The number of dead Facebook account holders could outnumber the living within 50 years, new research has claimed.
Academics from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), part of the University of Oxford, found that based on 2018 user figures, at least 1.4 billion of the site’s around 2.3 billion users will die before 2100, with the number of dead overtaking the living by 2070.
However, the researchers said that if the platform was to continue growing at its current rate of about 13% each year, the number of dead users on the site could reach as high as 4.9 billion by the end of the century.
Facebook, which also owns WhatsApp and Instagram, is the world’s largest social networking platform.
Lead author of the research Carl Ohman, a doctoral candidate at the OII, said: “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.”
Facebook does have a system in place for when users die, which allows them to set a legacy contact to control their profile once they die, with the page becoming a memorial space rather than an active profile.
The social media site said recently that more than 30 million people view memorialised profiles on the platform every month.
Co-author David Watson argued that Facebook should allow historians and others to access data in years to come as a way of understanding history.
“Never before in history has such a vast archive of human behaviour and culture been assembled in one place. Controlling this archive will, in a sense, be to control our history,” he said. “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. 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.
“This is not just about finding solutions that will be sustainable for the next couple of years, but possibly for many decades ahead.”