Facebook will be littered with more ‘Zombie’ profiles than living ones in about 50 years, according to a study by Oxford researchers.
The study’s authors, Carl J. Öhman and David Watson, concluded that if Facebook continues to grow at its current rate, the site could have 4.9 billion deceased members by 2100.
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.
Öhman and Watson used a combination of data, including projected mortality and population rates from the U.N. as well as Facebook’s user growth over time.
“Never before in history has such a vast archive of human behavior and culture been assembled in one place,” added his co-author David Watson. “Controlling this archive will, in a sense, be to control our history.” He cautioned against leaving access to the data in the hands of “a single for-profit firm”.
Öhman and Watson are concerned with matters beyond a single individual’s digital history.
Their paper opens with a quote from George Orwell’s 1984, which envisions a dystopian future with ubiquitous government surveillance and omnipotence.
“We, the Party, control all records, and we control all memories,” the quote reads. “Then we control the past, do we not?”
1984 is a fitting comparison, Watson argues, because the sum of our individual histories make up a more significant societal history.
“Control over the past is no small matter, and consolidating that power in a single firm or a small number of powerful companies is every bit as problematic as handing it over to a totalitarian government,” said Watson.
Öhman said their choice to include Orwell’s quote isn’t a judgment of Facebook, but a warning about what could happen if we’re not careful about who owns our collective histories.
“We need to build the proper institutions and infrastructure to deal with these questions now,” Öhman told TIME. Part of that work may include soliciting the help of historians, archivists and policy advocates, Watson says. He believes this problem is simply too big for Facebook to deal with on its own.
“The idea that an American corporation trying to post quarterly profits could possibly be relied upon to handle the world’s digital legacy on its own is unrealistic,” Watson says.
Indeed, 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.
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 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 should invite historians, archivists, archaeologists and ethicists to participate in the process of curating the vast volume of accumulated data that we leave behind,” 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.”