The rise of the dead: How many ghosts are on Facebook?

  • By Jonathan Good
  • November 18, 2010

What is the fastest growing group on Facebook? One of the most surprising phenomena of 2010 is the encroachment of death onto Facebook. Just like Toy Story 3, the blissful youth of Facebook is suddenly faced with the passing of time and the first inklings of mortality. However, beyond the anecdote of an awkward experience, surprisingly few facts exist about the prevalence of death on social media. Is this an occasional curiosity or a looming tidal wave for which existing social media sites are unprepared?

We decided to do the math and estimate how many of these “social media ghosts” are living on long beyond their real-life equivalents.

Mostly the old...

The numbers suggest that 2.6 million Americans will die in 2010 [1]. The simple math that one third of Americans are now on Facebook would suggest that just over 1 million Americans will pass away on Facebook this year. The real math is a bit more complicated, of course. On Facebook, college kids sharing their drunken travails are over-represented, and the far-more-likely-to-die old, under-represented.

For a better answer, 1000Memories compared the CDC distribution (yes the best people to ask about death are the Center for DISEASE control!) with the CIA’s statistics on the American population at large. Based on this we calculated that the probability of dying this year by age. The graph looks like the ‘hockey-stick’ that social media start-ups dream about (see Chart 1).

Probability of death by age

...while the young while away their days online

Facebook, the all-conquering social, sociological and now Hollywood phenomenon often seems ubiquitous. With over 500 million users it would be the third largest country in the world (and Twitter would be the 5th, LinkedIn the 13th, and 1000Memories wouldn’t be the smallest!) [2]. That said, I am always surprised how many people are not on Facebook. The Facebook-phobic include not only my grandmother, my 1-year-old cousin, and also my dad. Market estimates suggest that more than 80% of Americans between the ages of 20 and 29 use Facebook, while only 8% of those 65 and older have been sucked into social media’s black-hole like grip (see Chart 2) [3].

Facebook users by age

1,000,000 Facebook ghosts this year...

At this point, the math calculates that less than 400,000 of American Facebook users will die in 2010 [4]. Facebook hasn't commented on how many of these accounts are “memorialized” (a special state that removes status updates and disable new friendships — for more details see our forum). Anecdotal evidence suggests, however, that most accounts are not “memorialized” — they patiently await the next status update that will never come like faithful Hachikō [5].

Extrapolating globally (1 in 4 Facebook users is American and non-US users tend to be younger and hence have a lower death rate) suggests that 1 to 1.5 million Facebook accounts will outlive their users this year. That’s more than 1 million deaths on Facebook in 2010. 1 million — that’s 1,000 times more people than Mark Zuckerberg has friends [6].

...and 50 million ghosts in 2015

Of course, 2010 isn't the first year that someone has died on Facebook, and as much as I may hope, it won’t be the last. Facebook's own blog chronicles the team’s shock and reaction when an early employee died in a bike accident in 2006 [7]. However the recent aging of Facebook means that accounts whose owners have passed away are a relatively new phenomena. In fact, seven times as many people will die on Facebook this year than have ever died on Facebook. Projecting this forward we foresee over 50 million accounts whose owners have passed away in 2015 [8] (see chart 3).

Facebook users by age

The impact on Facebook and beyond

So what does this all mean? As social media grows and the time we have left shrinks, death on the Internet needs to, and will, become more normal. The temporal and ephemeral tweet about “eating cereal for breakfast” needs also to be a part of something more substantial, helping our family, friends and future generations remember us not just from our “status” and activities but in the full richness of the photos, stories and relationships that capture our lives. Combining the scattered and temporal into something more substantial — and hopefully more meaningful — is exactly what we’re hoping to achieve with 1000Memories.

Footnotes

1. Based on 2010 population and death rate estimates from the CIA.
2. Twitter reports 175 million users and LinkedIn reports 85 million. 1000Memories doesn’t publish user numbers but the Vatican City has just 800 residents so we are a long, long way ahead.
3. Note that officially you are required to be 13 years of age to use Facebook which shapes our distribution here
4. Assuming that using Facebook doesn’t positively or negatively affect your mortality.
5. The faithful Japanese dog which patiently waited for its human companion long after his death.
6. Vanity Fair reported Mark Zuckerberg has 879 friends (on Facebook).
7. http://blog.facebook.com/blog.php?post=163091042130.
8. For this extrapolation we have pieced together Facebook’s historic user numbers and project forward that the site will grow to 2 billion users in 2015. We assume historically a constant second derivative of the Facebook death rate (based on our 2009 and 2010 analysis) and that this will level our to match the population death rate in 2015.

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