By the close of the century Facebook will be a massive virtual city of the dead, researchers have calculated.
An analysis of growth patterns within the world’s largest social media platform by Carl Öhman and David Watson from the University of Oxford in the UK finds that within 50 years the dead will outnumber the living.
Based on 2018 figures, the end of the century will see 1.4 billion Facebook accounts in the name of people who have died. However, if current rates of expansion continue, that number will rise to a staggering 4.9 billion.
Apart from making for an interestingly morbid topic of dinner conversation, the findings, published in the journal Big Data and Society, carry significant implications.
“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,” says Öhman.
“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.”
To reach their findings, the researchers analysed two scenarios, on the reasonable assumption that the actual outcome will fall somewhere in between them.
The first model assumed no new Facebook users after 2018. The second assumed the current recruitment growth rate – 13% per year – would continue without decline.
In the first instance, Öhman and Watson found accounts in Asia alone would account for 44% of deceased profiles by the year 2100 – with Indonesia and India accounting for 279 million of them.
The second scenario found that Africa became an increasingly significant source of dead Facebook users, with Nigeria, in particular, accounting for 6% of the deceased total by the end of the century. Interestingly, developed Western nations contributed comparatively few members to the virtual necropolis, with only the US making the Top 10.
“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,” says Watson.
“This is not just about finding solutions that will be sustainable for the next couple of years, but possibly for many decades ahead.”
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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