Searching on Twitter, I found Abbie Ruzicka, a radio producer for WGBH News in Boston. She tweeted the following last week:

When I reached out to Ruzicka, she told me she was a Boston University alum—that fact, she guessed, coupled with a friend of hers liking the page, probably led to Facebook cycling Lee's photos onto her feed. "To me it seems like they were targeting alumni of BU," she said. "It's just odd. I have never seen an in memoriam page sponsored post before, but that's just my personal experience."

Neither had I, but I figured I had to somehow have a Facebook connection to Lee. It seemed unbelievable the site would suggest an in memoriam page to anyone, so I scoured each of the page's photos for likes or comments from friends. When I found none, I searched Lee's name. Maybe a friend mentioned her in a status? Maybe Lee had the same name as someone who shared a mutual friend with me? Maybe Facebook confused her for someone else?

In the results, I spotted one photo of Lee. A friend of mine—I'll call her "C"—had liked it.


Turns out, it's a strange—and thin—thread connecting me and Binland Lee. I hadn't spoken to C since 2006, when we had met at a sleepaway camp and friended each other. When I messaged C, she told me she wasn't close with Lee when they went to BU together. C knew people Lee knew, though, which is why she liked the photo. Most important, C said she had liked the in memoriam page, but because she kept her likes hidden, I couldn't actually see the connection.

For C's like to be the one reason Facebook pushed the page onto my News Feed seemed a flimsy explanation, so I asked Facebook for more information about how an in memoriam page could become a "Suggested Post." After looking at my screenshots, the company emailed me the following conclusion:

This is a sponsored post, so even though you didn't like the Page the Page admin is trying to reach people with a message. You're seeing this because the advertiser wants to reach people like you, meaning you fit the ad targeting criteria they chose when they developed the ad.

In other words, the in memoriam page for Lee acted like any other page on Facebook, so its admin could decide to promote its content and to whom. That didn't make much sense to me, though: The page wasn't solicitous with its posts. There was nothing to sell. The page's About section makes it clear it's a place "dedicated for Binland Lee... for everyone to share memories, photos, and information about upcoming events for Binland."

Facebook also suggested I change my ad preferences to stop seeing the posts on my News Feed. I didn't want to do that, however, and I didn't feel right doing that. How can you block a page that asks those who see it to remember someone who died?

Facebook clarified its explanation further in another email:

While this page was created in memory of someone that had passed away, the content that is posted on the page is treated the same as the content on any other Facebook page. That means the admin can promote any of the posts that are published to the page, be it a photo, video, or text post. In this case the admin promoted a picture of Binland that was posted on the page, which explains why those kinds of posts were showing up in your News Feed.

Basically, the content on the page was promoted, an old friend had privately liked Binland Lee's in memoriam page, and it all ended up on my News Feed. Facebook doesn't categorize pages based on intention (there's also no option for creating an "in memoriam"-specific page), so the system did what it was told to do and suggested the photos, even if they weren't ads.

Mystery solved! Sort of. Finding out what happened made me uncomfortable for having investigated my connection to the page. It was strange to see Binland Lee's photos, but they weren't appearing accidentally, or even maliciously. If anything, the page was using Facebook the way it's meant to be used, as a publishing platform. I had simply encountered atomized evidence of the post-print obituary section.

More important, Lee's in memoriam page is another reminder the Internet is still figuring out how to handle both users' grief and the "digital litter" left behind by those who have passed away. Facebook solved part of the problem with memorialized profiles ("We understand how difficult it can be for people to be reminded of those who are no longer with them," the company stated in 2009), but the system's not perfect. Its Year in Review for 2014, for example, was criticized when the project's algorithmically generated slideshows showed photos of people who died.

To me, Lee's page shows where the two primary uses of Facebook coincide. The site encourages people to create, to update, to post. As a social media site, it also wants people to connect by liking, commenting, tagging, etc. A page remembering someone who died acts doubly as a space for friends and family to publish memories and as one to help each other grieve.

But when that content leaves the page and that network, those two uses of Facebook conflict. The page becomes context-free when it moves outside the circles of friends and family or even BU alumni. It's jarring for those who didn't know Lee to see photos of her appear unexpectedly under the heading "Suggested Post." These posts include little information, only a digital trail for me to follow.

Yet, that trail did eventually lead me to the Facebook page's creator: Alaina Blay, one of Lee's best friends since the pair attended elementary school together. As soon as she heard the news of Lee's death, Blay turned to the social media site. "I felt like I had to do something right away, to build a community," she told me. "Facebook was the first thing I thought of."

The page then took on a life of its own. It transformed into a hub for people connected to Lee—anyone from her relatives to her acquaintances—to find each other, something Blay found comforting.

"It gives me goosebumps to think of how far the page has gone and how many people you can reach," she said. "When I first made it, I didn't expect so many people that had known Binland to come."

Of course, people who didn't know her also stumbled upon the page—like me. When I told Blay how I learned of Lee's story, she didn't sound surprised. She explained how the news of the lawsuit and housing issues connected to her friend's death drew eyeballs to the digital memorial. Because she's the page's creator, she has received countless messages from people who didn't know Lee but wanted to share their condolences after reading her story.

For those who didn't seek out the page on their own, though, Blay had an explanation. When Lee's mother joined Facebook, Blay made her an administrator for the page. With the two-year anniversary of Lee's death approaching, Lee's mother has taken to posting frequently, as well as promoting some posts—not to spread any message, but simply to honor of her daughter. "It makes her feel better," Blay said.

And so the page isn't just an outlet for grief or a means of communication; it's a source for understanding the life Lee led: whom she befriended, what she loved doing, and where she went. I didn't know Lee and I never expected to learn of her story. But now, I feel like I know her a little better, all because of a single web page on a site that's home to millions of them.

The page may not receive messages of condolences forever—it's already appeared less frequently in my News Feed this week than it did before—but it will continue to be an easily accessible, thoughtfully curated memorial built by Lee's family and friends. And so will other in memoriam pages, even the ones that don't reach strangers in mind-boggling, algorithmic ways.