Facebook is the biggest social media platform in the world. More than 2.41 billion users log into the site at least once per month: a number that totals nearly one-third of the planet’s population. Five new profiles are created every second around the world, and the site grows its user base by 13 percent every year.
If those numbers remain consistent, a new report from the Oxford Internet Institute estimates that the amount of dead users could outnumber the living by the end of the century. The analysis predicts that, based on 2018 user levels and mortality data from the United Nations, between 1.4 billion and 4.9 billion members will die before 2100.
The report is bad news for the social media site. Facebook is increasingly becoming perceived as a network for older adults, with teens and Gen Z opting for alternatives like Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. By presenting Facebook as a graveyard-in-waiting, the study highlights another reason why younger people might be staying away from the site.
Facebook has long wrestled with how best to deal with its users who have died. In February 2015, the company launched a feature in the U.S. that allows a person to appoint a “legacy contact” to move a profile offline, or officially “memorialize” an account: the option to officially mark a person’s page with “remembering” next to their username. To pursue either option, the designated individual has to submit proof of death to Facebook.
Recognizing that a number of its members have and will continue to pass on, in April, the company unveiled a tweak to its algorithm that stops officially memorialized profiles from appearing in users’ newsfeeds.
“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 Carl Öhman, a DPhil candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute and one of the study’s lead authors. “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.”
The report highlights the importance of evaluating which individuals should be responsible for managing Facebook’s historical archive at length, which could provide a mine of information for future generations. Both Öhman and co-author David Watson, another DPhil candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute, believe that a private, for-profit company would not necessarily be the best caretaker for the site’s vast amount of data.
"Facebook should invite historians, archivists, archaeologists and ethicists to participate in the process of curating the vast volume of accumulated data that we leave behind as we pass away," said Watson. "This is not just about finding solutions that will be sustainable for the next couple of years, but possibly for many decades ahead."
The study comes at a time when individuals are increasingly considering the merits of digital wills: a last will and testament that determines how a person’s digital presence will be managed after they die. With social or gaming accounts becoming a big source of income for many, a digital will allows individuals to pass on their accounts and passwords to another in the event of their death.
Kate Wilson is the Technology Editor at the Georgia Straight. Follow her on Twitter @KateWilsonSays