«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,» Öhman says.
One question that remains unanswered is whether Facebook will be able to make the storage of these billions of profiles commercially viable. After all, what makes user data so valuable is its ties to targeted advertising. But the dead do not look at ads.
Öhman says that Facebook has, at least so far, shown a willingness to preserve data.
«The demise of your biological body does not completely strip you of ethical rights such as privacy and dignity. Overall, Facebook has done a pretty good job in navigating these issues, and has balanced the interests of the bereaved with those of the deceased,» he says.
He adds that it is up to the bereaved families «to curate the digital legacies of their loved ones in ways they see that both accommodates their grief, and supports the community around the deceased in the best way.»
Study co-author, David Watson, also an Oxford doctoral candidate, says it is «also important to make sure that future generations can use our digital heritage to understand their history.»
As part of their analysis, Öhman and Watson set up two potentially extreme scenarios. Under the first, they assumed that no new users join Facebook as of 2018. In that scenario, Asia’s share of dead users increases rapidly to account for nearly 44 per cent of the total by the end of the century, with nearly half of those profiles coming from India and Indonesia.
The second scenario assumes that Facebook will continue to grow by its current rate of 13 per cent globally every year, until each market reaches saturation. In this case, Africa will make up a growing share of dead users, with Nigeria accounting for more than 6 per cent of the total.
By contrast, Western users will represent a minority, with only the US cracking the top 10.
As Öhman puts it, «we wish to draw attention to the fact that ‘digital afterlife’ is far from a ‘high tech’ Western phenomenon. It is very much a global phenomenon, one that affects all of us as a global community».
Mortality rates in the study were calculated based on data from the United Nations.