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Hot Rod Harris and Black Hesher survive after death

The living will eventually be outnumbered on Facebook

I sometimes get friend requests from the dead, or Facebook friend suggestions for them.
I sometimes get friend requests from the dead, or Facebook friend suggestions for them.

I found out my friend Tanner died from a Facebook post. The weird thing was, I had to scroll really far down through his timeline to discover his death, because posts had continued to appear on his page. For over two years. These were not just posts from others showing up in his feed, these were “new” posts that looked for all the world to be Tanner’s. Some included old photos of him, some were YouTube videos of his favorite songs, and others, somewhat mysteriously, were simply links to articles, with no additional text or context. All the articles were about suicide. All were, in fact, pro-suicide, or at least pro-right-to-die. Before my discovery, I had no idea that Tanner had belonged to something called the Hemlock Society.

All told, there were at least 50 posts to scroll through before I reached the notice of his death, back in 2018. At the time, around 200 people weighed in with comments. Most of them contained the usual “in our thoughts” type blather, but a few addressed the circumstances of his death, which apparently was caused by a self-inflicted gunshot. Most of the commentators expressed sympathy and even support for his actions. He’d apparently been ill, with little hope of recovery. Nobody seemed surprised. But still: nowhere was it apparent who had “inherited” Tanner’s Facebook page. Whoever was posting on Tanner’s behalf never referred to his passing after the day it happened, nor did it appear that anyone else had mentioned it on his surviving timeline.

The whole experience reminded me that I had several other long-dead friends whose faces still appeared on my Facebook and Twitter feeds with fresh “new” posts. And that I sometimes get friend requests from the dead, or Facebook friend suggestions for them. It’s always a bit unnerving at first, but at least most of the dead people I know acknowledge their lifelessness somewhere within their surviving social media. You can spot the RIP posts, Legacy.com links, the sad and happy reminiscences of others. I have one dead friend whose Facebook page is actually topped with a digital version of his real-world headstone.

“As a musician,” says Yucks bassist Rowland Bluntz, “every time I have a show, I set up an event invitation. Then, while I’m inviting friends to come see me play, I’ll scroll through, and it’s sad seeing people on that list who are no longer with us. Same thing happens when I’m promoting karaoke at my bar and scroll through my singer friends and see several there as well.” Though the scroll of the dead inspires sadness, Bluntz says he doesn’t mind encountering the still-active accounts. “It’s a bummer to see, but it’s also nice to remember friends. I definitely want my accounts to haunt everyone when I’m dead.”

It’s the hidden dead who are unnerving. Or, as Donnie Darko might call them, the manipulated dead. “I received a message from my brother on Instagram,” says psychologist Erin Foley-Machnik. “Imagine my surprise. He passed in May. That was fun. They were scammers who got a hold of his account, trying to get me to do something with money. Fun times.”

“As a musician,” says Yucks bassist Rowland Bluntz, “every time I have a show, I set up an event invitation. Then, while going to invite friends to come see me play, I’ll scroll through, and it’s sad seeing people on that list that are no longer with us. Same thing happens when I’m promoting karaoke at my bar and scroll through my singer friends and see several there as well.”

Local singer-guitarist Hot Rod Harris passed away in January of 2013 at the age of 63. So I was surprised when I got a recent Facebook friend request from Hot Rod Harris, who seemed to have a few dozen friends in common with me. When I clicked on the aspiring friend’s icon, I was taken to what looked for all the world like Hot Rod’s Facebook page, with photos of him at gigs and photos of him posing with his guitar. And yet, all of the posts were about shoes. Designer shoes. No, wait, fake designer shoes. The cowboy storyteller I knew never wore shoes like that, alive or dead. What the hell?!

I found the original Hot Rod Harris Facebook page on my friends list, and was relieved to find the man was indeed still dead, with plenty of fondly recalled memories and memorabilia from his long local career still appearing from time to time on his timeline. But there was also a second Hot Rod Harris page, and a third, and a fourth, each hawking questionable merch. All had several friends in common with me, friends who I can only assume didn’t realize that the late musician had been cloned online as some kind of bootleg shoe zombie bot before accepting the dubious digital “friendship.”

