From a digital cradle to a digital grave

There have been many debates about privacy and user data recently, not least given the rewriting of Google’s terms of service and questions over who is generating the value in Facebook’s IPO price.  I’ve tangentially been thinking about the legacy of data a result.

1. Can a person reinvent themselves in the social media era?

Human lives are wonderfully random and unpredictable, but within this unfortunate or regrettable things can happen. Structured data can maintain links between different stages of life (and death) – do we want that? And if we don’t, how can organisations that hold such data respond? Or indeed should they, given  the question-marks over data ownership.

On the first question, I remember reading a while back someone (though I can’t remember who) saying that Bob Dylan couldn’t exist in the 21st century, since people would quickly find out that Nowhere Boy was just Robert Zimmerman from Minnesota, and the mystique would be destroyed. To some extent, this has been borne out, with Lady Gaga still connected to Stefani Germanotta and Lana Del Ray to Lizzie Grant. Yet, despite the backlashes and meta commentary, the majority of people don’t seem to care about the past. The first viewing of Video Games on YouTube is day zero, as far as Lana Del Ray’s fans are concerned (Personally, I haven’t gotten further than the Lana Del Ray dancing Tumblr).

Yet, the stages of Lizzie Grant’s existence wouldn’t be so disconnected in a Facebook timeline. People would easily be able to browse the gradual (or not) evolution – even with a scorched earth policy some recorded activity will be outside of the individual’s control. Does this matter? In some instances, it does. There have been reported instances of companies demanding prospective employee’s Facebook passwords. The sheer idiocy of it makes it sound absurd, but it could potentially be destructive. A 22 year old graduate could have been on Facebook since he or she was 15 or 16. Facebook will keep a record of all that individual’s actions and misdemeanours through school, university and work, charting the progress of that person growing up – actions which could have otherwise been long since forgotten or disregarded. For instance, when I was 16 I thought that Significant Other was a better album than OK Computer. And that would just be the least of my concerns.

One could argue that people should have a mental filter in place when deciding what to put on the internet. This ignores the fact that you can’t control what other people put online about you (cf. Rick Santorum), but also that future-proofing social media is hardly at the forefront of people’s minds. Even anonymous tumblrs can be linked back to people’s Facebook or Linked In accounts, should the investigator be willing to try hard enough.

There is no specific answer I am trying to get to, or position I’m trying to achieve with the above line of thinking. It is merely an observation of the data trail our evolving personalities leave. Google Circles are hard enough to maintain when the information is static; longitudinal information over an extended period of time will be even more difficult.

2. What happens to someone’s data in the long-term?

Twitter, as many other services do, offer recommendations on who to connect with. This is a screenshot of a recent recommendation.

The middle account – Martin Skidmore – hasn’t been updated since July 21st 2011. Now, I’ve never met Martin Skidmore but I’ve heard of his name via friends of mine who have very nice things to say about him. I also know that he died last year.

Now Martin’s Twitter profile (as I assume his other profiles) has remained static. Is that right? Should we keep a person’s profile as it is, and enable others to interact with it (even with the potential of notifications suggesting you reconnect)? Or perhaps profiles should be frozen and turned into a shrine or memoriam (some final entries might be elegiac, but I suspect most would be fairly banal, and there is also the potential to be greeted with a suicide note) Or should these profiles be removed completely (deleting interactions with friends or contacts in the process)?

I don’t know the answer. It is a highly emotive issue, and people will have different opinions. It also opens the question over who has the right to decide – should there be a digital will? Though of course final wishes aren’t always observed, as with the case of Vladimir Nabokov and his final manuscript. And of course there are practical questions over how we deal with multiple accounts and fragmented online activity. Facebook might be the central point for most people, but there are also blogs, microblogs, social networks and website profiles all in existence, potentially all linked to the same email address. Should there be a responsibility on the email provider to track down all of these profiles, to allow the family to settle the affairs?

(I have a vague recollection of a service existing whereby if an account wasn’t accessed for a period of time then it would automatically notify everyone in the address book that the person was dead. However, I can’t recall where I heard of it, or what it was called).

The amount of information being put on the internet appears to be growing exponentially, with nodes linked together in many ways. Structurally, data trails are a mess. Do we need to reach a place where “we” (as bottom-up individuals, or top-down conglomerated organisations) start to clean and tidy this environment and avoid the equivalent of space debris harming our online experience? Or is it something we just accept, as the more things change the more we want things to stay the same?


Image credit: Errr… there was about a 2 month gap between me drafting and publishing and I didn’t save the link. Apologies – if it is yours then let me know and I’ll credit accordingly


One Response

  1. This is all very interesting but Significant Other better than OK Computer? Even at 16 that is inexcusable.

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