A recent study predicts that Facebook will be home to more dead peoples’ accounts than living in fifty years time. This calls into question the management of our personal information stored online after our death and who has the right to access it.
Our digital heritage
The Oxford Internet Institute carried out analysis that predicts that by 2100 at least 1.4 billion Facebook members will be dead. In this situation, the number of “dead” profiles could be higher that those of the living. By 2100 the number of dead peoples’ accounts could reach 4.9 billion.
Supposing Facebook continues to grow at its current rate worldwide, researchers estimate that Africa will eventually represent a growing share of deceased users. Nigeria in particular will account for a lot of “dead” accounts worldwide (6% of the total). Asian profiles – in India and Indonesia in particular – will also account for a large share of the number of dead users. Western users will only represent a minority.
Carl Öhman, the principal author of the study, highlights the difficulty in managing the storage of personal digital details online. “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.”
As David Watson, the co-author of the study notes, we have never had such a vast access to details that illustrate human behaviors. “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.” Watson believes it is important ensure future generations can make use of our digital heritage so they can better understand their history.
Discussing death online
Öhman continues, “The results should be interpreted not as a prediction of the future, but as a commentary on the current development, and an opportunity to shape what future we are headed towards.” The researcher believes that “a critical discussion of online death and its macroscopic implications is urgently needed.” He states that Facebook is just one example of what could happen to any online platform with a similar global reach like Instagram or SnapChat.
In this sense, researchers are already calling Facebook and other online platforms to speak with historians, archivists and even ethnologists so they can be involved in the conservation of the data we leave behind after our death. Further information about this study can be found in the Big Data & Society journal.