“I have an alternate Facebook account, and one of the suggested friends yesterday was my dead wife,” says guitarist Michael Jamsmith. “My wife of 25 years died nearly four years ago. Most people, I think, can relate to the horrific pain one feels from a loss of someone so close. You don’t ever want to forget, but at the same time, remembering can be extremely painful. In the beginning, I was triggered almost daily, to the point where I wasn’t sure I could breathe. Time heals all wounds? No, but time does lessen the pain. Fortunately for me. I have multiple Facebook accounts. My main account has long been connected to my wife’s, but with no posts — you never see it. However, one of my alternate accounts was not so linked. The other day, the very first friend suggestion on the page was for my wife. It was jarring. If that happened two years ago, it most certainly would have triggered another anxiety episode of the sort I have long gotten past. I have no answers. I control that account. I could have shut it down, but how do you bring yourself to do that? It’s about all I have left of her. Perhaps Facebook could allow an account be marked as ‘deceased,’ where it exists, but never shows up in anyone’s feed.”

I got a recent Facebook friend request from Hot Rod Harris, who seemed to have a few dozen friends in common with me. When I clicked on the aspiring friend’s icon, I was taken to what looked for all the world like Hot Rod’s Facebook page, with photos of him at gigs and photos of him posing with his guitar. And yet, all of the posts were about shoes.

It’s likely the dead on Facebook will eventually outnumber the living, according to a 2019 scientific paper published in the journal Big Data & Society. To arrive at their grim conclusion, researchers at the University of Oxford Internet Institute projected mortality and population rates from the U.N. as well as Facebook’s user growth over time. “The personal digital heritage left by the online dead are, or will at least become, part of our shared cultural digital heritage,” according to the paper, “which may prove invaluable not only to future historians, but to future generations as part of their record and self-understanding.”

So it is perhaps unsurprising to learn that there’s a growing fascination with dead people’s social media. Reportedly, around a half million members of a Brazilian-born Facebook group called PGM, which stands for Profiles de Gente Morta (Profiles of Dead People), love to seek and explore the timelines of dead site users. The consensus among those who frequent the group is that it helps with their own grief, and aids in dealing with their own mortality, when they can click on a stranger’s profile photo and then get to know who that person was and what they accomplished and left behind in their lives. Many PGM members even post their own condolences on the timelines of total strangers, which must seem peculiar to anyone reading or managing that page.

Of course, sometimes life is like a Scooby-Doo cartoon, and the ghost turns out to be alive after all. But even in cases such as that, there still isn’t much anybody can do to “correct” digital misinformation.

“My friend is politically active, and very much alive,” says Daniel Knighton. “However, some vindictive asshole keeps reporting to Facebook that he died. Then his profile is shut down, and it’s getting increasingly harder for him to regain access to his account. He knows exactly who it is. Numerous police reports taken, reports to Facebook, all to no avail so far. Facebook is almost impossible to get hold of when mistakes are made, or especially when fraud is committed using their platform.”

Although a person can’t stop getting notifications and friend requests from the digital dead, and although untold riches await anybody who can offer 100 percent protection from hackers, Facebook has added a feature which enables the deceased’s timeline to remain active as an ongoing memorial.

Local scriptwriter Spike Steffenhagen recalls “Before that, I’d just get notifications that it was someone’s birthday. Social media enabled me to find — or more frequently be found by — friends from school I hadn’t talked to in years, and probably would not have talked to ever again if not for the platform. I sent birthday wishes to a junior high friend for two years. On the third year, when I went to post, the latest post said ‘Happy Birthday in Heaven, Mom.’ She’d been dead for two years. Obviously, we didn’t interact too often, but the shock was real."

