Digital heritage: why the number of dead people on Facebook profiles could soon outnumber the living

An image to illustrate Facebook profiles, and digital heritage
© iStock/dolphfyn

The Oxford Internet Institute has predicted that the number of dead people on Facebook profiles could outnumber the living within the next fifty years. What are the implications for digital heritage?

The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) predict, based on 2018 Facebook profile levels, at least 1.4 billion members will die before 2100, meaning that the dead could outnumber the living by 2070.

Additionally the researchers note that if Facebook continues to expand at its current rates, the number of deceased Facebook users could reach 4.9 billion by the end of the century.

What is digital heritage?

UNESCO’s definition of heritage is: “our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations.”

Building on this definition, UNESCO wrote: “Digital heritage is made up of computer-based materials of enduring value that should be kept for future generations. Digital heritage emanates from different communities, industries, sectors and regions. Not all digital materials are of enduring value, but those that are require active preservation approaches if continuity of digital heritage is to be maintained.”

The new findings on Facebook profiles

Lead author Carl Öhman, a doctoral candidate at the OII, explained: “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.”

Implications for the future of digital heritage

Öhman added: “On a societal level, we have just begun asking these questions and we have a long way to go. The management of our digital remains will eventually affect everyone who uses social media, since all of us will one day pass away and leave our data behind. But the totality of the deceased user profiles also amounts to something larger than the sum of its parts. It is, or will at least become, part of our global digital heritage.”

Co-author David Watson, also a DPhil student at the OII, commented: “Facebook should invite historians, archivists, archaeologists and ethicists to participate in the process of curating the vast volume of accumulated data that we leave behind as we pass away. This is not just about finding solutions that will be sustainable for the next couple of years, but possibly for many decades ahead.”

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