Researchers Say Facebook’s Dead Users Could Outnumber the Living Within 50 Years

This study suggests we start thinking seriously about how we handle digital remains.

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30 April 2019, 12:37am

Image via Shutterstock / Compostion

Within 50 years, there could be more dead people on Facebook than living, according to a new study.

If Facebook’s growth continues at its current rate, more than a billion users will die before 2100 —effectively making the social network a mass grave, and an archive of a generation’s history—researchers claim in a paper published last week in the journal Big Data & Society.

To come to that morbid conclusion, researchers from the University of Oxford conducted experiments examining Facebook’s growth. Using data scraped from the platform’s Audience Insights feature, in conjunction with United Nations statistics on mortality rates around the world, they ran two extreme scenarios: One which assumed no new users joined Facebook from 2018 onwards—where their user-level data ended—and another that assumed Facebook would continue at its current growth rate of 13 percent globally per year.

If the site’s growth remains around what it is currently, that could mean a Facebook population of 4.9 billion dead people by 2100, the researchers found. As of March 2019, Facebook had 1.56 billion daily active users.

"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," lead author Carl Öhman, a doctoral candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute, said in a press release. He calls these digital remains “part of our global digital heritage."

Facebook’s approach to the deaths of users has come under recent scrutiny. Earlier this month, the platform announced changes to its memorial services, with a new “tributes section,” a separate tab for all your dead friends. In April the company also announced more controls for its legacy contacts feature—a highly weird process for willing your digital remains to a friend or loved one. If you die, that person inherits your account and decide whether to lock and memorialize it, or delete it entirely.

“Over 30 million people view memorialized profiles every month to post stories, commemorate milestones and remember those who have passed away,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg wrote in a company blog post about these features.

Despite viewership for viewing memorial accounts being high, Facebook is still figuring out how to reckon with its user base’s mortality. In a recent interview with Wired, Sandberg was taken by surprise by the suggestion that two people who are each other’s legacy contacts could die at the same time, say, in a car crash. “Oh my god, that’s so interesting, and I wonder if we should have a second [contact],” she said.

It’s a necessary conversation for Facebook to have as its user base ages. Research firm eMarketer estimates that the 55-64 and 65+ age groups “comprise the two fastest-growing segments of Facebook’s American user base,” according to a Vice News report on how outlets geared toward conservatism succeed on Facebook. And while fake news can feel like an all-encompassing phenomenon on Facebook, in January researchers found that the majority is shared by the elderly.

How the platform reckons with its dead—and how archivists, historians and technology ethicists grapple with how to save our collective digital history from a for-profit company—remains to be seen. This study isn’t intended to give predictions, but a thought experiment for how we handle digital legacies across the internet.

Of course, all of this assumes Facebook will exist in 50 years. But if it does, it might just be as a digital burial ground.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.