The Unbearable Shame Spiral of Facebook Graph Search

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July 18 2013 8:39 AM

Unlike Me

I went through my entire Facebook history, and I’m considering unfriending myself.

130717_TECH_FacebookGraphSearch
Facebook's Graph Search

Courtesy of Facebook

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.

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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.

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