When I was young my Father always told me to keep a diary.
“You’ll be so grateful later in life,” he’d say.
Indeed, in one of the bigger drawers at his desk at home were legions of dark leather tomes, one or two days to the page. Accumulating dust, missed appointments, and those most precious of moments: memories.
But people are busy, and life doesn’t wait. I had tried, during idle evenings, to write down what I’d done during the day. I made documents on old laptops, carved dates into the corners of delicate notebooks. But they never got filled in.
The only place there exists an accurate picture of who I was is Facebook. Every little thing, immortalised in text. Free for me to access whenever I want.
I realised this after I sent an old friend a message, which blossomed into a conversation. She brought up a personal detail I didn’t remember ever sharing with her.
A two-finger swipe across the trackpad, and I was travelling back through time. Scrolling through the conversations, through the years, to an earlier time when we had been closer. The gaps between chats became smaller and smaller until there were several each day. And so there I was, my name next to words I felt no association with, recounting some anecdote, which had obviously stuck with her, for all those years.
I can’t be alone. I’m 23. I suspect most of my generation didn’t need to consciously store away thoughts and events, because we knew we would probably have typed up and shared all the great and miserable things that ever happened to us. We never had to worry about forgetting anything. Forgetting was finished.
After months of allegations that Facebook has been subverted by nefarious political actors (Russia, Cambridge Analytics), privacy-conscious users have begun to delete their accounts. But the indiscriminate stockpiling of personal information can also have a positive purpose. For me, it is my diary. I don’t want my memories obliterated.
So I downloaded all my Facebook data. The file is about 200 megabytes in total and includes all my activity on the platform, all cut up and separated into discrete folders. You might have thought you were just “connecting with friends” but Facebook has always been collecting data. There’s a detailed list of every event I said I’d attend. There’s a list of friends whose phone numbers the platform somehow has. There’s a security log detailing every connection I’ve ever made to my account, with every IP address and date. There are even 80 megabytes of messages (several million words). A lot of that will be metadata, but that’s still some memoir—a good few Tolstoys worth of “wuu2 m8?”.
So there’s now this file on my laptop, which probably has more information about me than any government spy, lover or introspective glance could ever uncover.
I recommend that everyone who used Facebook while growing up does the same. Painfully, it’s the closest thing you will ever get to seeing a reflection of the soul.
You expect to see the photographs. You expect the banal advertising profile that has been built based on your likes. Mine has me down as a supporter of every major political party in the UK (good luck targeting me), the International Power-Lifting Federation (I don’t even know) and water, plain water.
But what you don’t expect to ever see again are the conversations you never remember having. You’re 14 and sending heartfelt apologies to mere acquaintances for having said something nasty in the playground. You’re 16 and using every offensive epithet imaginable just instead of saying “Hey”. You’re 18, and being told that you’re great but that the timing is wrong.
Most of it is horrible. I was awful, embarrassing, and stupid. We all were. Deleting it won’t solve anything. Any one of my interlocutors could easily unearth and open their end of the interaction and all that personal mould would seep out.
But it’s not so much the content that terrifies me, as vile as it may be. More, it’s the notion that there is this stranger with my name who lurks a mere click away. And he will always be me in the eyes of everyone else. I was the author of those thoughts once, while he will be their author forever.
The Facebook data is more CCTV than selfie; watching and recording us as we passed through different circles, social settings and scenarios.
This is where we lived our lives. This is where our pasts reside.
For the most part, it doesn’t feel particularly valuable. Most of life is banal and will happen a million times again. There’s a reason that, in a traditional diary, you sieve through it.
But rare bits do strike you. Sometimes the words you wrote not knowing that anyone would read them back to you provide an honest, uncorrupted portrait.
So be fearful of corporate overreach. Be resentful that companies who claimed for so long to be social are and have long been purely profit-driven machines. But don’t take it out on yourself. A social media platform like Facebook is so much more than just a means of reaching other people. It is also the place where you write yourself into being.