Oxford Internet Institute research shows that dead Facebook account owners might outnumber the living by 2070

Analysis by the Oxford Internet Institute,have warned that number of dead Facebook users may soon grow past the number of the living users, a new research has shown.

The researchers explain that their predictions are based on data from the United Nations, which provide the expected number of mortalities and total populations for every country in the world distributed by age, and Facebook data scraped from the company’s Audience Insights feature.

Lead author, Carl Öhman, says that within 50 years, the social media platform will compare to a “digital graveyard,” with hundreds of millions of people. The researchers say when this happens, there are concerns about who should lay claim to ownership of the data of the dead profile owners.

If Facebook continues to grow at its current rate, the site could have 4.9 billion deceased members by 2100, according to a study by Oxford researchers. Even if growth had stopped entirely last year, the study finds, Facebook would be looking at about 1.4 billion dead members by 2100. By 2070, in that scenario, the dead would already outnumber the living.

“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.

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“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.

Co-author, David Watson, also a DPhil student at the Oxford Internet Institute, adds, “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. It is therefore important that we ensure that access to these historical data is not limited to a single for-profit firm.”

In an interview with the Observer this weekend, the psychologist Elaine Kasket said that when family members seek access to a deceased relative’s data, Facebook offers “something along the lines of: ‘We’d love to be able to help you with this but we’re not able to.’ They say they are protecting the (technically nonexistent) right of privacy of the deceased.”

A Facebook representative said the company, which disagreed with some of the study’s findings, has “a deep respect for our unique position in people’s lives” and takes its “role in the conversation on building legacy in a digital age seriously”, noting that the site recently updated features available to legacy contacts.

But the Oxford study’s remarkable figures highlight the need for overarching changes, the researchers say. Is it time to appoint social media executors? Should we collect our passwords and include them in our wills? Should our Instagram accounts become part of the historical record – how else will future civilizations be made aware of our #squadgoals?

Facebook, whose motto was once “move fast and break things”, is not known for taking great care with its users’ data – this month’s headlines include the FTC’s continuing privacy investigation; legal action in Canada following the Cambridge Analytica scandal; the “unintentional uploading” of 1.5 million users’ email contacts; and the recent revelation that a security lapse affected millions more Instagram users than previously stated.

As it stands, Facebook users who are alive can choose a “legacy contact” who gets access to much of the account’s data after the original user dies – at which point the account can be “memorialized”. Others, however, cannot log into it, posing a potential problem if a person dies before designating a legacy contact.

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