Tattooed on the Internet: The Permanent and Not-So-Private Nature of Facebook

Today I decided to go onto my own Facebook page and creep on myself. As I scrolled down through the weeks, months, and eventually years, the number of cringes rapidly increased. The statuses I posted ranged from awkward and irrelevant (“Stress. Shut up.” – July 31, 2012) to just plain confusing (“The only night so far this year I’ve gotten nightmares was Christmas Eve. Coincidence?” – December 25, 2011). I relived inside jokes about scary babies and one-legged birds with my cousin Shelton and I shuddered as I read loving posts from my controlling ex-boyfriend. I saw the trails of my relationships laid out for all of my Facebook friends (and who knows who else) to see if only they had the patience to scroll so far. It was like a map leading up to the person I am now, or at least to the Facebook persona I am now. I was both amused and mildly freaked out.

Facebook is a strange blend of personal and private. You post your thoughts. You share photographs of your life. You have a tidy record of all your friends and vague acquaintances displayed on the left side of the screen. You post things that you most likely assume will only be seen by certain people, but this may not be the case. According to Chapter Five of Howard Rheingold’s book Net Smart, Facebook’s privacy settings are anything but guaranteed. They can change at any moment, and they change often. Many people suspect that the federal government’s Central Intelligence Agency uses Facebook to gather personal information on citizens and their relationships, and once you post something, it can never be completely deleted. With all of these factors, Facebook suddenly becomes not just a fun site to connect with friends but a sort of trap “laden with social and political dangers” (234). I made a Facebook years ago, when I was a young teenager, and my old statuses are still there. I wrote them but they don’t belong to me; they are out on the web, where they can never truly be erased and where, as far as I know, even the government can see them.

Bernie Sanders made a speech in December criticizing the US’s obsession with surveillance (— Ironically the link for the video I found does indeed come from Facebook). He discusses the importance of fighting terrorism but also the importance of privacy and upholding the Constitution. Below the video is the quote: “I worry very much about kids growing up in a society where they think ‘I’m not going to talk about this issue, read this book, or explore this idea because someone may think I’m a terrorist.’” If every action that we take online can be traced by other people and never erased, how does this affect the way that we write on the Internet? Do we avoid writing about certain difficult things because, as the quote suggests, we might be seen as a threat to the government (or perhaps fired from our jobs)? Should Facebook at least tell us directly when and how it changes its privacy settings—and if it did, would we actually bother to read these updates?

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