Facebook Timeline Makes It Easy to Delete Your Past

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Dec. 19 2011 6:07 PM

Anti-Social

Facebook’s new Timeline makes it easy to delete your past.

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Timeline collects and chronicles everything you’ve ever posted to Facebook

Beautiful isn’t a word we normally associate with Facebook changes. When the social network adds something new—hey, look, Facebook will tell your friends everything you play on Spotify!—the best that we can typically hope for is to avoid annoyance or embarrassment.

But Timeline, the new profile design that the site turned on last week, is really, truly beautiful. Timeline renders everything you’ve ever posted to Facebook in a clean, well-organized layout, producing something like a glossy magazine treatment of your social-networking life. It’s also quite smart. Though Timeline gives you many ways to control how different items appear on your page, it did a good job of finding and highlighting the most worthy events in my life automatically (my wedding, for instance).

But the most important thing about Timeline is its comprehensiveness. Timeline collects and chronicles everything you’ve ever posted to Facebook. Your off-the-cuff reaction to Barack Obama’s election? The string of breathless updates chronicling your response to balloon boy? That weird dream you had in the spring of 2010? It used to be that all this stuff—everything you’d posted on Facebook, or, for that matter, everything you’d ever posted on any social site—would quickly fade away, never to be seen again once it vanished from the front page of your profile. But now it’s all here, available for everyone in your network to scroll through.

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This might sound like a nightmare, especially for Facebook users who’ve grown to depend on the site’s short memory as a privacy shield. Now, Facebook has suddenly busted down the closet doors to let all your skeletons come tumbling out. Relying on Facebook’s forgetfulness for privacy was always a mistake, though. The only reliable way to get stuff off of Facebook is to delete it yourself. Amazingly, Facebook has now added a way for you to do just that. It’s called Activity Log, and it should prove to be the site’s most revolutionary new feature since the News Feed.

Facebook’s Activity Log is a chronological list of every single thing you’ve ever done on the site—every friend request, every status update, every uploaded photo, everything. (Don’t worry, only you have access to your Activity Log. Mark Zuckerberg isn’t that crazy.) Next to each item, you’ll find a drop-down menu that contains two crucial actions: “Hid[e] from Timeline” and “Delete …” There are also options to let you change the privacy protections for each post. For the first time ever, in other words, Facebook has made it easy to edit your past.

Why would Facebook do this—what’s its interest in giving us so much control over our history? In the past, Facebook might have unveiled Timeline without any sort of privacy features; its attitude has always been to make changes first and ask for forgiveness later. But Facebook has been chastened by repeated privacy dust-ups, and now that the government is watching its every move, the company has to be a lot more cautious about its product launches—which is why we all now have a chance to police our own profiles.

I suggest that you immediately take advantage of this awesome new power. When you get Timeline—you can activate it right now or just wait for Facebook to turn it on for your profile, which will happen soon no matter what you do—you should spend a few minutes designing your page, and then spend a lot more time browsing your history for stuff you’d like to feature and stuff you want to hide. So long as your Facebook profile is public, Timeline will essentially serve as your public face on the Web. (Here’s Facebook’s primer on setting the privacy for your Timeline; I found that the new design makes it slightly easier to manage who has access to your profile, but—as this is still Facebook—the privacy settings aren’t exactly simple.) This is the page that prospective employers, prospective romantic partners, college admissions officers, and all those people from high school who thought you’d never amount to much will see when they look you up. If you care about how you’re perceived by the world, you should begin crafting your Timeline as soon as possible.

What I love about Timeline is that it’s honest about your past—it destroys the illusion that stuff you posted on Facebook years ago is gone forever. Stuff you once posted to the Web might not be easy to find, but it’s foolish to think that it’s not actually there. Facebook, Twitter, Google, and many far shadier firms are constantly crawling the Web. You’d be wise to assume that every tiny crumb you’ve ever dropped online has been swept up into one of their servers.

Several times a week, I hear horror stories from readers about ways that sharing stuff online has ruined their lives. Political tweets dashed off years ago might show up, out of context, in a search engine and create havoc with your new girlfriend. A former co-worker’s photo taken at 2008’s office holiday party reveals a little too much of your Christmas spirit—and it’s the first result for your name in Google Images. And man, look at all those status updates recounting your favorite Maroon 5 songs—do you want your kids to see those?

No, you don’t. As I browsed my Timeline this weekend, I found many items that I’d prefer to forget—a couple of wedding photos I didn’t like, a few embarrassing pictures from high school that someone else had posted. Thanks to Timeline and Activity Log, I was glad to be able to zap those images into the ether. If your photos are even half as awkward as mine, I’d suggest you give it a try.

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