As I’m making major transitions in my life, I’m looking to purge old things and declutter as much as possible. Why not also include my virtual presence? I am meeting new friends and colleagues who are more involved on social media sites like Facebook, but I’m not comfortable with them having access to all of my pictures from the mid-2000s. Not because I have skeletons in my closet, but simply because a new work friend is not trusted enough by me to share intimate details of my life with yet. I understand that posting and sharing information on the internet is a high level of responsibility, but there’s a danger of slipping into victim-blaming tone in discourse regarding social media. Simply because it is technologically possible to obtain some personal information of mine that I disclosed in a different part of my life where I thought and felt differently about life, and certainly treated social media differently, does not mean I “deserve” to have that information, no matter the nature, available to everyone I meet at all times for the infinite future. I would still like to reserve the right to throttle the information I have shared, and have some middle ground between “you are a stranger I need to protect myself from” and “here are my best friends, clubs, cringey Spanish class videos, and homecoming pictures from 2006”. We have this power in the cultivation of all of our other relationships, and so I would like to retain that power on social media.
A feature that would have immediately solved this problem for me is already available on “WeChat”, a Chinese social media platform that is home to over a billion users–most of them Chinese. They have a feature that allows you to decide how many of your recent “moments” or posts are visible, measured in time. So you can select “last three months” or “last year” or “last three hours” even, as well as “all post from all time”.
I read that Facebook and other social media sites have been bit by bit preventing users from bulk changing or modifying the content hosted on the website, even going so far as to change their interface to make the web design more elaborate to prevent easy home made solutions. I understand that Facebook has incentives to make its users dependent on its interface, but seeing as they have a virtual monopoly on photo and video storage, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a responsibility to allow users more access and control, since in some ways, the platform has transcended “social media” in a way that suggests a different category all together. I submit “social history” as a potential term to describe the main function of Facebook data, whose number of profiles belonging to the deceased will at some point out number its living users.
I had some values going into this experiment:
- I wanted to save my data for myself, and so in that way, Facebook is actually quite generous– they allow users to download their complete data as an html or json file. I chose both versions, so that I can choose the more appropriate version when I work on data analyses on the files (and there is so much exciting potential for ways to analyze the data). This includes pictures, videos, and every message you have ever sent. Have you ever scrolled up on your computer in Facebook chat and found the history is empty? Maybe you can’t see it, but it’s still there. Every message, group message, both sent and received, is logged carefully in your data file.
- Once I downloaded the data, I didn’t mind deleting it off of Facebook, or hiding if deleting wasn’t an option.
- I wanted to see clearly how others could see my profile, both strangers and friends. I acted as a new curious friend and poked around all the nooks and crannies of my own profile from an example account in order to determine what was visible, and what was more difficult to find.
- The Social Book Post Manager Google Chrome extension was pivotal in my journey.
- It took me a bit to configure the settings and figure out which page to be on, and I had to manually revert to “old Facebook” in order to run the process, but the extension will simulate clicking the three dots next to posts in your activity log and clicking “delete” or “hide”. You can filter by time period and how fast you want the extension to run, with higher speeds meaning there might be some errors. I let it run for a whole afternoon and it took care of almost two thousand posts or items on my “Facebook Wall” for old school users, or the “timeline” for current times.
- Some elements could not be deleted, but could be hidden, and Facebook allows for some bulk management of these items in the “manage posts” section near “timeline review” but it’s still clunky. You can only select 50 items at a time, and it doesn’t sort or filter by useful categories. This took an hour or two to work through, even after I had deleted most of my posts.
- There are some “likes” that have accumulated if you have engaged with pages about movies or shows, or taken a “quiz” even years ago when Facebook was more saturated with different sorts of games and quizzes. I had to go to those pages manually to remove my like, check in, or review (thank god it didn’t sync with yelp, that would have been so many reviews to remove…).
- Some pictures are added to Facebook in strange ways, in a “mobile uploads” area, or in “timeline pictures” so they aren’t traditional “posts”, and surprise… you need to modify the permissions or delete them individually! So many clicks…
- Finally, as anyone who was on Facebook in the mid-2000s might remember, writing “Notes” and tagging friends to “share 30 things” or “answer 45 questions” or “add your name and see how far it goes!” was not uncommon, but I think in more recent iterations of the Facebook website, “notes” as a feature has been phased out. So it was not classified as a post, and thus the “Social Book Post Manager” missed it in the initial deletion, but then the notes were also not available in any dedicated “notes” section, like I remember they used to be. It was quite peculiar. I had to click the small date text under the note title to take me to the note URL, and then paste that into a browser to change the privacy settings manually.
- Bonus! Groups… if you are a member, you have to leave them one by one. But if you are a moderator, and I was a moderator of several smaller groups, you have to delete every member before deleting the group. I think Facebook even fought back because the message “The content you requested cannot be displayed right now. It may be temporarily unavailable, the link you clicked on may have expired, or you may not have permission to view this page.” was displayed even though nothing was wrong. They really don’t want me to delete the groups!
- Even to leave the group very simply, I had to provide a reason and several extra clicks. This is so challenging because some of these groups involve people or causes I left due to bad experiences, and so having to jump through these hoops really drags it out.
- Ultimately, there are two non-negotiable visible elements: your profile picture, and your cover photo. I chose an alternate for each, so curious friends could get a fun snapshot or two of my past without imbibing the whole thing. Selecting photos that are highlights on the sidebar is also a fun way to feature photos that you enjoy without giving access to 15 years of photos and friends that you’re not comfortable disclosing.
I am amazed at how much data Facebook and other apps have collected, and I think “Social Media Literacy” would be a valuable class for students as young as junior high, who are increasingly using social media as a primary mode of communication. I used AIM heavily in my “social media formative years”, and I’m glad that the messages from those days are not permanently etched in the Facebook servers, but that is purely happenstance, and allows me the privilege of being slightly more mature when I chose to engage with social media, and so I didn’t make any unforgivable mistakes.
But now, parents post pictures and video of their children on social media. If I wanted to purge my social media from my whole life, my presence would be inextricably connected to the social media presence of my parents, who I have no authority over. It’s perhaps this linkage that forms an interesting ethical challenge: how could I remove myself without removing others? Do I want my face blurred or greyed out in the group pictures from some high school club I now want no affiliation with? That might ruin or tarnish a cherished memory for one of my classmates, who still features that picture prominently in collages or photo books online and in person. Further, with high quality imaging and ubiquitous camera technology combined with advanced machine learning image processing, every day I set foot in a public place is an opportunity to be featured on the camera roll in someone’s home security system, business footage used for marketing analysis, and in the background of my neighbor’s kid’s TikTok. The future of privacy and permission challenges will be faced with these complex entanglements, but I’m hopeful for new experts and fields to emerge to meet the task, and that one day I would be able to participate in and contribute to the effort.