The time I got in trouble because of Facebook had nothing to do with bosses or beer funnels or default privacy settings. My girlfriend misinterpreted a joke that a friend had posted on my wall.
I was visiting Kate, who was studying abroad in Sweden, for a long weekend. We had met in London. The hotel had no Internet, and we had sought out an Internet café so I could perform my daily Web constitutional.
My Facebook wall had one new note. "How are the bangers in the mouth across the pond?" a friend had inquired.
Kate was not amused. She had not seen the episode of Arrested Development in which Tobias, a character who is prone to double entendres, uses the British "banger" (unnecessarily adding "in the mouth") instead of "sausage" while posing as an English nanny. Kate figured I had been talking a big game back home about what I’d be up to in London.
Our anxieties about privacy in the age of social media stem from a fear of being misunderstood. We wish to be seen but do not want to be judged based on a single impolitic comment or photograph taken out of context. We contain multitudes!
Facebook rekindled those anxieties last week when it began rolling out Graph Search, its latest dredging tool. After the rollout started, the only way to make sure your past posts remained properly hidden was to scroll through your entire Facebook history and adjust the privacy permissions of each post by hand.
And that is how I came to re-read everything that I have ever done, or had done to me, on Facebook since I joined the site in 2004, at age 19.
The project made me wince a lot, but not for the reasons I thought it would. The typical worry is that your online peccadillos will be seen, misinterpreted, and exploited by other people. But the greater risk is what you might reveal to yourself.
Timeline (née wall) purports to be a chronology of your life on Facebook, but at best it is a selected history. Timeline is where we curate idealized versions of our lives. Mine is full of pithy witticisms and interesting links to articles I've read and written and photos of me performing with bands, because I am cool and you should want to be friends with me.
The Activity Log, meanwhile, is where the bodies are buried. It is a line-item catalog of your every status update, every incoming or outgoing post or comment, every tag and "like."
Activity Log amounts to a daunting record—not just because it is long, but because it is unmediated. Facebook allowed private messaging from the outset, but the point of the site was the thrill of having private conversations in public. We used the walls for everything: mundane questions and answers, non sequiturs, flirtatious repartees, pseudo-intellectual ruminations, love notes. Some people literally cannot believe what they used to post in public. Last fall, Facebook heard complaints from users who claimed that some of their old private messages had somehow migrated to their public walls. The company investigated and concluded that the messages had, in fact, had been public all along; the people who complained had simply forgotten how shameless they used to be.
As it turns out, my Facebook life is ordinary and occasionally stupid. My Activity Log is a graveyard of inside jokes and other white noise. Scrolling through the whole thing is at once overwhelming and underwhelming, like driving through Kansas for the first time.
My old status updates often allude to song lyrics from bands I was into in college. Some of these are really cringeworthy. “[Steve Kolowich] is the angelic man relic Klan repellant,” I wrote one winter day in 2007, attempting, for whatever reason, to channel Chali 2na from the hip-hop group Jurassic 5. The operative word was “repellant”; if somebody spammed my news feed with this kind of thing today, I might banish him forever.
Mostly, I would regurgitate these quasi-meaningful earworms without attribution or explanation. I suppose these were meant as coded messages to imagined allies, but they also might have been deliberate attempts to confuse and ostracize people who weren't hip to the references. Sometimes it feels good to be misunderstood, so long as it happens on your terms. And yet some old posts are now beyond comprehension even to me. “You're older, but never too old for fiery red fire hydrant pterodactyls," an acquaintance wrote on my 22nd birthday. "Hope one shows up with an Odwalla bar!” Presumably this made sense to me once; now it is as vexing to me as it always has been to everybody else.
One time, I posted a link to an old porn clip on the walls of several high-school friends. Even this was not as crass as it might seem out of context. The video had sentimental value. The content bordered on slapstick; my friends and I used to laugh our asses off over it as teenagers. A year or so before I posted the clip, on a Thanksgiving break from college, about 15 of us had gathered in a friend's basement to watch it, for old time’s sake. At the video’s crude finale, which involves a creative reimagining of the anatomical dynamics of penetration, we erupted into hysterics like the idiot children we still were. I don’t begrudge us this piece of nostalgia, but broadcasting it on Facebook was juvenile at best. Even at that time, one friend had the good sense to delete the link immediately.
I realize it could be worse. My Activity Log makes a pretty solid case against me being cool, but porn aside, there is nothing shocking in there. The most rankling posts were those that contain traces of less sensational kinds of vulgarity—stuff that probably wouldn’t get you fired but which strikes you as obnoxious or ignorant in retrospect.
"i read your 'about me' essay, and i am glad to hear that you LOVeD brown with a capital everything but 'e,' " I wrote to the hot girl from Brown University I met at journalism camp, because apparently my idea of flirting involved correcting people’s grammar.
“What, are you callin me gay?" wrote a college friend in response to some ham-fisted innuendo. "I will so end you."
“When we get to Baltimore, do we get to choose a street gang, or will one be assigned to us?” I wrote to a friend on the eve of my first visit to Charm City.
I joined Facebook when it was still in its infancy; my college years lined up with the network’s own coming-of-age. I cannot quite tell whether it was Facebook that matured out of that freewheeling phase, or me. All I know is that, at some point, I got it in my head that being an adult involves shutting up a lot more often.
As I scrolled through my Activity Log, I found myself not only hiding posts from public view but deleting them completely. Shutting up my past selves.
It is easy to frame these revisionist efforts in terms of protest. A wall post, comment, or "like" stops being useful once everyone involved is done enjoying the fleeting rush of having been publicly acknowledged, in some lightweight way, by another person. Yet Facebook holds on to these data points indefinitely, working them over for information, like old confidants turned informants.
In the end, however, that righteousness rings hollow. Only you can see your Activity Log. And besides, Facebook only cares to understand your past in a way that will help predict what advertisements you might click on in the future. It doesn't care that you used to post self-indulgent status updates while sniping at other people's grammar. It doesn't care that you posted in support of gay rights while trading homophobic jabs with your friends. It doesn't care that you shamelessly flirted with other women on their walls while your girlfriend was posting notes on yours, writing in Swedish, counting down the days until you would visit her in London.
We care. That is what makes Activity Log so discomfiting. We dread being taken out of context. But a lot of context can be too much to bear.
So we hide, we untag, we delete, even if only to spare ourselves the humiliation of being confronted by some distasteful beta version of ourselves. If there is one thing Graph Search certainly reveals, it is that Facebook runs on an economy of “likes.” Ironic, then, that the object on Facebook that I am most ambivalent about is me.