Today I intend to beat a dead horse, pun intended. It’s not news any more that when people pass away in the age of social networking, their online presence lingers, leaving behind virtual footprints which can still be observed by friends, family or whoever. By this point in time, almost all of us have had people in our lives who have died while their online footprints continue to exist. Facebook responded to this in 2009 and currently offers users the opportunity to memorialize loved ones, essentially leaving profiles intact but preventing information from popping up unexpectedly in news feeds or suggestions. It is both cryptic and somehow appropriate to allow the profiles of deceased users to remain online so that friends and family can share messages of remembrance to honor the dearly departed. I’ll let Katie Couric elaborate more concisely:
This raises an interesting question that in some ways parallels real life: what will happen in 60 years if Facebook doesn’t fade away? It’s not unrealistic to say that in the next half-century, many people alive today simply won’t be. How many of them have Facebook profiles? How long will the trend of memorializing loved ones continue? Will there be a point at which we say: enough is enough? Not to sound insensitive, but as time goes on and we continue to spend more and more time online and share more of ourselves over social networks, it’s only natural that questions like these will arise.
Let’s assume that Facebook does in fact continue to allow users to be memorialized and allows all of those profiles to remain online. Facebook currently has 800 million active users which is roughly equivalent to 11% of the world’s population. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 59 million people die every year. If we were to assume that 11% of those 59 million deaths are Facebook users then that would mean approximately 6.5 million Facebook users die every year. But we know that number can’t be right so let’s assume that many of the people who die weren’t Facebook users to begin with so that number must be lower. How low should we go? Three million? Two? Less? For the sake of argument let us say that approximately one million users die each year. That number will only increase exponentially. Even if we don’t account for that increase, in 60 years there will be 180 million Facebook memorials if this trend continues (again that number will surely be higher if we’re to understand that the fastest growing group of users is people over 65). There may even be as many as 400 million Facebook memorials in 2070. In 100 years, it’s virtually a guarantee that all 800 million users alive today will have passed away.
Is it not disturbing to imagine a world where half your Facebook friends are actually memorials to the deceased? With a quickly rising global population, more and more people will be creating Facebook accounts and more and more users will pass away. So how will this change the social networking landscape? As more and more countries develop and grow, more people will be creating Facebook accounts. How long will it be before Facebook reaches a billion users? Or two billions users? And when those people die, will Facebook eventually start removing those memorials?
Let’s say they don’t and instead allow the friends and family of each deceased user to continue to mourn their loved ones online whenever they wish. What will it say about us when half our Facebook friends are actually memorials to those we have lost? With Facebook’s new timeline feature, it’s possible that in the not-too-distant future the site will be used as a memorial service almost as much as a social networking service. How much of our lives do we really want to give over to Facebook? Is it wrong? Is it right? Does it matter at all? It’s morbid, it’s cryptic and it raises many questions about how life has changed in the 21st Century. The most intimate moments in our lives pop up on Facebook constantly: births, weddings, events, celebrations and death. So what will you do when Facebook becomes ‘Gravebook’? As is the case with anything you can find on the Internet, if you can allow user comments, you’re also going to attract trolls. Would you even want a Facebook memorial knowing that the scum of the web might harass the people you care about?
To all of the questions above, I have no answer. I simply want to raise more questions and open a debate about the nature of our presence in the virtual world we’ve created that emulates real life more and more each day, possibly to the detriment of that life.
Perhaps the minds behind Facebook will realize the possibility (if they haven’t already) of Gravebook and make secret sweeping changes to the memorial service and have them disappear as quickly as they appeared to ‘make room’ for the next generation of users. Or perhaps, since memorials cannot add new friends, they’ll all simply vanish and be forgotten, just like people when those who knew us also pass away.
Then again, maybe in 60+ years, Facebook truly will be a flash in the pan. The face of the Internet (if it still exists in its current form by that time) may have changed completely and the next generation may reject social networking. It’s possible there will be no Facebook in that time and these questions will become irrelevant (more so).
But I don’t want to end on such a down-note so here’s a little song to cheer you up: