Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Facebook: Satisfying our Desire for Permanence?

All activity on social networking sites is deceivingly permanent. Every 'like'; every comment; every interaction is noted and recorded somewhere (the cloud.) It may only be a matter of minutes before a top story falls from everyone's news feed but the data still remains. A ghost of the comment, or expression lurks behind, to be collected and harvested just like any other source of data.

Our blogs and posts will outlast us. Putting aside a possible huge server fail or Facebook being shut down entirely our day to day narration of our social lives will live on long after the friendships or even people continue to exist. This is appeals to a desire many of us have, to go down in history, to create or to do something that will be permanently recorded. For the non-religious this idea soothes fears that death really is the end, that although we wont be able to sense or enjoy it, we still may 'live on' in some way as a citation.

However, it's not like our best moments are being recorded permanently. At best what will be 'attributed' to me (not that anyone will 'read' this data, it will be processed automatically) will be a collection of interactions I made (Liking stuff, attending events) at worst it will 'read' like a diary. I used to keep a diary, that's not how I want to live on after death.

After coming to this conclusion my online habits changed a lot. Even if what I post on the internet wont necessarily be attributed back to me, the fact that it will last as a record of what a human did with his leisure time makes me think twice before posting


  1. We must also consider the fact that whatever we post may come back to haunt us. I don't think twice about posting anything slightly risque, or controversial, particularly on Twitter but on Facebook too.

    There is the worry amongst some people that employers look at a facebook profile before hiring somebody. Do we really want to have to censor ourselves? Because after all, even if a post or comment has as you say disappeared off our news feed, it isn't that hard to find it.

    It isn't just the worry about how I'll go down in memory, but also the worry about what a mistaken drunken status or compromising photograph might do to someone's "character".

    If only we didn't feel the need to record our every move and live forever. Sadly, I think it is human nature.

    Weirdly though, when I see a facebook page of someone I vaguely know who sadly passed away, I do feel comforted that I have a digital memorial when I am gone, however dangerous it might be in life.

  2. Recently my friend had to ask another friend to take down a YouTube video of him singing (very) drunkenly about how he 'beat up a chav' following an internship interview. They said the video portrayed him in an awful, immature light and if he hadn't interviewed so well they would have for sure used this as grounds to turn him away!

  3. On the other hand, there could be a different effect: the general lowering of 'expectations': if most students have photos/videos on FB where they sing drunkenly, then this is nothing special anymore, and potential employers cannot be put off, as all their candidates have such an on-line record. So it's no longer a disadvantage.

    This should of course not come across as a lament about the decline of Western civilisation! Women wearing trousers used to be outrageous a hundred years ago, and nowadays it is perfectly normal - so things can change if enough people do them.

    It could also be a kind of information overload: if so much stuff about us is available on-line, then finding particular items becomes increasingly harder. A bit like having to read a whole biography, rather than just being able to look for the naughty bits in an index or table of contents.

  4. I think another baffling Facebook phenomenon is the dreaded 'frape' - a term I disapprove of as it equates something serious and damaging with some online meddling. Usually it's easy to tell a frape, but not always. Tonight we were supposed to be having a party at our house for our friends 21st but she fell over in the shower and hit her head, and I had to take her to A&E and cancel the party last minute. We had to tell about thirty people that the night couldn't go ahead, so I put as her Facebook status that the party was cancelled and please not to come, because she had had to go to the hospital at the last minute. Of course, as soon as I had done this, chats popped up straight away saying 'Wtf?? Is this a frape??'

    Another friend of mine nearly lost his place on Camp America because someone changed his profile picture to something crude and wrote something nasty in his status. The people from the project got it touch and almost sacked him, presumably because they have to be ultra careful about who they hire to work with children. I think that however careful we are we will never be in total control of the 'information' about us online.

  5. One of my friends got his account deleted after someone fraped him and replaced his profile pic with a great big penis.

    It was initially funny but then we realised that years worth of photos chronicling his childhood had been wiped and, this friend being a particularly lazy friend, would never get tracked down and re-tagged. Which was surprisingly sad.

    I glanced at an article online recently, probably the bbc, about how to deal with graphic image frapes either sexual and violent in nature.

    Seems like this extension of the old school status frape is a trending topic as facebook begins to attract users who aren't desensitized college students. If my Mum had been on facebook at the time of my friend's frape, she would have no doubt called me into the living room for an awkward chat about who I've been socialising with.

  6. I think it’s interesting, Joe, when you say you used to keep a diary and that’s not how you want to live on after death. When an historian researches a historical figure, diaries and letters are their first port of call. These documents are valuable precisely because they give us an intimate, subjective, no-holes-barred view of the person, which is as often unflattering as not.

    Of course, many historical figures wrote memoirs, autobiographies etc. that are biased/one-sided, and portray them in an all-too-favourable light. But in the modern, objective era we increasingly identify them as such, and turn to other sources to corroborate or contrast them.

    Supposing you (or anyone) became famous in this era, I don’t think self-censorship on Facebook (which it seems you’re getting at) would in any way guarantee a positive academic opinion of you in a later one. In fact purely from the point of view of leaving a historical record of yourself, I think it would be better to be as open and truthful as is reasonably possible. Anyone studying you in the future would aim to get at the ‘real’ you, and if, after retrieving your FB profile from the 21st Century section of the digital archives, they found you had left a vastly unrealistic self-portrayal, they would probably conclude them to be of little academic value…or worse, they could use them to argue that you were deluded about yourself in life, having hit upon the ‘real’ you through other records.

    As for non-academic interest, for example someone researching their ancestors, again I think they would probably feel cheated by an unrealistic self-portrayal in an uncovered FB profile, and would perhaps think of their great-great-great-grandfather/mother as someone whose greatest fault was their need to hide all their little (or not so little) faults from posterity.

    At the end of the day, personal records are of no value as a source of information unless they add to our knowledge of the person in question, and even corroboration of simple facts requires that the record be truthful. Perhaps they might be of sentimental value, but this would largely be to those who knew one in life, and any rose-tinted, nostalgic view of us dies with them.


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