Saying Goodbye To Your (Digital) Self

May 16, 2011

A couple of weeks ago I was at a friends house idly watching as she organized boxes from a big move earlier in the year. I was somewhat impressed to see the amount of items she decided to keep as they held some sort of nostalgic value. I suppose this interested me as my father’s downsize to a smaller home last summer resulted in many childhood and adolescent trinkets being trashed; neither of us had adequate storage space for a full box of house league hockey trophies or Halloween costumes from 1992. The limited space in my apartment and the anxiety over becoming a full fledged hoarder seemed to be enough to convince me that the purging of ‘old stuff’ was cathartic and, ultimately, good. But as I sat on my friends bed, listening to her recall memories of past achievements, events and challenges, I couldn’t help feel a tinge of regret over that dumpster full of photographs and clothing. I suppose at the very least, I had myself to blame for the cleansing of all pre-adult Dana memorabilia; it wasn’t destroyed in a fire or stolen, I got rid of it all myself, fair and square.

In a recent article in the New York Times, former users of social networking site Friendster reacted to the announcement that its CEO was making moves to delete large batches of digital files, including early user photos and posts. While this wouldn’t be the first time an online corporation hosting user generate content decided to hit the ‘delete’ button (Yahoo wiped out Geocities not too long ago – eventually making the entire archive available for download) the article briefly touched on the personal (and cultural) significance in purging online memory. For the purposes of this post, the online or digital memory I refer to is not entirely restricted to its literal definition of kernels of data managed by some sort of hardware system, but rather extends itself to the psycho-social paradigm in which memory and recollection is a process which helps inform our personal and cultural templates. This definition may seem somewhat dichotomous, but as our growing interaction with virtual tools demonstrates – the online world has, and continues to be, a place where we create and perform. It is through these interactions that we establish a not only a virtual identity but also, a digital memory.

Mr. Leija said that even though he had not used the service in three or four years, the news of its plans to erase older material tugged at his heartstrings. “Your emotions get wrapped up in it,” he said. “It reflected a particular moment in time in our lives.”

A comparison between Sherry Turkle’s books “Life on Screen” and “Alone Together” demonstrates the evolution of online identities and performance; whereas the (recreational) internet once existed as a place for users to don a mask (or more specifically, an avatar) and engage in a mostly fictionalized experience, today’s use of the internet is far more tied to our real life experiences and social performance. We’ve heard it all before – people tweeting their “I do’s”, complaints over incessant hyper personal Facebook status updates, and the boss who stalks you online before hiring you. The time we invest online has become a part of our social template and our online social investments are undoubtedly intimate and poignant. As our digital self increasingly mirrors and extends our ‘real life’ self, our online memories become as important to us as the ones we construct IRL. Suffice it to say, we’ve gotten to a place with our interaction online that Friendster or Geocities’ decision to delete their archives feels entirely personal – as if they are tossing our childhood love notes and journals in that big ol’ dumpster. The dilemma being, in the case of Geocities and Friendster, we (the users) haven’t made the decision to officially leave that digital life behind; we aren’t the ones permanently deleting our profile or the archive of our interactions. For example, when I finally deleted my myspace account almost two years ago, I did so with a final look and download of any important messages or photographs I wished to keep. It’s not just data and bits and bytes that are being erased, it’s pieces of our digital history.

“We want to forget our misdeeds and bad choices, but we also kind of want to remember them,” said Danah Boyd, a social media researcher at Microsoft and a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “These old networks are our memories.”

The idea that a faceless corporation has control over those pieces of personal digital history and memory hearkens back to the good ol’ privacy debate – which, ultimately, is a debate over ownership. When our digital lives exist on third party social networks there is always the fear that we will never be able to delete certain material as we don’t own it. “You can’t delete those drunk pictures of you at the bridal party Cherry! They live forever on Facebook’s server thingys somewhere! I heard that anyone can find them – probably on Google if you search ‘drunk girl’. Or, oh gosh, what if they come up on a Yahoo search on your name! OMG!” Absurdity aside, the dissolution of Friendster and Geocities ignites a new fear for Facebook, WordPress and Twitter junkies: what happens when it all folds, what happens when you’re destined to lose that particular digital lifetime of memories forever? As an individual user, with no access to the systems database or archival system, an end to Facebook could easily mean an end to your digital life…well, the Facebook part of it, anyhow. It’s sort of like your digital ‘you’ lives in the Matrix, if the Matrix was run by a nerdy Jewish kid.

As with most technology, no one expects Facebook to last forever (which, currently, means your digital self can’t last forever either…welcome to the existential part of the post). And while it is expected that users will eventually leave one social network for another, or eventually dump the internet for some new fandangled technology, it will be interesting to observe how larger and larger amounts of users deal with this personal historical loss in the near future. Since its become virtually impossible to imagine daily life without everyone recording their online lives in such a public manner, this is an issue that will only become more culturally significant and permanent solutions will need to be found. Whether these solutions are the responsibility of the user or the social network, the recognition of how important our digital experience has become. and therefore the subsequent move towards the preservation of our digital memory may be the next step in our digital/cultural evolution. Personally, I’m excited to see how the collective concept of our digital lives develops as we think more and more critically about the personal histories we live and leave online.

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  1. Kristina says:

    A very interesting and thought provoking essay! I too am interested to see how we’ll deal with these problems in the future. :)

  2. Danah says:

    I really loved this and I also could relate to this when i found a former person from my life deleted photos of me and now i will never have those photos. Terrible feeling to loose photos because of digital removal.
    I suppose that one day i might be able to contact this person and get those photos so it is better than the social media owners/managers deleting them all the same i understand the pain.

  3. cosican says:

    My friend is a genius, well put Dana…PS MySpace can eat it.

  4. Dana says:

    yes exactly! it’s strange how a digital file, which in essence can be easily duplicated and exist forever, can also be just as easily lost. and it’s … interesting to consider it’s repercussions in different facets (online / offline)

  5. Justin says:

    I think what this boils down to is what sort of value do we place on our virtual selves?

    What sort of value do we attach to our facebook photos or myspace message histories?

    further from this, what about the files on our home computers and cell phones? How often do we REALLY back these up?

    Being something of a media junkie (and a careless one at that), I definitely don’t back things up enough (namely, pretty much never – the last was almost 2 years ago).

    Beyond this, I’ve suffered from several hard drive crashes on the course of my life, but have I ever truly lost anything? Are my tweets and tumbles really something I hold that close to my heart?

    There’s a lot that can be said about preserving our digital selves, but aside from photos, I’m not sure I really care all that much.

    Keep thinking and mulling this topic over, Dana. It’s the tip of an even bigger issue, IMO.

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