A recently released study by the Oxford Internet Institute, provocatively titled Are the Dead Taking over Facebook?, predicts some very interesting numbers. The researchers look at two scenarios, using UN figures on expected mortalities and total populations for every country in the world distributed by age, and data from the Facebook Audience Insights feature. In scenario A (totally unlikely), no new users join Facebook as of 2018. In this case, at least 1.4 billion members will die before 2100, and the dead could outnumber the living by 2070.

In scenario B (also not likely), Facebook keeps growing its user base at the current rate of 13% per year till it reaches saturation point. Then the number of deceased users could reach as high as 4.9 billion by 2100, and outnumber the living within the first two decades of the 22nd century. The researchers say that the actual numbers will be somewhere in between.

What, however, is certain is that the highest number of dead users will be from India: about 208 million by 2100 in scenario A, and nearly 784 million in B. That’s because there are just so many of us (China doesn’t figure because Facebook is banned there).

But the real issue here is not the exact numbers, but the macro implications. Each of us will leave behind a unique Facebook profile when we move on, but when millions of such profiles are aggregated, they will form a whole, which will be much larger than the sum of its parts. It will be a crucial chunk of our shared digital cultural heritage—invaluable to future historians trying to understand our times.

Facebook acted on the issue of its members’ deaths when upset users complained about receiving algorithmically generated messages asking them to invite dead friends to events, or to wish them on their birthdays. It introduced a feature that enables a user to opt for getting his page deleted upon his death. In case he does not do that, the page is “memorialized", with the word “Remembering" affixed to his name. The user can nominate a “legacy contact" who will manage the page. Friends can share memories on the memorialized timeline. Content the person shared is visible to the audience it was shared with. Memorialized profiles don’t appear in public spaces, such as in suggestions for “People You May Know" or birthday reminders.

Last month, Facebook upgraded the rights of the legacy contact: They can now accept friend requests on behalf of the memorialized account, pin a tribute post to the profile and change the profile picture and cover photo. They can create an area for tributes, and decide who can see and who can post tributes.

But now, back to the larger question. More and more Facebook users will die, and maintaining these pages involves costs: storage, data organization and management, upgrading of systems. Facebook makes no direct revenue from these pages because they carry no ads. Their only commercial value can be in using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to get better insights into emotions like mourning and love (and what sort of users are more prone to them), which could add some nuance to the company’s advertising algorithms (Facebook claims that over 30 million people view/post on memorialized profiles every month).

But very soon, the growing number of these pages will be value-negative—and keep getting more so. So, will Facebook one day start charging a fee for maintaining a memorialized page and take down the ones for which it does not receive the fee? That will be a perfectly rational action for a for-profit organization.

Or, Facebook can decide to activate a potentially highly lucrative new revenue stream. It does not take down any page, just denies access to them. After all, the company (along with WhatsApp, which it owns) holds the rights to the first truly democratic archive of an era in human history—most of our archives today comprise documents left by famous men and women. It starts charging researchers stiff sums to access its content. For instance, how can a historian, a century from now, write an authentic history of the 2011 Arab Spring, in which Facebook played a significant part, without accessing its archives? Or the 2016 US presidential election?

And this is the problem. Human memory is today increasingly owned by virtual monopolies such as Facebook and Google. In essence, we could be looking at a future where history is privatized; indeed, these private actors will have the power to manipulate our histories by deciding what content to release. In their study, the Oxford researchers reach a very sobering conclusion: “In order to prevent a possibly dystopian future of power asymmetries and distorted historical narratives, the task before us is to design a sustainable, dignified solution that takes into account multiple stakeholders and values. This inevitably requires a decentralisation of control and ownership of our collective digital heritage."

In 1984, George Orwell wrote: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past." The world needs a truly independent Unesco-like body to take care of humankind’s digital heritage.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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