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Dead Facebook users could outnumber living ones within 50 years

April 29, 2019
A gravestone in a cemetery with a Facebook "like" button
A gravestone in a cemetery with a Facebook "like" buttonFlickr | Creative Commons

We need to think more about our “digital legacies.”

The analysis: The research by the Oxford Internet Institute, a department at Oxford University, describes an extremely conservative scenario in which Facebook gains no new users. In this case, at least 1.4 billion users will be dead by 2100 and the year 2070 would be the tipping point when the dead outnumber the living on Facebook. However, given it’s very unlikely Facebook user numbers will stay where they are now (at 2.2 billion,) this point will probably arrive far sooner. 

In the second scenario, where Facebook users continue to increase 13% every year, there will be 4.9 billion dead users by 2100. In the paper, the authors state that the "true number almost certainly falls somewhere between Scenarios A and B, but we can only speculate as to where."

The implications: Facebook recently released several updates for memorialized accounts (active accounts for people who have passed away), allowing people’s accounts to stay as they were before they died. It’s part of social media companies’ wider efforts to grapple with the thorny problem of what to do with dead people.

A balance: There’s a fine line between respecting dead people’s rights to privacy, and letting their friends and family deal with their affairs, for example closing accounts or paying bills (or just trying to avoid grief associated with reminders to wish “Happy Birthday to someone who has died.) None of the big tech firms seem to have fully figured out what to do about it yet, but as growing numbers of us live our lives online, the rise of the digital dead is an increasingly urgent issue.

Read more: Six things to do with your data before you dieHow your life’s data means a version of you could live forever.

This story first appeared in our daily newsletter, The Download. Sign up here to get your dose of the latest must-read news from the world of emerging tech.

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