I ran Absterge over a few sections, and then over my whole timeline. It was pretty fast. In about an hour, my timeline was clean.
The most frustrating thing: I found that posts I deleted would reappear later. This happened to posts I hand-deleted as well as those deleted by Absterge. I don’t think this is anything nefarious on Facebook’s part. The technology it uses to process a deletion could hiccup. Facebook also has a complex and extensive content delivery network with copies of posts stored in many places, so a stray copy could show up after deletion. Still, this resurrection of posts makes an already-painful process even worse. I had to make several passes through each section to get everything deleted.
When moving through the Activity Log, although I was occasionally amused when I came across a picture or an old meme I’d posted (remember “25 random things about me”?), I never found anything that I felt was important enough to keep. At its core, social interaction is a time-sensitive activity. Networks like Facebook are oriented around the present. A like or comment on a week-old post makes sense. A comment on something you posted a year ago feels weird. Some people value having these archives, but for me, there’s no reason to hold on to old content, stripped of its context and time, no longer encouraging or inspiring social interaction.
The real lesson I learned from this exercise is how difficult it is to manage one’s online persona. I had it pretty easy: I was willing to delete everything. For someone who wants to cull their Timeline more selectively, the automated solutions wouldn’t work—it could take dozens of hours to clean it up.
And that’s just Facebook. Imagine doing the same on Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Google Plus, and others. As our online lives become more important, so too does our ability to curate them. The tools for this aren’t yet mature, but the market is there—both for existing social media companies and startups.
For me, the struggle was worth it. Now, I smile when I look at my Timeline, since it’s entirely about this moment.
* * *
If you want to try this, here are some starter instructions:
Disclosure, Feb. 27, 2014: The author of this piece is serving as a technical witness in a patent lawsuit against Facebook.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.