Spike Steffenhagen and former Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Zakk Wylde at downtown's House of Blues

"Selfishly, every time someone dies from my younger days, I feel my own mortality. Despite the clear evidence that we have aged, the reminiscence of carefree youth makes me frame them as I remember them, not as they are now. So ‘dead’ feels cold and illogical. I’ve received messages on Facebook from dead friends, and bizarrely enough, my own mother, who passed several years ago. Something about a message from the grave saying, ‘How are you? Have you heard the good news?’ sends me into fits of laughter that a psychoanalyst would have a field day with. I know it’s a hacker, but I still have the visual straight out of a horror comic.”

According to Facebook’s Managing a Deceased Person’s Account tutorial, “If Facebook is made aware that a person has passed away, it’s our policy to memorialize the account. Memorialized accounts are a place for friends and family to gather and share memories after a person has passed away. Memorializing an account also helps keep it secure by preventing anyone from logging into it.”

The problem with Memorializing an account, however, is that hackers can still take it over. But memorializing does at least bury those ghostly birthday notices and friend suggestions. Still, someone has to make Facebook aware of the death to Memorialize a page.

And what if not all that person’s loved ones WANT the page locked down that way? According to the press release announcing the function, “If an account hasn’t yet been memorialized, we use AI [Artificial Intelligence] to help keep it from showing up in places that might cause distress, like recommending that person be invited to events, or sending a birthday reminder to their friends. We’re working to get better and faster at this.”

Perhaps a larger problem with Memorializing is that preventing anyone from logging onto the account also prevents anyone from deleting posts made by others on a dead loved one’s timeline. A “Legacy Contacts” feature allows a person other than that page’s Facebook user to be designated in control of the dead person’s timeline after they pass.

According to Facebook, “Legacy contacts can now moderate the posts shared to the new tributes section by changing tagging settings, removing tags, and editing who can post and see posts. This helps them manage content that might be hard for friends and family to see if they’re not ready. These new controls build on features we’ve had in place for years, like the ability to update the person’s profile picture and cover photo, and to pin a post to the top of their profile (often used for things like information about memorial services).” The problem with Legacy Contacts is that it must be enabled by the Facebook user while they’re still alive.

Recalls Steffenhagen, “When my friend Van Bates [aka local hip-hop artist Black Hesher] died earlier this year, his page became a permanent memorial managed by his family. At first, there was a flood of remembrances, song dedications, memes that reminded people of him, that type of thing. It was reflective of his west coast memorial show, which was a convergence of people of all ages and walks of life that Van brought together. It was like an extended family, a hip-hop love fest.”

The late Van Bates, AKA Black Hesher

Now, says Steffenhagen, “I look at his page from time to time and marvel at how opposite of his in-person memorial it is.” The late rapper’s timeline has become a flame-filled battleground. “Women post messages to Van about living the dreams they discussed together, and are often met with hostility from Van’s family members, who accuse them of attaching more weight to their relationship than existed in order to cash in on the attention. Maybe it’s the anonymity of cyberspace that makes people feel comfortable participating in the name-calling and accusations. Maybe the family members are truly defending Van’s memory by calling bullshit. Probably a mixture of both. What is certain is that it is a post burial shit-show played out in public for all to see.”

I knew Van, and was dismayed to find out about the nastiness from people vandalizing his timeline. Although I often told others, while he was still alive, that Van annoyed me with his frequent emails attempting to snag Reader ink for every move made by every fellow musician that we both knew, I called it “annoyed with joy,” because every message he ever sent me was just so damned positive. Like, cheerleader level stuff. Nearly impossibly optimistic, often about things (and alleged performers) with the dimmest prospects of a payoff that would be anywhere close to commensurate with his enthusiasm. So all the negativity on his social media looked – and felt – more than a little like finding graffiti on his headstone.

“I don’t know how Van would have felt about it,” says Steffenhagen, “and I assume that his family, which runs the page, knew better than anyone, and they control the narrative. Which means people’s comments get deleted and they get blocked, resulting in less and less of a living memorial, as fewer people are involved. I don’t go to the page very often anymore. I have memories that pop up where Van and I were hanging out or sending each other inside jokes. I still feel the loss when a memory pops up, I don’t need to pick the scab and watch the battle for ‘Most Affected By His Death.’”

