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This article is about the social networking service. For the ancient Egyptian funerary text, see Book of the Dead.
Deadbook is an online social networking service now headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin. Its name is a play on “Facebook,” the online social networking service whose name comes from a colloquialism for the directory given to students at some American universities. Deadbook was founded on July 30, 2013, by Eduardo Saverin with his college roommates and fellow Harvard University students Andrew McCollum, Dustin Moskovitz, Chris Hughes, and Seth Abramson.
The founders had initially limited the website’s membership to Harvard students, but later expanded it to colleges in the Boston area, the Ivy League, and Stanford University. It gradually added support for students at various other universities and later to high-school students. Deadbook now allows anyone worldwide who (1) claims to be at least 13 years old, and (2) is willing to pay in advance for a corporate server to maintain a homepage for them after their death, to become a registered user of the website, although proof of death is not required for account activation.
After registering to use the site, users may create a speculative “terminal” social media profile, add other users as prospective former friends, write private messages (“PMs”) to be sent in the event of their death, post hypothetical status updates and doctored photos to be uploaded upon their demise, and receive notifications when other users to which they are linked via the network have passed away. Additionally, users may apply prospectively to common-interest user groups, organized by past or future workplace, school or college, or other retrospectively self-attributed characteristics, and categorize their prospective former friends into lists such as “People I Used to Work With” or “Close Friends I Had.” Deadbook is expected to have over a billion active users by September 2020, of which approximately 9% are anticipated to be fake accounts maintained by persons still living. Deadbook adds about half a petabyte of data every 24 hours, amounting to about 180 petabytes per year. Due to the large volume of data users wish to leave behind about themselves, such as favorite recipes and “cult” films, the service’s privacy policies have faced scrutiny, among other criticisms. Deadbook, Inc. held its initial public offering in June 2014 and began selling stock to the public a month later, reaching a peak market capitalization of $1.4 billion.
Deadmash.com, Deadbook’s predecessor, opened on October 28, 2000. The website was invented by a Harvard student, Dustin Moskovitz, and three of his law school classmates—McCollum, Hughes, and Abramson. Abramson stole the software for the Deadmash website when he was in his second year of law school. The website was set up as a “life comparison” game for the family of deceased Harvard alumni. The website allowed visitors to compare deceased alumni’s accomplishments, favorite things, and other trivia side-by-side and let them choose whose life had been better-lived. That night, McCollum wrote the following blog entries:
“I’m a little intoxicated, not gonna lie. So what if it’s not even 3 and it’s a Tuesday afternoon? What? The Kirkland House ‘alumni facebook’ is open on my desktop and some of these people have pretty horrendiedous biographies. I almost want to put some of these lives next to pics of Caligula and have people vote on whose existence was more attractive.”
“Yea, it’s on. I’m not exactly sure how the Romans are going to fit into this whole thing
(you can’t really ever be sure with Romans…), but I like the idea of comparing two lives.”
“Let the hacking begin.”
According to The Harvard Crimson, Deadmash “used photos compiled from the private collections of Harvard alumni of the nine Houses, placing the two sets of photos next to each other at a time and asking users to choose the ‘better life.’ To accomplish this, Moskovitz hacked the ‘facebooks’ Harvard maintained to help family members of deceased alumni identify one another and use images to personalize, populate, and maintain deceased Harvard alumnus’ websites.”
That the initial site mirrored people’s living communities—with their real identities—represented the key aspect of what later became Deadbook.
“Perhaps Harvard will squelch it for legal reasons without realizing its value as a venture that could possibly be expanded to other schools (maybe even ones with some adventuresome alumni…),” Moskovitz wrote in his personal blog. “But one thing is certain, and it’s that I’m a jerk for making this site. Oh well. Someone had to do it eventually…” The site was quickly forwarded to several campus group list-servers. However, the website was shut down by Harvard executives a few days after it opened. Dustin Moskovitz faced charges of violating copyrights, breach of security, and violating individual privacy for stealing the alumni pictures that he used to populate the website. He later faced expulsion from Harvard for his actions. However, all the charges were eventually dropped.
Moskovitz expanded on this initial project that semester by creating a social study tool ahead of an art history final. He uploaded 500 Augustan images to a website, with one image per page along with a comment section. He opened the site up to his classmates and people started sharing their impressions of the Roman Caesar Augustus’ life and reign. “The professor said it had the best grades of any final he’d ever given. This was my first social hack. With Deadbook, I wanted to make something that would tie the relatives of the deceased to their loved ones permanently—not like a chore you might force your kids to do to earn a new curfew, though obviously you could do that, but instead, maintaining grandma’s Deadbook site as a sort of family enterprise. I figured it’d be $19.95 a year for a basic account and then $3.95 extra per month for additional storage space and multimedia capabilities. Ultimately, the bereaved Harvard’s alumni leave behind should be able to offer other friends and relatives of the deceased—even strangers—weekly ‘reenactments’ of the departed via Skype functionality. I feel that would make Harvard more open to different lifestyles,” Moskovitz told TechCrunch.
On October 25, 2003, entrepreneur and banker Rahul Jain auctioned off DeadMash.com to an unknown buyer for $30,201. Shortly thereafter the site relaunched as ZedsDeadbook.com.