Deceased people may outnumber living ones as Facebook account holders within half a century, something that could have serious implications for how digital heritage is addressed in the future.

This is the result of a study by Carl Öhman and David Watson of the Oxford Internet Institute in a paper published in the journal Big Data and Society. The researchers indicate that, according to user levels in 2018, at least 1.4 billion Facebook members will die before 2100. In this scenario, the dead could outnumber the living by 2070. However, if the world’s largest social network continues to expand at the current rate, the number of deceased users could reach 4.9 billion by the end of this century. In both cases, most profiles belong to non-Western users.

“These statistics raise new and difficult questions about who is entitled to all these data, how they should be handled in the best interests of the families and friends of the deceased, and their use by future historians to understand the past,” says Öhman, lead author of the study and a PhD student at the Oxford Internet Institute. “On a social level, we have just begun to ask these questions and we have a long way to go. The management of our digital remains will eventually affect everyone who uses social networks, as all of us will someday die and leave our data behind,” adds Öhman, who remarks: “At least it will become part of our global digital heritage.

David Watson, co-author of the research, points out that “never before in history has such a vast archive of human and cultural behavior been brought together in one place. “The control of this archive will, in a sense, be the control of our history. It is therefore important that we ensure that access to these historical data is not limited to a single for-profit enterprise. It is also important to ensure that future generations can use our digital heritage to understand their history,” he adds.

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