Facebook Dead Will Inevitably Outnumber Live Users
Written by Lucy Black   
Sunday, 11 November 2018

Facebook has had a huge impact on the lives of its users, connecting individuals to their family and friends as never before. As time passes so do people, and there will come a point when more Facebook profiles will belong to deceased users than to living ones.

Looking to the future more and more us will have friends on Facebook who have passed away, leaving behind online data referred to as "digital remains". How to deal with this inexorably expanding volume of data raises legal, ethical and practical issues.

Back in 2013, Randall Munroe of the xkcd comic had a go at answering the question:

When, if ever, will Facebook contain more profiles of dead people than of living ones?

Using the statistic that about 290,000 US Facebook users would die during that year and that there were between 10 and 20 million people who had created Facebook profiles who had already died, Munroe outlined two scenarios, one in which Facebook's popularity declined during the current decade and never recovered and another in which it continued to rise until it plateaued in around 2050, and came up with the answer:

Either in the 2060s or the  2130s

This is illustrated in this graphic:

rmlivingvdead

Recently a new attempt was made to quantify the accumulation of profiles of deceased Facebook users was made by Carl J. Öhman and David Watson of the Oxford Internet Institute. 

They addressed two questions:

How will the number of Facebook profiles belonging to dead users develop over the 21st century?

What will be the geographical distribution of dead Facebook profiles?

and explored two scenarios. In the first, which is used to establish a lower bound, it is assumed that no new users join Facebook after 2018. The plot produced shows that 228 million Facebook users will die by the end of the century but the number of deaths per year on Facebook rapidly decelerates from a high of nearly 8.5 million in 2018 to 1.1 million by 2100. 

deadprofiles scen1

For the alternative scenario, it is assumed that Facebook continues to grow at its current rate of 13% until  it reaches a global penetration rate of 90% in all markets.

deadprofiles scen2

Note that the scale on the y-axis is bigger by a factor of 10 and there are over 2000 million dead user profiles on Facebook by the end of the century. This affects the geographical distribution. Asia still accounts for the greatest proportion but Africa, which had the smallest share under scenario 1, moves into second place, moving North America to third place.

While neither scenario in this study is convincing the true figure must lie somewhere it between - and it is in the hundreds of millions of profiles.

How should the data of these Facebook users be treated?

The current Facebook policy according to its Help Centre is:

You can choose to either appoint a legacy contact to look after your memorialized account or have your account permanently deleted from Facebook.

If you don't choose to have your account permanently deleted, it will be memorialized if we become aware of your passing.

Memorialized accounts, which have the word "Remembering" shown next to the persona's name on their profile,  allow bereaved family and friends to share memories and celebrate the lives of their lost ones. 

An earlier study, cited by Öhman and Watson, based on is a crowd-sourced online survey with 400 participants, 100 each from the United States, India Great Britain and Asia (mainly Philippines and Indonesia), investigated how users wanted their digital footprint handled after their death. Participants from the United States and Asia preferred deleting accounts, participants from India preferred handing accounts to their next of kin, and participants from Great Britain preferred deciding individually for each type of online account. The same study showed that the vast majority of respondents had never considered the fate of their digital footprint and when explicitly asked how it should be handled expressed a preference for a non-profit service primarily for deleting their accounts upon receiving a death certificate.

From the point of view of Facebook, what makes data “worth preserving” is their ability to directly or indirectly contribute to the company’s profit. According to Öhman and Watson:

Data belonging to deceased users may prove valuable for such purposes. For example, the memorialized profiles may still serve the function of attracting living users who visit the profile to mourn. What is more, datasets of digital remains may also be used for training new models and extracting historical insight, which may prove a valuable market advantage. Few legal obstacles stand in the way of such experimentation, as deceased users are not, at least according to current legislation, protected the way living users are (see, for instance, the latest GDPR, which lacks any clear guidelines for handling digital remains). While both the traffic generated by the bereaved and the internal training of new models are possible uses of digital remains, they do not guarantee long-term profitability. If the economic value of dead profiles were ever to become negative, market forces would compel a rational firm to delete them, or at least to display the data in the most profitable fashion possible.

They conclude: 

The dead may not be taking over Facebook within the foreseeable future, but their presence in cyberspace does nevertheless pose difficult ethical challenges. The onus is on policymakers and industry to rise to this challenge.

 

More Information

Are the Dead Taking Over Facebook? A Big Data Approach to the Future of Death Online  by Carl J. Öhman and David Watson, Oxford Internet Institute

Survey on the Fate of Digital Footprints after Death by Carsten Grimm and Sonia Chiasson, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada

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Last Updated ( Sunday, 11 November 2018 )