The dead may outnumber the living on Facebook within fifty years, a trend that will have grave implications for how we treat our digital heritage in the future, Oxford scientists say.
An analysis predicts that, based on 2018 user levels, at least 1.4 billion members will die before 2100. In this scenario, the dead could outnumber the living by 2070.
If the world's largest social network continues to expand at current rates, however, the number of deceased users could reach as high as 4.9 billion before the end of the century.
"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 Carl Ohman, a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford in the UK.
"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," Ohman said.
"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," he said.
"Never before in history has such a vast archive of human behaviour and culture been assembled in one place. Controlling this archive will, in a sense, be to control our history," said David Watson, from Oxford.
"It is therefore important that we ensure that access to these historical data is not limited to a single for-profit firm. It is also important to make sure that future generations can use our digital heritage to understand their history," Watson said.
"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," Watson said.
"This is not just about finding solutions that will be sustainable for the next couple of years, but possibly for many decades ahead," he said.