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How Facebook is designing for an incoming avalanche of dead users

A new study finds that by 2050, the dead will outnumber the living on Facebook. Here’s how the company is designing user experiences to face the billions of dead users to come.

How Facebook is designing for an incoming avalanche of dead users
[Image: courtesy Facebook]

By 2050, the dead will outnumber the living on Facebook. That’s a conservative estimate, according to a study published by researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute, which aimed to estimate just how many profiles on the platform will belong to people who have died, before the end of the century. Based on projections of Facebook’s number of users growing 13% every year, they calculate that by 2100, there could be more than 4.9 billion dead profiles on the platform.

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For Carl Ohman, a graduate student at the Oxford Internet Institute who co-authored the study, the exactness of the numbers is besides the point–more importantly, we need to make decisions as a society, now, about how a private company should handle what will become an unprecedented compilation of human activity. Currently, Facebook says its memorialized profiles–what Facebook calls a dead user’s profile that has officially been converted into an interface for remembering his or her life–number in the hundreds of thousands.

“Never before in history has such a vast archive of human behavior been assembled which spans pretty much every continent, yet all this data is hidden away, controlled by a private company with no insight, no security, and basically no other leading principle than to maximize profit,” Ohman says. “That is problematic from a societal point of view.”

Facebook isn’t the only company that will face a conundrum about what to do with its droves of user data when those users pass on. The challenges facing the company reflect the tech industry’s larger problem with designing for endings–whether it’s the end of a product’s life or the end of a user’s life. More often that not, it’s short-term thinking that drives product decisions, like a smartphone maker deciding to glue its product together to make it thinner and more attractive, but neglecting to think how when that phone breaks and there’s no way to fix it, it will end up contributing to a global e-waste problem. Same with data. While it’s theoretically easier to trash than the heavy metals that go into electronics, tech companies still have trouble with scrubbing user data because their systems simply weren’t designed for deletion. Other companies, which do want to store people’s data forever, haven’t yet grappled with the underlying technical and environmental realities of this storage as more and more people come online.

In Facebook’s case, 4.1 billion profiles will likely take up a lot of server space and require a lot of maintenance to stay up and running under current paradigms (Facebook declined to comment on this problem). It’s reasonable to wonder if Facebook might want to monetize these dead profiles at some point. Ohman applauds the company for many of the current steps it has taken to create a user experience around memorialized profiles that is sensitive to the living, but he believes that there should be other players involved with deciding what happens to the billions of people whose intimate life stories will end up floating in Facebook-owned cyberspace after they die.

One group he wants to see involved in the long run? National archives, which are already starting to play a role in cataloging the internet. In the short term, however, Ohman hopes that Facebook will start releasing anonymized insights it has learned from researching its vast database, insights that could be better used to understand human history.

After all, it is occupies a unique position because of its sheer number of users (last count, 2.38 billion monthly active users), its global reach, and the fact that it has already become a public platform for memory, where people go to remember those they’ve lost. But what happens when a treasure trove of human history rests in the hands of a corporation?

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“As Facebook and its family of apps and services continues to grow, we remain committed to supporting people coping with loss,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement. “People turn to Facebook to find solace in community after the loss of a loved one–by communicating with them directly, sharing memories, and caring for their legacy. We have a deep respect for our unique position in people’s lives and take our role in the conversation on building legacy in a digital age seriously.” The company declined to comment on any larger issues the paper raised.

[Image: Facebook]

The user experience of death

For the time being, Facebook has a 20-person team that works on what it calls “Memorialization,” a euphemism for handling dead people’s profiles. Originally, the company just deleted profiles when it learned someone had died. But after hearing from users who wanted to preserve their deceased loved ones’ profiles, the company started memorializing accounts in 2007. In 2015, the company added a legacy contact, a beneficiary of sorts that profile owners can designate to make decisions about how to preserve their digital presence–and their privacy–after they are gone. And just last month, Facebook took its biggest step toward turning profiles into miniature archives by adding a separate tab on a deceased user’s profile that is specifically for tributes. That allows the person’s original timeline to stay intact. All the settings of the Tributes page are controlled by the legacy contact. The fact that this is an ongoing process, one that Facebook is continually updating, suggests that the company hasn’t hit on the right formula yet.