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I sometimes get friend requests from the dead, or Facebook friend suggestions for them.
I sometimes get friend requests from the dead, or Facebook friend suggestions for them.

I found out my friend Tanner died from a Facebook post. The weird thing was, I had to scroll really far down through his timeline to discover his death, because posts had continued to appear on his page. For over two years. These were not just posts from others showing up in his feed, these were “new” posts that looked for all the world to be Tanner’s. Some included old photos of him, some were YouTube videos of his favorite songs, and others, somewhat mysteriously, were simply links to articles, with no additional text or context. All the articles were about suicide. All were, in fact, pro-suicide, or at least pro-right-to-die. Before my discovery, I had no idea that Tanner had belonged to something called the Hemlock Society.

All told, there were at least 50 posts to scroll through before I reached the notice of his death, back in 2018. At the time, around 200 people weighed in with comments. Most of them contained the usual “in our thoughts” type blather, but a few addressed the circumstances of his death, which apparently was caused by a self-inflicted gunshot. Most of the commentators expressed sympathy and even support for his actions. He’d apparently been ill, with little hope of recovery. Nobody seemed surprised. But still: nowhere was it apparent who had “inherited” Tanner’s Facebook page. Whoever was posting on Tanner’s behalf never referred to his passing after the day it happened, nor did it appear that anyone else had mentioned it on his surviving timeline.

The whole experience reminded me that I had several other long-dead friends whose faces still appeared on my Facebook and Twitter feeds with fresh “new” posts. And that I sometimes get friend requests from the dead, or Facebook friend suggestions for them. It’s always a bit unnerving at first, but at least most of the dead people I know acknowledge their lifelessness somewhere within their surviving social media. You can spot the RIP posts, Legacy.com links, the sad and happy reminiscences of others. I have one dead friend whose Facebook page is actually topped with a digital version of his real-world headstone.

“As a musician,” says Yucks bassist Rowland Bluntz, “every time I have a show, I set up an event invitation. Then, while I’m inviting friends to come see me play, I’ll scroll through, and it’s sad seeing people on that list who are no longer with us. Same thing happens when I’m promoting karaoke at my bar and scroll through my singer friends and see several there as well.” Though the scroll of the dead inspires sadness, Bluntz says he doesn’t mind encountering the still-active accounts. “It’s a bummer to see, but it’s also nice to remember friends. I definitely want my accounts to haunt everyone when I’m dead.”

It’s the hidden dead who are unnerving. Or, as Donnie Darko might call them, the manipulated dead. “I received a message from my brother on Instagram,” says psychologist Erin Foley-Machnik. “Imagine my surprise. He passed in May. That was fun. They were scammers who got a hold of his account, trying to get me to do something with money. Fun times.”

“As a musician,” says Yucks bassist Rowland Bluntz, “every time I have a show, I set up an event invitation. Then, while going to invite friends to come see me play, I’ll scroll through, and it’s sad seeing people on that list that are no longer with us. Same thing happens when I’m promoting karaoke at my bar and scroll through my singer friends and see several there as well.”

Local singer-guitarist Hot Rod Harris passed away in January of 2013 at the age of 63. So I was surprised when I got a recent Facebook friend request from Hot Rod Harris, who seemed to have a few dozen friends in common with me. When I clicked on the aspiring friend’s icon, I was taken to what looked for all the world like Hot Rod’s Facebook page, with photos of him at gigs and photos of him posing with his guitar. And yet, all of the posts were about shoes. Designer shoes. No, wait, fake designer shoes. The cowboy storyteller I knew never wore shoes like that, alive or dead. What the hell?!

I found the original Hot Rod Harris Facebook page on my friends list, and was relieved to find the man was indeed still dead, with plenty of fondly recalled memories and memorabilia from his long local career still appearing from time to time on his timeline. But there was also a second Hot Rod Harris page, and a third, and a fourth, each hawking questionable merch. All had several friends in common with me, friends who I can only assume didn’t realize that the late musician had been cloned online as some kind of bootleg shoe zombie bot before accepting the dubious digital “friendship.”

