DIGITAL GRAVEYARD

We calculated the year dead people on Facebook could outnumber the living

Erendira Mancias/FUSION

By the end of this century, Facebook might start to feel more like a digital graveyard than a place for the living.

Facebook has 1.5 billion users now. And according to the Digital Beyond, an online legacy planning company, millions of them are already dead. Often when people die, their loved ones turn their profiles into memorials, digital tombstones that friends and family can revisit in remembrance of their life. If every Facebook user who dies is memorialized, at what point will those digital tombstones outnumber profiles belonging to people who are still alive?

I asked a statistician to calculate the year it might happen, taking into account Facebook’s growth, demographic data about its existing global users and death rates from the Centers for Disease Control.

I reached out to a dozen statisticians about the project and almost all of them said it was simply too complicated to calculate. But the heroic Hachem Sadikki, a Ph.D. candidate in statistics at University of Massachusetts, was willing to take a stab at modeling a projection. He crunched the numbers and found that dead users on Facebook will surpass the number of living users sooner than you might think—in the year 2098.

We reached out to Facebook to ask if it had any projections for when this year would come or if it could tell us how many of its users have already died; it declined.

While we think this date is fairly accurate, there are some flaws to the model. It assumes that everyone who dies will be memorialized, for example. And using the CDC’s U.S. death rate data for users across the world is an extremely rough way to calculate the demise of users globally. For one, Americans’ life spans differ from people in other countries. And two, the CDC categorizes age groups differently than Facebook.

Sadikki also operated under the assumption that, at some point relatively soon, Facebook’s exponential growth will plateau, but we have no certain way of knowing if or how soon this will happen. In the U.S., where more than 70 percent of the adult population is already on Facebook, this is already happening.

Back in 2013, Randall Munroe of the web comic XKCD tried his own hand at estimating when Facebook would transform into a digital grave and came up with two potential numbers that were much later: either the 2060s or the 2130s. That difference has to do with the changing of Facebook’s demographics between now and then, but also, Sadikki said, in the sets of data that he and Monroe used. Munroe’s 2130s estimate assumed that Facebook keeps growing, while the earlier 2060s one assumed, as Sadikki did, that its growth would plateau.

There is no crystal ball to determine how fast Facebook’s user base will grow or die. But what is certain is that right now Facebook’s users skew very young (more than 60 percent of users are under 35 and less than five percent are over 65) and that as those users already on Facebook age, the rate of death among them will accelerate. If Facebook’s global growth stagnates or it loses favor among young people, it could happen even faster.

Either way, on Facebook, pretty soon, you’ll be seeing a lot of dead people.

This is part of our week-long series on the future of death.