February 14, 2008

Erase me…wait, don’t erase me!

As my colleague Susannah Fox writes in her latest article for the PewResearch.org website, “many Americans are jumping into the participatory Web without considering all the implications.” Over the past few weeks, the blogosphere, the Facebooksphere and the news media have highlighted a particularly interesting set of consequences connected to the persistent presence many of us enjoy online.

First, there was the New York Times article on Monday which highlighted the difficulties some users have faced when trying to delete their accounts and remove all traces of their interaction with the network.

Then, after Facebook users revolted in their usual fashion, joining the “How to permanently delete your facebook account” en masse, the company decided to give users an easy way to email their requests to have accounts deleted.

This swell of user interest in pruning social networking accounts comes on the heels of a similar call last month to delete accounts from MySpace. However, for Simon Owens, the instigator of the “International Delete Your MySpace Account Day” on January 30th, the issue was less about personal information, and more about being fed up with spam friend requests, intrusive banner ads and bad layouts.

It would seem that few of us are initiating these social media spring cleaning projects because we’ve been burned by embarrassing data trails; as we reported in our “Digital Footprints” report, just 4% of all online adults say they have had bad experiences because embarrassing or inaccurate information was posted about them online.

However, when we dig deeper into the data, those who maintain profiles online at social networking sites display a much higher tendency to have unfavorable information emerge. One in ten (12%) social network users have had a bad experience because of embarrassing or inaccurate info, compared with just 2% of those who don’t manage online profiles.

At the same time that many of us are concerned about removing information, others are having trouble preserving information online. Blogger and academic danah boyd posted a story about a friend of hers whose Google account was hacked and completely erased after a phishing attack. Because this friend had relied so heavily on all of the information stored in his Web-based Gmail account and Google calendars—both for his professional and personal life—the effect of losing all of this information was devastating.

Ultimately, when the data trails of any account are erased—whether by accident or by choice—we may increasingly feel the weight of that lost information along with the relationships and events they help us stay connected to. Or we may feel as though one MySpace deserter did: “So refreshing! Like ripping off a band aid! It’s gone forever!”

Keep in mind, of course, that the feeling of “forever” may be fleeting in the age of the Internet Archive.