“I have an alternate Facebook account, and one of the suggested friends yesterday was my dead wife,” says guitarist Michael Jamsmith. “My wife of 25 years died nearly four years ago. Most people, I think, can relate to the horrific pain one feels from a loss of someone so close. You don’t ever want to forget, but at the same time, remembering can be extremely painful. In the beginning, I was triggered almost daily, to the point where I wasn’t sure I could breathe. Time heals all wounds? No, but time does lessen the pain. Fortunately for me. I have multiple Facebook accounts. My main account has long been connected to my wife’s, but with no posts — you never see it. However, one of my alternate accounts was not so linked. The other day, the very first friend suggestion on the page was for my wife. It was jarring. If that happened two years ago, it most certainly would have triggered another anxiety episode of the sort I have long gotten past. I have no answers. I control that account. I could have shut it down, but how do you bring yourself to do that? It’s about all I have left of her. Perhaps Facebook could allow an account be marked as ‘deceased,’ where it exists, but never shows up in anyone’s feed.”

I got a recent Facebook friend request from Hot Rod Harris, who seemed to have a few dozen friends in common with me. When I clicked on the aspiring friend’s icon, I was taken to what looked for all the world like Hot Rod’s Facebook page, with photos of him at gigs and photos of him posing with his guitar. And yet, all of the posts were about shoes.

It’s likely the dead on Facebook will eventually outnumber the living, according to a 2019 scientific paper published in the journal Big Data & Society. To arrive at their grim conclusion, researchers at the University of Oxford Internet Institute projected mortality and population rates from the U.N. as well as Facebook’s user growth over time. “The personal digital heritage left by the online dead are, or will at least become, part of our shared cultural digital heritage,” according to the paper, “which may prove invaluable not only to future historians, but to future generations as part of their record and self-understanding.”

So it is perhaps unsurprising to learn that there’s a growing fascination with dead people’s social media. Reportedly, around a half million members of a Brazilian-born Facebook group called PGM, which stands for Profiles de Gente Morta (Profiles of Dead People), love to seek and explore the timelines of dead site users. The consensus among those who frequent the group is that it helps with their own grief, and aids in dealing with their own mortality, when they can click on a stranger’s profile photo and then get to know who that person was and what they accomplished and left behind in their lives. Many PGM members even post their own condolences on the timelines of total strangers, which must seem peculiar to anyone reading or managing that page.

Of course, sometimes life is like a Scooby-Doo cartoon, and the ghost turns out to be alive after all. But even in cases such as that, there still isn’t much anybody can do to “correct” digital misinformation.

“My friend is politically active, and very much alive,” says Daniel Knighton. “However, some vindictive asshole keeps reporting to Facebook that he died. Then his profile is shut down, and it’s getting increasingly harder for him to regain access to his account. He knows exactly who it is. Numerous police reports taken, reports to Facebook, all to no avail so far. Facebook is almost impossible to get hold of when mistakes are made, or especially when fraud is committed using their platform.”

Although a person can’t stop getting notifications and friend requests from the digital dead, and although untold riches await anybody who can offer 100 percent protection from hackers, Facebook has added a feature which enables the deceased’s timeline to remain active as an ongoing memorial.

Local scriptwriter Spike Steffenhagen recalls “Before that, I’d just get notifications that it was someone’s birthday. Social media enabled me to find — or more frequently be found by — friends from school I hadn’t talked to in years, and probably would not have talked to ever again if not for the platform. I sent birthday wishes to a junior high friend for two years. On the third year, when I went to post, the latest post said ‘Happy Birthday in Heaven, Mom.’ She’d been dead for two years. Obviously, we didn’t interact too often, but the shock was real."

