The digital cemetery: When Facebook controls our history
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The number of Facebook profiles of people who have died may exceed the number of living profiles in just 50 years, according to a new study. As such, the social network could become the keeper of a significant part of humanity’s memory.
The dead will one day take over Facebook. In 50 years, if not sooner, there will likely be more profiles of deceased people than of living users on the social network, according to a study published online by the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) on April 27.
“This study is the first to give a scientifically rigorous projection of the development of dead user profiles,” said Carl Ohman, researcher at the OII Digital Ethics Laboratory and author of the report. Ohman cross-referenced United Nations data on mortality rates by age group and country with the figures he was able to obtain on Facebook users to establish two evolution scenarios.
Unable to predict the exact growth in the total number of users, currently standing at nearly two billion members, the researcher selected two extreme situations. At first, he imagined that there would never be any new people registered on the social network again. In this extreme hypothesis, nearly 98% of Facebook’s population will have died by the end of the century, and the number of deaths will exceed the number of living people by 2070.
A digital cemetery mainly populated by Asians and Africans
If, on the other hand, Facebook continues to gain new users at the same rate as at present (13% growth per year), it will not be until the first decade of the 22nd century that the balance of power between the living and the dead is reversed. There would then be nearly five billion profiles of deceased people on the social network.
Neither of these two evolution scenarios is credible, admitted Ohman. “The reality lies somewhere in between these two extremes. If I had to make an informed estimate, I would say that there will be more profiles of deceased people than of living users on Facebook in 60 to 70 years,” said the researcher in an interview with FRANCE 24.
While analysing the data, he also realised that this digital cemetery will be populated mainly by Africans and Asians. “These are the continents where the growth in the number of users is most dynamic,” he said. By his estimations, no European country would feature in the top 10 most represented nations.
This revelation raised a problem for him: “Currently, Facebook’s measures to honour the dead – such as memorial pages – are inspired by Western customs. Facebook needs to take into account the sensitivities of all cultures with regards to death, especially as the body of users will become more and more African and Asian.”
However, he fears that the American company will not change anything because “like any commercial organisation, it will always be more attentive to its most profitable customers. And, in this case, this means its European or North American users”.
The first democratic archive
However it is also possible that Facebook will no longer exist in a few years’ time, or a competitor will have dethroned it. “And this would obviously distort all our projections,” admitted Ohman.
However, this does not call into question his analytical work because, he stressed, “if it is not Facebook, it will be one or two other internet giants, and the central question of the future of our digital heritage remains”.
“Until now, historians have mainly worked on the traces left behind by the powerful and illustrious characters who, in the end, are the ones who write history,” Ohman pointed.
But all the messages, the family photos, the ‘likes’ and even the shared images of cats constitute “a collection of information that has both sentimental and historical value for future generations”, said the researcher. For him, this immense archive represents the first “truly democratic” archive of an era in the history of humanity.
However, Facebook holds the keys to this resource, and that’s where the problem lies. “In this digital age, historical data and, more broadly speaking, the human memory is increasingly in the hands of a few technological empires that respond to profit-seeking logic above all,” said Ohman.
Scandals, such as that of Cambridge Analytica, have demonstrated Facebook’s limitations when it comes to protecting personal data. So what about the preservation of all these memories and experiences?
Keeping track of the activity of all deceased users costs money, and the pages of the dead are also economically less profitable, since Facebook does not place advertising on them. If the social network decided to remove them to increase its profits, “it might be tempting to first remove the dead users who offer the least economic value, which could first concern the profiles of Africans”, warned Ohman.
Orwell to the rescue?
An alternative is that Facebook could try to monetise access to this vast and unprecedented archive, over which the social network holds all the rights. “History would then become a commodity,” said the researcher. In this pessimistic view of the future, historians might have to pay small fortunes to access images or comments posted by participants in the Arab Spring, during which Facebook played a central role.
“The purpose of this study is not only to predict the date when the dead will outnumber the living, but to appeal to politicians to warn them of the risks of privatising the memory of a whole section of humanity,” said Ohman.
He would like Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, to emulate Twitter, which donated the digital archive of all of its public tweets to the U.S. Library of Congress in 2010. But, if Facebook resists, legislators need to try to convince Facebook to let historians, archivists or librarians have a say in how the preservation of this data is managed.
According to Ohman, it is also essential for political reasons because “as George Orwell observed in his book ‘1984’, he who controls access to our past also controls how we perceive our present”.
This article was adapted from the original in French.