The dead zone: More dead people on Facebook than living expected in 50 years’ time

Amelia Heathman

Following all the privacy scandals Facebook has undergone in the past 18 months, from Cambridge Analytica to storing passwords in plain text, it’s no wonder that people aren’t using the platform as much.

A recent study by Edison Research showed that Facebook has 15 million fewer US users in 2019 compared to two years ago.

However, this could have more complications than just fewer people using social media.

According to analysis by the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) part of the University of Oxford, the dead may outnumber the living on Facebook within 50 years.

The academics predict that at least 1.4 billion Facebook users will die before 2100, so based on this scenario, the dead could outnumber the living online by 2070. This also depends on the social network expanding at its current rates: as of March 2019, the platform has 2.38 billion monthly active users.

Why is this important? With all these people connected through one social platform, and one that is increasing by 13 per cent every year, Facebook is a huge trove of personal data and history. The OII academics are concerned about how this data and information could be used after we have all gone.

The lead author, Carl Öhman, a doctoral candidate at the OII explained: “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.

“On a societal level, we have just begun asking these questions and we have a long way to go. 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.”

In particular, it raises questions about who controls and owns this data: is it Facebook, or the deceased’s relatives?

“Never before in history has such a vast archive of human behaviour and culture been assembled in one place,” said co-author David Watson, also a DPhil student at OII. “Controlling this archive will, in a sense, be to control our history. It is therefore important that we ensure that access to these historical data is not limited to a single for-profit firm. It is also important to make sure that future generations can use our digital heritage to understand their history.”

The authors call on Facebook to invite historians, archivists, archaeologists and ethicists to curate and analyse the vast amounts of content that will be left behind by people on Facebook after they die, to facilitate discussions around what they’re calling “online death”.

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

What happens to your Facebook account if you die?

No one really wants to ponder their own death, but you may start thinking about your online legacy after you pass away.

There are two ways of handling it: you can either choose to have your account permanently deleted, in which case all your online activity will be wiped from history.

Or, you can select a legacy contact who will inform Facebook of your passing, in which case then your account will become “memoralised”.

People will be able to share memories on the timeline and the word ‘Remembering’ appears next to the name on the profile.