Culture 4 min read

Cyber Immortality: Dead Facebook Users Will Soon Outnumber the Living

Cyber immortality has always been a major facet of science fiction. Soon, Facebook may be able to provide that for us, but maybe not in the way we want.

Pixabay

Pixabay

I don’t know about you but I’m not totally comfortable with the idea of cyber immortality. Have you ever wondered what happens to your footprints all over the internet when you die?

Social media accounts will eventually outlive their users.

As of March 31, 2019, Facebook counts over 2.38 billion monthly active users. No one, not even Facebook, can tell for sure how many of its users were deceased at any given time.

If it were a country, Facebook would be the most populated one, and with pretty much all genders, demographics, and ethnic groups represented.

An easy way, that’s also scientifically sound, to estimate the number of deaths on Facebook is to simply apply the global crude death rate.

At around 8 deaths per 1,000 population per year, the annual death toll of Facebook rises to over 19 million per year. To put this number into perspective, China, with a 1,39-billion population, reported the death of around 10 million in 2018.

Facebook & Cyber Immortality: Your Permanent Online Record

Facebook, the online platform created to connect the living, is transforming into a graveyard teeming with millions of “zombie” profiles.

50 years from now, there could be more dead users on Facebook than living.

This is a grim projection but it gives us pause as a community to think how to deal, or not, with someone’s cyber immortality once they’re no longer walking among us.

In a new study, researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) estimate that in 2069 the number of accounts belonging to deceased users would outnumber that belonging to the living.

If Facebook adds no new users post 2018, a minimum of 1.4 billion users will be dead by 2070, and if the social network keeps growing at current rates, this number will soar to 4.9 billion by the turn of the century.

Of course, a “dead user” isn’t a thing. For OII researchers who culled population data from the UN and used Facebook Audience Insights tool, it’s about our online remains and how the society should and could manage them.

“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,” said lead author Carl Öhman in a statement.

Posthumous Digital Existence

Google was the first to roll out the Inactive Account feature to let its users decide when Google considers their accounts as inactive and deactivates them.

From your Facebook “Account Settings” page, you can also set the deactivation or deletion of your account. If you decide to automatically delete your account after a period of inactivation, your timeline and everything of your personal data will be permanently deleted.

For those who didn’t take measures while alive, Facebook let their verified family members or friends manage their account and, if they like, turn them into a virtual memorial site.

Last Month, Facebook rolled out a new “tributes section” to memorialized profiles for those close to the deceased to “post stories, commemorate milestones and remember those who have passed away.”

And to minimize painful experiences that could occur from inappropriate content, Facebook promised to improve its AI saying it’s open to feedback.

Read More: Cyber Immortality: Will we Download our Consciousness or Just Make a Copy?

New types of “para-social” relationships are emerging between the living and the departed who are digitally resurrected.

How would we deal with digital assets after death? Can we pass them on like other assets and possessions? How can we preserve post-mortem online privacy?

The large volumes of online data we leave after we die are raising several issues and concerns that law scholars, sociologists, and other experts are debating.

In the case of Facebook, taking care of its users’ personal data isn’t one of its strengths. The company is embroiled in many scandals, federal investigations, and legal actions regarding its handling of private data of its “living” users.

Read More: Quantum Archeology and 3D-Bioprinting Could Make us Immortal

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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