Facebook's Disappearing Posts and the Virtues of Hiding in Public

On Valentine’s Day in 2013, a college friend who had recently become a new mother wrote a passive-aggressive Facebook status update about her husband forgetting the holiday. On Dec. 9, 2009, a girl I grew up with posted a bunch of photos of herself in a sexy Santa costume followed a few hours later by an update about her terrible hangover. Later that day, she ate a bunch of Nutella. I know of all this because, all these years later, I can still see these updates. Their authors could delete them, of course, but that would mean scrolling back into the depths of their Facebook timelines in order to even find them. Either the women have forgotten their updates or they can’t be bothered.

The permanent public record of momentary embarrassments like this may become less frequent. Facebook is testing a feature that allows people to post updates with a built-in expiration date of anywhere from an hour to a week. Gone are our hangover confessions and public husband-shaming—that is, if we want them to be. This could be helpful to many people now that employers, attorneys, and law enforcement officials are increasingly using people’s social media profiles to inform everything from hiring decisions to custody disputes.

“It’s interesting to me because Facebook used to push this idea that our cultural notions of privacy were changing and that people should share things all the time. People reacted poorly to that,” says Jennifer Golbeck, director of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland. “But in the last six months or so they’ve started coming around to the idea that people still want to do things privately.”

Golbeck studies social media data—she is currently working on a project that will try to detect depression through people’s Twitter posts—and she finds herself constantly surprised by how much people share online. The obviously awkward status updates aren’t the only ones that might be problematic. Data analysts can now use circumstantial posts on people’s Facebook and Twitter feeds to figure out their political preferences, personalities, mental problems, and possible drug use. And the analysis doesn’t involve simply looking for status updates that talk about bongs.

The more she studied social media data, Golbeck says, the more she became alarmed by the amount of information people shared online. She even changed her own habits. Last year she realized she had 30,000 Facebook likes, comments, and updates to comb through if she wanted to police her own digital past. After 12 hours of manual deletion followed by a frustrating search for an automated program that would do it for her, she caved and deleted everything.

Facebook’s self-destructing status updates, if implemented across the site, would be the latest in a push to make our digital interactions more ephemeral. Snapchat deals in disappearing photos, and Facebook’s Slingshot app deletes messages after the recipient reads them.

Of course, just because something is deleted from view doesn’t mean it’s actually scrubbed from existence. Facebook and Twitter keep records of almost everything. Snapchat made waves earlier this year when people realized photos transmitted through the service are hidden, not deleted. Facebook even has the ability to capture status updates that you don’t even post. But, Golbeck says, that data has so far only stayed with Facebook, which doesn’t seem to do much with it. “Sure, divorce lawyers are looking at people’s Facebook pages,” she says, “but they’re not doing any of this more advanced stuff.” At least not yet.

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