A recent report from the Oxford Internet Institute titled “Are the dead taking over Facebook? A Big Data approach to the future of death online,” claims that within the next 50 years, the majority of Facebook profiles could be for individuals who have passed away. The analysis says that based on the number of users on Facebook in 2018, at least 1.4 billion users will be dead by the year 2100.
The abstract of the report reads:
We project the future accumulation of profiles belonging to deceased Facebook users. Our analysis suggests that a minimum of 1.4 billion users will pass away before 2100 if Facebook ceases to attract new users as of 2018. If the network continues expanding at current rates, however, this number will exceed 4.9 billion. In both cases, a majority of the profiles will belong to non-Western users. In discussing our findings, we draw on the emerging scholarship on digital preservation and stress the challenges arising from curating the profiles of the deceased. We argue that an exclusively commercial approach to data preservation poses important ethical and political risks that demand urgent consideration. We call for a scalable, sustainable, and dignified curation model that incorporates the interests of multiple stakeholders.
Lead author Carl Öhman, a doctoral candidate at the OII discussed the issues that this may cause stating:
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.
David Watson, a doctoral student at the OII and co-author on the paper, explained: “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. 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.”
Watson further had a suggestion for Facebook, stating: “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.”
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