The number of dead on Facebook could outnumber living members of the platform within 50 years — and that fact raises serious questions about what happens to all of our personal data after we die, academics at the Oxford University say.
Researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute predicted that at least 1.4 billion Facebook members will die before the year 2100. In that scenario, based on 2018 user levels, researchers said the dead could outnumber the living by 2070.
The sheer number of dead users on the world’s largest social network -- along with their stored personal data -- “will have grave implications for how we treat our digital heritage in the future,” they said in the statement.
If Facebook continues expanding at current rates, the number of dead users could grow as high as 4.9 billion before the end of the century, the statement said. The research was published recently n the journal Big Data and Society.
Carl Öhman, a doctoral candidate at the institute and the analysis’s lead author, said in the 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 based on data from the United Nations, which provided the expected number of mortalities and total populations for every country, the statement said. It also relied on data collected from the company’s Audience Insights feature.
Öhman said the management of “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.
David Watson, the analysis’s co-author, said control of a “vast archive of human behaviour 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 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 said in the statement.
The study abstract said, “We 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.”
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.