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The Trails We Leave Behind

Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
June 2010 Issue
May 1, 2010

The Trails We Leave Behind

Your “tweets” are about to be stored — forever, or as close to forever as data get. The Library of Congress has announced a plan to archive all public Twitter posts, indefinitely. If you use the microblogging service Twitter, this means at least some of your random thoughts are destined for a massive database.

The Library of Congress announced on April 14, 2010, that every Twitter message since 2006 will be archived for historians and other scholars to study. Some compare this to being able to read the conversations of “average people” from any time in history.

In ancient Roman colonies, messages were left on shards of pottery. From those shards, archeologists have such mundane items as shopping lists. Having bits of daily life allow us to see beyond the lives of famous and powerful individuals.

Sometimes, we forget that messages can be forwarded from one friend to another. We also forget that Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Buzz, Facebook, and many other social networks increasingly are intertwined. The check of a single option and my LinkedIn updates become tweets. There is a Facebook “applet” that sends and receives Twitter updates, too.

Google actually promotes the fact it saves your e-mail, messages, and documents forever. The “Gmail” site connects to your instant messages, your “Buzz” alerts, Twitter, and more. While it is wonderful to have messages with the related documents, there is also something disquieting about having so much stored by any company.

Google, Twitter, and other services are deciding who will own data after the original authors no longer exist. One suggestion is adding yet more bytes to the Library of Congress. This presents several problems, including the rights of heirs. If the servers are owned by Twitter or Google, do they legally have the right to donate the data to a government archive?

Such archives are a reminder that when we choose to live online we also choose to surrender our privacy. For the convenience of instant contact with our friends and family, we have surrendered privacy. Though I am careful to use privacy options on social networks, I cannot prevent friends from forwarding messages. Once something is online, I lose control of it.

It is hard to know where one social network stops and another begins.

In early April, two students at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, learned the risks of the new social Web. A colleague of mine who teaches at UMD shared this story via Facebook, ironically.

The students were in a public lounge with wireless Internet access. Via Facebook, they were discussing other students as well as homework. When a minority student entered the longue, the pair shared some overtly racist thoughts. Their friends quickly shared these via Twitter and Google Buzz. Soon, the campus was aware of the offensive discussion.

Some tried to excuse the messages based on youth and cultural isolation. I completed my doctoral studies in Minnesota. According to real estate site City Data, Duluth is 98 percent white and only one percent African-American. But that does not matter. And now these students have discovered words can be forever.

Ten years ago, these students would have made rude comments to each other, quietly whispering in the lounge. They might have passed an unsigned note, which if found by other students would have caused a stir and campus debate on racism.

But, with Facebook and Twitter, the “private” offensive comments were traced back to their authors.

These thoughtless, impulsive students now have to deal with the reality that their comments are destined for a Library of Congress database.

The UMD community faces questions about how to deal with online displays of stupidity. High schools have held students responsible for posting photos of drinking or other illegal activities. It is unclear if a university can punish students for online exchanges. Regardless, these students damaged their reputations. It’s doubtful many students or faculty will be able to forget and forgive racism.

I don’t know if social network users want their lives to be shared with the world or if they simply forget that everything online can end up public. While people post to YouTube to share with the world, most of us probably don’t think of our “status updates” or “shared comments” following us forever.

There is probably no way to stop the archiving of every online message. The UMD students weren’t misunderstood, but we know what can happen online. The result is that every sarcastic comment, every failed attempt at humor, is going to be somewhere for others to find. It is bad enough when e-mails are misunderstood; what happens when hundreds or thousands of strangers misunderstand us?

Archives will lack context. Scholars reading our messages won’t have the full story behind our messages. Our conversations occur in a mix of media, from phone calls to text messages. A tweet or status update is a fragment, and often not even a hint of larger events.

Recently, I posted a status message to Facebook about the end of the school year. A colleague assumed my joy indicated I didn’t like teaching. Personally, I think every student and teacher is glad to take a break. But, the message was misunderstood. The message: “I can’t wait for next week! School’s out for summer!”

What seemed obvious to me wasn’t obvious to someone else. Would it be obvious to a historian or sociologist skimming an archive? Thankfully, I doubt my words would be of much interest to anyone. I have no desire to have my frivolous messages to friends eternally stored.

There are complex questions we will have to answer as a society.

Should the Library of Congress be saving our mundane, empty and often pointless messages between each other? Or, is this something of an invasion of our private lives? We know there is no privacy, but do we expect the messages to be in a government archive?

I have no answers to these questions. I simply hope we have the discussion before we regret saving all our blather for posterity.

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