Carl J Öhman, David Watson
Online death has recently become a hot topic both in academia and the popular press. However, much of the current debate around the phenomenon has focused on its significance for individual users. For example, most discussions in media pertain to planning one’s own digital estate and/or how best to cope with the digital remains of a loved one. (This has been reaffirmed by the innumerable interview questions we have received on these topics since the recent publication of our article.) In view of this, we wanted to bring in a more societal perspective and ask what people dying on the internet means for us on a collective level. We also wanted to highlight the fact that death on social media is not just a Western, high-tech phenomenon. The so-called “digital afterlife” is often associated with futuristic scenarios and AI, but the reality is that people all around the world pass away every day, leaving behind enormous volumes of data. Many of them are using no more sophisticated technologies than smart phones and social media apps.
From this background, we collected data from the UN and Facebook’s audience insights feature, from which we built a model that projects the future accumulation of profiles belonging to deceased Facebook users. Our analysis suggests that a minimum of 1.4 billion users will pass away between now and 2100 if Facebook ceases to attract new users as of 2018. If the network continues expanding at current rates, however, this number will exceed 4.9 billion. In both cases, a majority of the profiles will belong to non-Western users. In the former scenario, we find that the dead may outnumber the living on the network as soon as 2070.
In discussing our findings, we draw on the emerging scholarship on digital preservation and stress the challenges arising from curating the profiles of the deceased. We argue that an exclusively commercial approach to data preservation poses important ethical and political risks that demand urgent consideration. We want to be careful to state that our paper is not a critique of Facebook’s current policies on this matter. In fact, we would argue they’re actually doing a pretty good job, all things considered. We doubt that user death was high on Mark Zuckerberg’s list of priorities when he created the network, yet Facebook has devoted considerable resources to handling these sensitive matters in recent years. Hence, we would like to direct attention not so much to Facebook itself, but to the question of how we as a society, as a civilization, should go about dealing with the fact that Facebook will host billions of records of deceased users. Eventually these profiles will lose their commercial value – then what? Can we expect Facebook to keep hosting the data? Will it simply be deleted? Sold off? We need to build the proper institutions and infrastructure to tackle these questions now, because in only a few decades, these challenges will already be at our doorstep.
In particular, we wish to draw attention to the political aspect of our work. In George Orwell’s 1984, the past is controlled exclusively by the Party. They own all historical records and are not above modifying them to serve their own interests. The Party can do this because they have a monopoly on historical data. Although extreme, this scenario illustrates the risks involved in concentrating power over the past among a limited set of actors. And to some extent, that is exactly what we do today … only in our case, it is not a state or a party that controls that data, but a small number of tech empires. In pre-digital society, data about significant historical events and persons have generally been distributed across numerous institutions (national archives, museums, etc). Now, as political and social movements are largely mediated by online platforms, the narrative is increasingly owned by just a handful of firms. Today’s Martin Luther Kings, Winston Churchills, and Napoleons all probably use social media. Their lives and deeds are recorded in timeline posts and tweets. As researchers, we don’t want to be alarmist about this, but we do argue that there is good reason to be cautious about how we proceed. What kind of digital society do we want to build?