If I had my way, Facebook would have a hard and fast expiration date for posts. I generally don’t want most of what I say hanging around longer than I’d keep eggs in the fridge. Sure, some links and videos are worth revisiting—but does anyone really care that I was tired on that Monday in 2008?
But most of our Timelines are full of this rotting nonsense. There’s no value in it for me, nor for my friends either, most likely. I’ll grant the infrequent occasion for someone to think, “I remember an awesome video that Jen posted last year—let me go find it on her Timeline!” But most of those posts are digital clutter. They aren’t interesting, especially when they’re taken out of the context in which they were originally posted. I have celebrations of past Washington Capitals victories, well wishes for friends running marathons, and inane comments about the weather. I see no reason to preserve this for posterity, and since it's my data, I want to be in control of its disposal.
The new year inspires people to make a clean start, and with that motivation, I set out to delete everything I had posted on Facebook that was more than a month old. In 2011, Farhad Manjoo said here on Slate that deleting my past would be easy.
Really, Farhad? You obviously didn’t try it.
Finding my past is easy. Facebook's “Activity Log” (found near the top of your Timeline page) shows you everything you’ve ever done on Facebook: every friendship made, every like, every comment, every cringe-worthy thing you’ve ever said. I’d go on, but Slate contributor Steve Kolowich already nailed the feeling you get from browsing this excruciating log.
Before deleting everything, you might want to save a copy of it. This is easy. Click on the gear at the top of the Facebook site and select Account Settings. At the bottom of that page is a link to download your data. Facebook will assemble a package of everything you have posted, including photos and videos, and send you a link to a zip file. Now, you can keep a private copy of everything—just in case.
I averaged about 10 “activities” per day. The occasional status update, a handful of likes, a comment here or there—it all adds up. During periods of time when I was active on a Facebook discussion board, the activity was much higher. I joined Facebook in 2005, and, my conservative estimate is that I had roughly 30,000 items to delete. If I had printed out the full log, it would have taken about 2,400 pages.
Deleting 30,000 things takes a long time. In the Activity Log, there’s a pencil icon next to each item. Clicking that shows a menu of options. Some items can be truly purged; the Delete option is in the menu itself.
Some events can’t be deleted. For Likes, the closest equivalent is unlike. Although it felt a bit harsh, I was committed. So, I unliked everything. Other events (like friendships) aren’t as easy; short of unfriending someone, the only option is to mark them Hidden from Timeline.
On average, it took 20 to 30 minutes to purge a month’s worth of posts. After about 12 hours of hand-deleting stories, I decided it was time to automate.
I found two options: the Facebook Timeline Cleaner and Absterge, both scripts that can run in the Firefox or Chrome browsers. Both are actively maintained, which is important. Facebook changes its code frequently, so tools that interact with it need to keep up. They’re also open-source, so other coders can check them to make sure they work properly (and don't do anything nefarious).
Facebook Timeline Cleaner is the more nuanced option. It allows you to delete posts older or younger than a given time. However, it didn’t work well for me. I spent a week trying to get it to work in Firefox and Chrome. It would run for eight to 10 hours, delete some things, and then the browser would crash. I tried it for only very old posts, but it still fizzled. I suspect this is because I had so much activity, and the computational power required to run the script was more than the browser could handle.
Absterge is less subtle: It deletes everything. You do have some control—you can choose types of activity from the left-hand side of the Activity Log and purge only those posts. For example, pick “likes,” then click the Absterge button. It deletes all the likes.
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.
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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.