Whitewalling and digital permanence

I recently came across this research into risk reduction strategies for using Facebook – particularly by teenagers. The main article talks about “Super-Logoff“, but it was a comment below the article that educated me about “Whitewalling“.

This page is left intentionally blankI love this. The simple idea that yesterday’s wall posts are yesterday’s news. Not only may they be irrelevant, but once forgotten who knows how they may come back to bite you? They’re still there, discoverable by other users and of course by the API.

These insights challenge my assumption that the next generation of adults won’t care about privacy. Teenagers may not have quite the same concerns as I do about these issues, but it’s fascinating to see how a website (designed by adults) leaves them to solve their own problems their own way.

The paranoid bit

Whitewalling in particular got me thinking about the notion of digital permanence. That the data we pump into the Internet is quite possibly going to live forever, or at least as long as we do. That raises questions about what it could be used for in a future we don’t yet know.

Fast forward to some advances in artificial intelligence and changes in the law: suppose ten years of Facebook wall posts could psychologically profile you such that your credit rating is affected, or an insurance company won’t insure you. Worse still, suppose you got into trouble with the law – even accidentally. How might this profile affect your chances of a fair trial? I know I sound paranoid, but if this data serves you no purpose then you may as well delete it while you can.

The personal bit

I was at a dinner party last week discussing my personal life. The previous two months had been a disaster – I wanted them erased. What was standing in the way of that? A permanent record of everywhere I’d been, what I was thinking/saying, and to whom – all nicely supported with photographic documentation.

“.. his Myspace page still says ‚ÄúStatus: Horny”
30 Rock – 3.13

It wasn’t just the social corpus either. It was how status updates and comments between people were used to exemplify a situation – to infer what people might be doing, or thinking. The number of times Facebook came up in conversation was sickeningly profound. Despite being in our 30s, we sounded like a bunch of teenagers.

“.. she just changed her status from ‘working on it’ to ‘weirdsies’.”
30 Rock – 4.8

The bit where I try Whitewalling

Four years of verbal diarrhoea is a lot of data to delete by hand. As a developer I figured there must be a quick way to do this. First of all I tried to build a Facebook app to wipe my wall back to the day I joined Facebook, but it turned out to be technically impossible. So, I started deleting posts by hand, one at a time; sometimes requiring up to three clicks. I conquered a year in about two hours and gave up for fear of RSI. I’ll do the rest later… probably.

It was quite a trip down memory lane. And along the way I found examples of exactly why it was a good idea. Comments about people who at the time weren’t on Facebook; who became friends later on. Comments from ex-girlfriends that could jeopardise future relationships.

It wasn’t just posts to my own wall either; it was comments on other people’s content which was most time-consuming. Deleting these would mean not just deleting the post, but clicking through first and deleting the comment. What a nightmare.

The bit at the end

If there was any point to this post at all, it was to say: This data will live forever. You don’t know how technology, law and privacy will change in the future. So whether you welcome or fear your Zuckerbergian future, just remember that this data is yours, and you still have power to delete it if you choose to do so.

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