In Brief

The Dead May Outnumber the Living on Facebook in 50 Years

But what will happen to our personal data when we give up the (digital) ghost? Research from Oxford University suggests a curious change.

Calvary Cemetery in Queens, looking to Manhattan (photo by Allison Meier/Hyperallergic)

When someone dies, what happens to their social media profiles? According to academics at Oxford University, sometimes nothing. The number of Facebook profiles for the dead may outnumber living members on the website within fifty years, according to researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII).

To quote a certain television show with dragons and zombies: “What is dead may never die.”

Findings from OII indicate that at least 1.4 billion Facebook members will die before the year 2100. In that scenario, based on last year’s user levels, experts believe the dead will surpass the living on the social media platform by 2070.

The report looks at this phenomenon in the extreme, predicting that the number of dead users could grow as high as 4.9 billion before the end of the century. Researchers believe dead profiles will proliferate from non-Western countries, particularly in Asia where numbers could raise to 2 billion by 2100.

Currently, Facebook allows users to memorialize pages of their dearly departed loved ones through a simple verification process. The word “Remembering” appears next to the person’s name and other users can share memories from their Timeline or provide their own tributes, depending on the settings. Early this month, Facebook changed some of its policies so that the deceased would stop showing up as invite suggestions to events or for happy birthday messages.

Carl Öhman, a doctoral candidate at the institute who lead the analysis, said in a statement that on a societal level, people have just begun asking questions about what happens to their data after they die.

“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,” Öhman said.

The predictions are derived, in part, from United Nations data on the expected number of mortalities and total populations for every country. It also relied on data collected from Facebook’s Audience Insights feature.

The researcher added that “our digital remains” will eventually affect everyone who uses social media and passes away, leaving that 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,” Öhman said in the statement.

Although more than 60 percent of Americans say they don’t trust Facebook with their private information, the website is a repository for billions of photographs, posts, and memories. David Watson, the Oxford analysis’s co-author, said in a statement that control of a “vast archive of human behavior and culture” should not be left to a single for-profit firm. He said it is important for future generations to be able to use the data to understand their own history.

Watson called on Facebook to invite historians, archivists, archaeologists, and ethicists to “participate in the process of curating the vast volume of accumulated data” left behind by deceased users.

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

Contrary to popular belief, researchers say there are more people dead than are alive on Earth. (For example, that’s certainly true of Queens, New York where over 3 million interments reside in the borough’s numerous cemeteries, while the human population is roughly 2.36 million.)

The OII study’s abstract says that researchers “argue that an exclusively commercial approach to data preservation poses important ethical and political risks that demand urgent consideration. We call for a scalable, sustainable, and dignified curation model that incorporates the interests of multiple stakeholders.”

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