It’s not a wild notion for Facebook adoption to dramatically slow down over time. And while a certain board member may be hellbent on cheating death, our own mortality is even more inevitable than Facebook’s decline. Researchers are now looking at the intersection of these two realities, posing the question—will Facebook soon be more graveyard than social network? And what is our responsibility as a society to document this digital afterlife?
The study—Are the dead taking over Facebook? A Big Data approach to the future of death online—was published this month on Big Data & Society by researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute. The paper explores two possible scenarios—one in which Facebook’s growth completely stops as of last year, and the other in which it continues to grow at a rate of 13 percent a year until it fully hits its target market in the categories for country, year, and age. As the researchers noted in the paper, neither of these hypothetical situations are likely to unfold exactly as illustrated, but that “the true number” of dead profiles “almost certainly falls” between these scenarios, which serve as a ceiling and the floor for how death online may unfold. Either way, the researchers concluded that by 2060 or sooner, “Facebook will indubitably have hundreds of millions of dead users.”
The researchers used data from the UN for forecasted mortality rates by age and nationality, according to the paper. They also scraped Facebook’s Audience Insights page using a Python script for data on the social network’s active monthly users by age and nationality. But, as the researchers pointed out in the study, there are some caveats to their conclusions, given Facebook’s shady prior practice of inflating its metrics, as well as the fact that Facebook’s publicly accessible data excludes users under 18, groups together users over the age of 65, and excludes users who have already died with their profiles still in service.
That being said, the study found that “a minimum of 1.4 billion users will pass away before 2100 if Facebook ceases to attract new users as of 2018,” a stated unlikely hypothetical unless an utterly disastrous scandal were to occur, seeing as even in the aftermath of Cambridge Analytica, Facebook still brought in new users and plenty of cash. If Facebook continues at its current stated pace, the number of users that will pass away by 2100 “will exceed 4.9 billion.” And the paper also found that these posthumous profiles will mostly be concentrated in South Asia and Africa.
“On a societal level, we have just begun asking these questions and we have a long way to go,” lead author Carl Öhman told the University of Oxford, referring to who has a right to the data of those who have passed and how it should ethically be maintained. “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.”
This gets at the heart of what the researchers are exploring in their attempts to understand just how severe the breadth of the dead will be on social networks like Facebook over the next several decades. It’s not simply to point out that, yes, it’s likely that a lot of profiles exist solely to serve the needs of the corporation and the mourning left behind. It’s to start a conversation about the significance of this wealth of data and who it belongs to. Namely, that it shouldn’t belong exclusively to a for-profit corporation, especially one mired in controversy. “It is important that historically significant data are preserved in a way that serves all of humanity, and this cannot be done by allocating the curation of historical social records to any one agent operating in its rational self-interest,” the researchers wrote in the paper.
The study serves as a helpful guiding point for where experts can focus their sights on, both in terms of the scope of the task at hand and geographically where this data is most concentrated—which, as we mentioned, is in non-Western countries. But the questions remain—how can this data be collected in a way that protects the privacy of the individual user, and who are the best gatekeepers and collectors for this type of data that’s in the best interest of future generations? Paper co-author David Watson floated the idea of historians, archivists, archaeologists, and ethicists as experts Facebook should consider enlisting to curate this data.
“And, as Orwell so adroitly observed in 1984, those who control our access to the past also control how we perceive the present,” the researchers wrote. “So, in order to prevent a possibly dystopian future of power asymmetries and distorted historical narratives, the task before us is to design a sustainable, dignified solution that takes into account multiple stakeholders and values. This inevitably requires a decentralization of control and ownership of our collective digital heritage.”