Spike Steffenhagen and former Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Zakk Wylde at downtown's House of Blues

"Selfishly, every time someone dies from my younger days, I feel my own mortality. Despite the clear evidence that we have aged, the reminiscence of carefree youth makes me frame them as I remember them, not as they are now. So ‘dead’ feels cold and illogical. I’ve received messages on Facebook from dead friends, and bizarrely enough, my own mother, who passed several years ago. Something about a message from the grave saying, ‘How are you? Have you heard the good news?’ sends me into fits of laughter that a psychoanalyst would have a field day with. I know it’s a hacker, but I still have the visual straight out of a horror comic.”

According to Facebook’s Managing a Deceased Person’s Account tutorial, “If Facebook is made aware that a person has passed away, it’s our policy to memorialize the account. Memorialized accounts are a place for friends and family to gather and share memories after a person has passed away. Memorializing an account also helps keep it secure by preventing anyone from logging into it.”

The problem with Memorializing an account, however, is that hackers can still take it over. But memorializing does at least bury those ghostly birthday notices and friend suggestions. Still, someone has to make Facebook aware of the death to Memorialize a page.

And what if not all that person’s loved ones WANT the page locked down that way? According to the press release announcing the function, “If an account hasn’t yet been memorialized, we use AI [Artificial Intelligence] to help keep it from showing up in places that might cause distress, like recommending that person be invited to events, or sending a birthday reminder to their friends. We’re working to get better and faster at this.”

Perhaps a larger problem with Memorializing is that preventing anyone from logging onto the account also prevents anyone from deleting posts made by others on a dead loved one’s timeline. A “Legacy Contacts” feature allows a person other than that page’s Facebook user to be designated in control of the dead person’s timeline after they pass.

According to Facebook, “Legacy contacts can now moderate the posts shared to the new tributes section by changing tagging settings, removing tags, and editing who can post and see posts. This helps them manage content that might be hard for friends and family to see if they’re not ready. These new controls build on features we’ve had in place for years, like the ability to update the person’s profile picture and cover photo, and to pin a post to the top of their profile (often used for things like information about memorial services).” The problem with Legacy Contacts is that it must be enabled by the Facebook user while they’re still alive.

Recalls Steffenhagen, “When my friend Van Bates [aka local hip-hop artist Black Hesher] died earlier this year, his page became a permanent memorial managed by his family. At first, there was a flood of remembrances, song dedications, memes that reminded people of him, that type of thing. It was reflective of his west coast memorial show, which was a convergence of people of all ages and walks of life that Van brought together. It was like an extended family, a hip-hop love fest.”

The late Van Bates, AKA Black Hesher

Now, says Steffenhagen, “I look at his page from time to time and marvel at how opposite of his in-person memorial it is.” The late rapper’s timeline has become a flame-filled battleground. “Women post messages to Van about living the dreams they discussed together, and are often met with hostility from Van’s family members, who accuse them of attaching more weight to their relationship than existed in order to cash in on the attention. Maybe it’s the anonymity of cyberspace that makes people feel comfortable participating in the name-calling and accusations. Maybe the family members are truly defending Van’s memory by calling bullshit. Probably a mixture of both. What is certain is that it is a post burial shit-show played out in public for all to see.”

I knew Van, and was dismayed to find out about the nastiness from people vandalizing his timeline. Although I often told others, while he was still alive, that Van annoyed me with his frequent emails attempting to snag Reader ink for every move made by every fellow musician that we both knew, I called it “annoyed with joy,” because every message he ever sent me was just so damned positive. Like, cheerleader level stuff. Nearly impossibly optimistic, often about things (and alleged performers) with the dimmest prospects of a payoff that would be anywhere close to commensurate with his enthusiasm. So all the negativity on his social media looked – and felt – more than a little like finding graffiti on his headstone.

“I don’t know how Van would have felt about it,” says Steffenhagen, “and I assume that his family, which runs the page, knew better than anyone, and they control the narrative. Which means people’s comments get deleted and they get blocked, resulting in less and less of a living memorial, as fewer people are involved. I don’t go to the page very often anymore. I have memories that pop up where Van and I were hanging out or sending each other inside jokes. I still feel the loss when a memory pops up, I don’t need to pick the scab and watch the battle for ‘Most Affected By His Death.’”

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