At some point, there will be more dead Facebook users than living ones – and for those left behind, it is transforming how we experience the death of those around us.
By Brandon Ambrosino
This story is featured in BBC Future’s “Best of 2016” collection
The day after my Aunt’s passing, I discovered she’d written me a lovely note on the front page of the Shakespeare collection she’d given me. “I know how important the written word is to you,” it read, “this then is my gift to you.”
With all of my love, as always,
Deeply moved, I opened my laptop and found my way over to her Facebook page. I thought it would be comforting to see pictures of her, and to read some of her witty posts, and to imagine her speaking them in her brassy, brazen, Baltimore screech. At the top of her Facebook feed was a video posted by my cousin showing two elephants playing in water. (My aunt loved elephants. She had thousands of pieces of elephant kitsch all over her house.) Below that were some tributes from former students, as well as the obituary posted by her sister-in-law.
I scrolled back up. According to Facebook, Aunt Jackie studied English Education at Frostburg State University, was a former English Department Head for Baltimore City schools, and lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
Lives? I thought.
She doesn’t live anywhere. She’s gone.
But if you happened to come across her profile on Facebook and didn’t scroll down to the obituary, then you wouldn’t know that.
She would still be, in some sense, alive. She would be … here. On Facebook.
I thought back to the night my family and I stood around Aunt Jackie, hooked to wires and machines, and watched her pass.
How is our continuing presence in digital space changing the way we die?
Observing that phenomenon is a strange thing. There she is, the person you love – you’re talking to her, squeezing her hand, thanking her for being there for you, watching the green zigzag move slower and slower – and then she’s not there anymore.
Another machine, meanwhile, was keeping her alive: some distant computer server that holds her thoughts, memories and relationships.
While it’s obvious that people don’t outlive their bodies on digital technology, they do endure in one sense. People’s experience of you as a seemingly living person can and does continue online.
How is our continuing presence in digital space changing the way we die? And what does it mean for those who would mourn us after we are gone?
The numbers of the dead on Facebook are growing fast. By 2012, just eight years after the platform was launched, 30 million users with Facebook accounts had died. That number has only gone up since. Some estimates claim more than 8,000 users die each day.
At some point in time, there will be more dead Facebook users than living ones. Facebook is a growing and unstoppable digital graveyard.
Some estimates claim more than 8,000 Facebook users die each day
Many Facebook profiles announce their owners have passed; they are “memorialised”. The profile is emblazoned with the word “remembering”, and they stop appearing in public spaces, like People You May Know or birthday reminders.
But not all Facebook users who have passed away are memorialised…