Facebook is a huge collection of personal data and memories – even of the deceased, because after the death of a user whose profile is not necessarily deleted. The University of Oxford predicts from Facebook’s current user experience that in 50 years, the number of deceased but still registered users could be greater than that of the living.
The analysis is based on the assumption that user development over the next five decades will remain comparable to that of the year 2018 and that the growth in new Facebook users will be equivalent to 13 percent per year. If this were the case, most of the still-registered deceased users would come from Africa. Instead, if the researchers assume that there are no new users joining in from now on, Asia would have the highest death toll. This is due to the assumed demographic trend, according to which more younger users in Africa would have access to social networks.
Researchers ask question about historians’ access to the data
The somewhat macabre calculations of the OII have a serious background that is not primarily related to the user experience within a network whose members are 50 percent deceased. The researchers ask questions about the rights to the data and their use, especially in the context of archaeological exploitation.
“The statistics reveal new and difficult questions about who owns the rights to all of these data and how they should be treated in the best interest of the survivors and historians in the future,” says Carl Ohman, a doctoral student at OII and Co-author of the study. “The totality of the profiles of deceased users is something bigger than the sum of their parts, and they become part of our global digital heritage.”
Co-author David Watson states, “Controlling this archive means controlling our history, so it’s important to make sure that it’s not just a single profit-making company that has access to it.”
In the past, remembrance of the deceased, such as photographs, often came via detours to museums or other scientific institutions, and thus into the hands of research – this would probably not be possible in this form in social networks.
Facebook regards deceased users so far only from the point of view of the bereaved
So far, Facebook has not been able to answer such questions about the historic use of Facebook data, nor has any other social network. Relatives can turn a Facebook page into a memorial page and manage it. In addition, Facebook wants to ensure in the future by means of artificial intelligence that other users are no longer remembered by birthday reminders or similar references to a recently deceased in an inappropriate way.