No one lives forever, that’s a fact that everyone can agree with—at least for now. While most of older generations haven’t produced enough digital data to have ‘digital remains’ after their death, most of Gen Z and below will leave an enormous bulk of data through their social media after they’re gone. Creepy? Maybe, but more and more companies want you to start embracing the idea of a digital afterlife. Who should have control over someone’s social media pages is the real problem here, and it is one that just keeps on growing.
A few days ago, a study conducted by researchers Carl Öhman and David Watson from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) showed how quickly Facebook’s user base could be outnumbered by dead users. Öhman and Watson predicted that by 2050, there would be more accounts that belonged to deceased users than living, active people on Facebook.
Most people, when planning their legacy, will think about their possessions and their finances. What about all the different versions of ourselves we’ve scattered everywhere online? What about your hard-drive backups? Digital lives are immortal, so figuring out what will happen to them while you’re still alive is beneficial, but to understand what can be done, we first need to know what happens to accounts of deceased people.
Even though this is a rather new concept, some of the big social media websites like Facebook already offer some form of ‘death planning’. You have two options: the first one is to set your account to delete everything once Facebook is notified of your death by someone. The second option is picking someone close to you as your ‘legacy contact’. This special someone will then be able to write a post pinned at the top of your page, accept friend requests and even update your profile picture. The only thing they won’t be able to access are your messages, so your little secrets will be safe.
This is what Facebook calls a memorialised account, a place where your close ones can have a browse and remember you. Memorialised profiles can’t pop up in your timeline to avoid causing any distress by reminding you of the deceased’s birthday for example. Instagram only recently followed the movement and now also offers to memorialise someone’s account after receiving a valid request.
After their research, the OII wanted Facebook to invite historians to find a way to curate our digital data post-mortem. What we leave behind when we pass away should be looked at as heritage to the next generations and a possible way of helping them understand their history. Not only should historians analyse this data, but they should approach it as something different than traditional historical data.
In 2018, researcher Hossein Rahnama started working with an unnamed CEO on a special digital avatar. This one would serve as a virtual ‘consultant’ when the actual CEO passes away. Rahnama is now implementing this idea into an application called Augmented Eternity. By using all your digital data—how you communicate and interact with others online—algorithms can recreate your personality and reactions to anything. This may sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but our technology will soon be able to achieve this, so we can sort of live forever on our social media platforms.
At the moment, people’s digital legacy is in the hands of companies like Facebook—private companies guided by what is best commercially and not historically. A single commercial company holding what is now the largest archive of human behaviour should be carefully watched and some thoughts need to be put into how this data should be stored and used after people’s death. Who knows, we might learn a lot from all these likes and embarrassing pictures.
So Facebook, the ball is in your court.
Like most people, I check Instagram before going to sleep and do the same as soon as I wake up. Posting on the platform wouldn’t be that big of a deal for us if likes weren’t such a big part of the process. Likes control us as soon as we press the ‘post’ button—only after having gone through the long procedure of picking a good picture, filtering it, etc. What would it be like if this social media standard of measurement was taken out of the equation?
Last week, former Facebook executive and Head of Instagram Adam Mosseri announced that the company would be running tests in Canada on a new version of the app where users could still like posts but only the owner of the post would be able to see how many likes the picture got. It looks like the company wants people to go back to its roots—focusing on the content that we share instead of the amount of likes we receive. As nice as this sounds, coming from a social media company, it also seems too good to be true.
With apps like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, amongst others, likes do more than feed into our constant attention seeking behaviour and our comparison obsession. Likes help the algorithms that basically control those platforms decide which content to show first, or which ads a user is most likely to click on. This kind of data is not something easy to let go of. Even though likes are not planned to be completely removed, just hidden from other users, this new way of consuming social media content is bound to affect the way we show our appreciation for certain posts.
Social media adapts a herd mentality: when a picture that already has a lot of likes shows up on your timeline, you’re more inclined to double tap it than one that doesn’t have a lot or has none. Not only does it reinforce the problem of how we look for validation online, but it also affects our mental health. Even Kanye West said it last year in one of his rants on Twitter—social networks are damaging people’s mental health and we should be protected from knowing how many likes and followers we have.
For some of the younger users of Instagram, pressure to post often as well as like their friends’ photos quickly is part of growing up with the technology. Millennials’ social status is based on how many likes, comments, and followers they have. Changing this could be a first step towards ‘digital detox’, although comments could become the new likes.
This test could raise concern amongst celebrities and influencers, who have monetised on their popularity through sponsored posts, other types of ads and, obviously, likes. Hiding likes would make it harder for them to ‘go viral’ and see how much engagement a post receives. Instagram would only benefit now from making it harder for businesses and influencers to thrive on its platform, because people would praise them for trying to make it a safer environment.
What about in the long run? If users can’t imagine how influential you are because your likes count is secret, then advertisers and influencers will probably just find or create another platform where more money can be made through the perpetuation of this herd mentality.
Our relationship with social media, and as a result likes, has slowly turned into something bordering on unhealthy. Even though this possible new version might not be as dramatic as it sounds, it could still change a few things—for the app and for our mental health. We could go back to posting pictures just to share them with our friends, families (and fans for celebrities and influencers) just for fun. Today, social media is more about winning at life—let’s make it enjoyable again.