However, creating some kind of archive seems to be Facebook’s ultimate vision. “In the future we hope it can be a place where people can go to learn about the deceased,” says Alice Ely, the product manager who runs the Memorialization team. She shared that her grandmother had just passed away this week, and the family was already making decisions about how to treat her Facebook account. “My children will never get to know my grandmother,” she says. “I want to preserve her profile so my children and nieces and nephew can go to learn about who my grandmother was.”

In designing the Tributes section, Ely and her team started by listening to feedback from users, who expressed to the team that they wanted more control over their loved one’s profile so they could care for it, almost how one might keep a cemetery plot tidy and covered in flowers. They took an ethnographic research trip around the world, where they spoke to people from a variety of places who practiced a range of religions about what they wanted to see from Facebook. In Indonesia, for instance, the team learned that people in the country wanted a loved one’s profile to be deleted right away because they believed that their soul would not be able to enter heaven if any photos of them still existed. As a result, Facebook still gives the legacy contact the option to delete an account if they want to.

However, there were also a few constants across place and religion in how people exercised their grief: Ritual and religious ceremony were important, but most consistent was how people turn to community. “We wanted to formalize that process where people share memories and condolences,” Ely says.

The design aims to be sensitive to people who may be impacted by a death, something the company says it’s always trying to improve. For instance, the design team created the digital memorialization process so that it doesn’t have to happen right away–people can address it when they’re ready. “For a lot of friends and family it feels like the final act of announcing a person has died,” Ely says. But to ensure that people don’t get inappropriate notifications or recommendations in the interim between when a person died and when their account was memorialized, the Facebook team built a classifier algorithm that uses a variety of symbols to assess that someone has passed away (Facebook declined to provide more detail, citing privacy reasons). Then, that person won’t show up in birthday notifications, event invite recommendations, or in hundreds of other places on Facebook that could inadvertently remind a user of their loss–or their own mortality.

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“You can’t have a service that constantly reminds its users that they’re going to die,” Ohman says. “That’s not a very pleasant user experience.”

From a living platform to an archive of the dead

Though Facebook has devoted more resources to its memorial UX, Ohman worries for the future, when the majority of profiles on the platform will be of dead users. While creating an archive in some way of this data is important, deceased users’ privacy rights also need to be considered. “My biggest concern is not necessarily how Facebook deals with the data but how little incentive they have to protect the privacy of the dead users,” Ohman says. “Most privacy law or data protection law more or less exclusively refers to or includes living data subjects, which means as soon as you die you lose all rights to privacy.”

Currently, Facebook says it freezes a user’s privacy settings when they die as a way to protect their privacy. But that pledge only restricts what users can see in their profile, and doesn’t limit what Facebook can do with their data. As more and more users die, Ohman is concerned that Facebook’s profit motive could cause the company to look toward monetizing the dead profiles at the expense of user privacy. Ohman thinks that dead profiles could be used to attract new people to the platform and continue to monetize their attention, and that “datasets of digital remains” could be used to train new models and find historical patterns, which could help drive the company’s bottom line–something that he believes should be addressed through data regulations. But these two features still may not be enough to make it worthwhile economically to host so many dead profiles–though Ohman acknowledges that so far, ” Facebook appears to have found the net value of dead profiles to be positive.”

Of course, Facebook may not survive to the end of the century. But this presents more problems. “The sudden dissolution of Facebook would arguably make the subject even more important, as the company may be forced to sell or delete their user data,” Ohman and his co-author David Watson write in the paper. “A sufficiently severe blow to Facebook’s finances could force a redesign of the platform with major implications for those currently using it as a memorial site.”

Whatever happens, the discussion needs to start happening now, Ohman says:  “It’s better to have a proactive approach because people will continue dying and people will continue using the internet. It’s not like we can’t see this coming. It’s coming and it’s only going to get more and more significant.”

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable

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