Lessons In Growing Up Online, As Taught By Facebook
Since joining the Facebook community in 2007, I’ve seen firsthand how the social media giant has grown from an addicting platform that, as a young teenager, allowed me to stay constantly connected to friends and the latest school gossip, to now, the sixth-most-valuable listed public company in the world.
Having been a community member for more than a decade, you could say I’ve lived a lifetime on Facebook. During those years, the hundreds – maybe thousands – of posts, pictures and likes that I’ve shared have left a digital fingerprint so detailed and explicit that admittedly, I try not to think about it too much. But in the wake of revelations that Facebook shared users’ private data with political data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica and Mark Zuckerberg’s public admonition that the decision was made not to inform users of the breach, like many, these days I find myself reflecting about my digital fingerprint a little more than usual.
Like many Facebook users, I joined the social network as a young teen (Facebook requires all of its users to be at least 13-years-old). Although my parents were very clear about not wanting me to be online, in hindsight, part of the thrill in having my own Facebook account was that I wasn’t supposed to have one. In typical 15-year-old girl fashion, afterschool evenings were lost to the Internet as I spent hours upon hours messaging friends and sharing photos on Facebook and navigating the then-new world of social media. In retrospect, never did I give any thought to the permanency of the Internet or how one day, all of those hours spent on Facebook would leave a digital trail that I could never erase.
Take “On This Day” for example, a Facebook feature that allows users to see a “memory” – a post they shared or were tagged in, or a major life event – from that particular date in the past. While some memories are nice to look back on, most days, “On This Day” can feel like a disgruntled ex who simply doesn’t want me to forget the past. Every immature post, unflattering photo, ugly wall-to-wall spat, each coming together to paint a vivid picture of a teenager who thought she was wise beyond her years, are an uncomfortable reminder that on Facebook, not even 11 years is enough distance to keep my 15-year-old-self separate from the wise(r) adult that I am today.
In fairness, this isn’t an issue limited to Facebook. The Internet is and has always been permanent and nothing can ever be truly erased once published (Think before you post!). Nevertheless, there’s a reasonable assumption among users when they join online communities like Facebook that unless notified otherwise, their most private details will remain exactly that: private.
But as the world now knows, that hasn’t been the case with Facebook. Suddenly, those embarrassing and cringe-worthy “memories” are the least of my worries. Just how much private information have I naively given to Facebook over all these years?
I decided to find out.
Unbeknownst to me prior to Zuckerberg’s congressional hearing this week, Facebook now gives users the ability to download their Facebook data (you can find out how to download yours, here). In this multi-folder file, users can comb through virtually all of the personal information that they’ve ever given to Facebook. Every photo and video shared, every message sent and every third-party app associated with the user’s account – it’s all there. But exactly which data Facebook shares with advertisers and how, we still don’t know (during his hearing, Zuckerberg dodged several questions about this).
These days I find myself contemplating more and more whether I want to remain a member of Facebook’s community; the company might be a social media monolith but with options like Twitter, Instagram (albeit owned by Facebook) and Snapchat on the scene, I feel no allegiance to it. I no longer spend hours on Facebook but instead, only a few minutes here and there, scrolling aimlessly through the sea of political rants, “fake news” and increasingly un-funny videos shared by 80-year-old Uncle Tyrone and Auntie Laverne.
But after 11 years, there’s little about me that Facebook doesn’t know. Arguably, Mark Zuckerberg knows you and I better than we know ourselves. Even if I were to leave Facebook today, my decade-old posts, photos and private data would likely live on long after my departure. (Although Facebook says it deletes users’ data once they leave the network, much of that information already lives with third-party apps and advertisers).
Knowing what I know now about the Internet’s inability to ever forget and Facebook’s deception, if I could go back in time to 2007, would I still have joined the community? Most likely. Would I have spent fewer hours on Facebook, thought twice before posting certain content and been more cautious about what information I shared? Most definitely.
There’s no going back, though, only forward. Post wisely, folks – Big Brother is always watching.
But that’s just According to Adrienne.