A new study from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), part of the University of Oxford, estimates that Facebook will have more deceased users accounts than living ones in roughly fifty years’ time.

Day of the Dead.

Image via Pixabay.

How should a social media platform handle the accounts of those departed? It doesn’t sound like a very pressing issue but, based on the results of the new analysis, it’s one that we will have to face sooner rather than later. The team writes that, based on 2018 user levels, at least 1.4 billion Facebook members will die before 2100.

The Night King’s digital army

“These statistics give rise to new and difficult questions around who has the right to all this data, how should it be managed in the best interests of the families and friends of the deceased and its use by future historians to understand the past,” said lead author Carl Öhman, a doctoral candidate at the OII.

If the prediction is accurate, this would mean that the number of accounts created by the deceased will outnumber those of living people by 2070. If the current rate at which the platform expands continues unabated, the authors go on to explain, the number of deceased users could reach as many as 4.9 billion before the end of the century.

This is a trend that we, as a society, have never had to contend with until now — one that’s bound to have grave implications for how we treat our digital heritage in the future.

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“On a societal level, we have just begun asking these questions and we have a long way to go,” Öhman adds. “The management of our digital remains will eventually affect everyone who uses social media, since all of us will one day pass away and leave our data behind.”

“But the totality of the deceased user profiles also amounts to something larger than the sum of its parts. It is, or will at least become, part of our global digital heritage.”

Co-author David Watson, also a DPhil student at the OII, says that the social platform, in essence, amounts to an immense archive of human behavior and culture. So, in a way, those who control what happens to it will “control our history”. Watson cautions that it’s therefore very important to ensure we don’t limit access to this historical data to a single for-profit firm. “It is also important to make sure that future generations can use our digital heritage to understand their history,” he adds.

The predictions are based on data from the United Nations, which provide the expected number of mortalities and total populations for every country in the world distributed by age. Facebook-specific data was scraped from the company’s Audience Insights feature. While the study notes that this self-reported dataset has several limitations, this provides the most comprehensive publicly available estimate of the network’s size and distribution.

The study sets up two potential extreme scenarios, arguing that the platform’s future evolution will likely fall somewhere in between them:

  • The first scenario assumes that no new users join the platform after 2018. In this case, Asia’s share of deceased users will increase rapidly, and will eventually account for some 44% of the total number of such accounts by 2100. Roughly half of those accounts will be owned by individuals from India and Indonesia, which together account for just under 279 million Facebook mortalities by 2100.
  • For the second scenario, the team assumed that Facebook will continue to expand by its current rate of 13% per year until reaching market saturation (i.e. there are no new users to join). In this case, Africa will also take up an important slice of the total number of dead users. Nigeria, in particular, takes the lead, accounting for over 6% of the total figure. Western users will account for only a minority of users, with only the US making the top 10.

“The results should be interpreted not as a prediction of the future, but as a commentary on the current development, and an opportunity to shape what future we are headed towards,” explains Öhman.

“But this has no bearing on our larger point that critical discussion of online death and its macroscopic implications is urgently needed. Facebook is merely an example of what awaits any platform with similar connectivity and global reach.”

Watson says that Facebook should consult with historians, archivists, archaeologists, and ethicists to curate the vast amount of data left behind when someone passes away.

“This is not just about finding solutions that will be sustainable for the next couple of years, but possibly for many decades ahead.”

The paper “Are the dead taking over Facebook? A Big Data approach to the future of death online” has been published in the journal Big Data & Society.