Digitalisation of the deceased

Last week Facebook introduced a new feature that gave users control over what to do with their profiles in the event of their death. Users can either ask for their accounts to be deleted or nominate a legacy contact to manage their memorialised profile for them. Facebook first introduced memorialised profiles in 2009, which essentially turns a deceased user profile into a page with sensitive information removed, such as contact details as well as adjusting privacy levels which allows the profile to be excluded from searches outside existing friends. With the recent changes, the legacy contact can manage the memorialised profile, post or accept friendships, which previously was not possible. In this post, taking Facebook as a starting point, we will explore some potentially significant implications of digitalisation of the deceased from both a society and business perspective.  

Facebook is getting older

To understand why Facebook is introducing these new features now, let’s have a look at some demographics from Facebook. A recent global survey points out that as of December 14, more than half of Facebook users are under 35 years old, with only 9% of users over 55. But this could be changing soon; a recent study comparing US Facebook demographics for 2011 and 2014 points to a shift from younger users to older users, in other words, Facebook is getting older. Most notably, the share of younger users (24 and younger) declined from 40% to 29%, where the share of people above 35 increased from 38% to 47%, making it the most populous age group in the US.

Deceased user rate to accelerate due to ageing community

Up until 2006, Facebook was a closed college network dominated by young users, but as the social network became more and more mainstream, user reach increased to almost all age groups. Quite naturally, the mortality rates increase as one gets older; so as the Facebook community is ageing, a higher proportion of its users are likely to die each year.

To understand the scale of deaths occurring within the Facebook community, we calculated rough death figures with using Facebook demographics, global death rate, active Facebook users and age group mortality rates.

We estimate that there were approximately 8 million deaths within Facebook community in 2014, adding up to 26 million in total since 2004 launch. Mainly due to the ageing user base, we estimate the total figure to reach c.90 million by 2020.

What does this mean for the business world and the society as a whole?

Dealing with deceased accounts is challenging for both businesses and the individuals and certainly costly to many businesses targeting customers with direct marketing. Over the course of someone’s life, an average individual would share their personal information with hundreds of businesses, from their supermarket to magazine subscriptions. On top of voluntarily shared data, personal information is often sold to third parties. The internet is full of stories for receiving marketing flyers for a partner deceased more than a decade ago; it is not only upsetting for relatives or friends who receive this, but also costly for businesses. Such events can damage the relationship between brand and consumer, which can take years to recover. One would expect deceased people to be excluded from marketing communications, with heavy penalties for companies failing to do this. Facebook is responding to these demands quite well; when the account is memorialised, Facebook ends all advertisement activity; showing posts to others such as “John likes Capgemini Consulting”. Moreover, as a token of respect, Facebook is not taking any advertisements on memorialised profiles.

Although Facebook is not currently using deceased data for commercial activities; there are few third party services such as ifidie, an app, which posts a pre-recorded video to Facebook in the event of death. Apps like this have access to sensitive personal information including, as and when it happens, the death. The deceased are being digitalised more and more every day, perhaps even becoming the product themselves.

As the digital presence of the deceased becomes a normal part of our lives, both society and organisations will face a different set of challenges. Managers operating in both the public and private sector will need to find the right balance between operational/commercial considerations, privacy concerns, ethical responsibilities and consumer expectations.  As for society in general, some traditional values may be challenged due to digitalisation, in areas such as how memorial services are conducted, as well as how respect should be paid to deceased people.  In the context of digital transformation, this topic is highly sensitive and complex, but ultimately one that cannot be ignored.