Thursday, March 17, 2011

So Facebook lets you edit posts now. Don't do it.

Because I don't like it.

Because Facebook is the greatest archive ever made. It's millions of lives recorded in a standardized format, in text, picture, video, with all the connections between people explicitly spelled out. It absolutely has the potential to be the greatest asset to the social sciences in all of human history.

Now obviously, for it to live up to its potential, some researcher out there would have to get his or her hands on the archives. (Privacy schmivacy, this is science we're talking about.) But as long as those archives are around, there's a non-zero chance they will escape, or some portion of them will escape. And the longer they're around, the higher that chance is. If experience with physical archives has taught us anything, it's that everything gets out eventually.

With that in mind, when you let people rewrite their comments, you're also letting them rewrite their history. In a sense, it's even worse than deleting comments, because it actively distorts what came before. Sure, realistically, most edits would probably be of typos. But it's also a mechanism for smoothing over the most honest, embarrassing thoughts, or reworking anything that might seem out of line with social norms. Fundamentally, editing is a tool for image management. There's nothing wrong with a person putting on a public face. But when Facebook hands them a tool with which they can completely delete anything that might clash with that image, and, post hoc, substitute in a carefully constructed facade (over and over again, if they want!), it subtly cheapens the record and diminishes its value. It lets people put their best self forward, forever, and unfortunately, that's anathema to a social scientist's work.

Okay, standing alone, it's all pretty minor, really. But it still makes me uncomfortable. This all feeds into a much broader problem with digital archives. And here's how.

You have to go back a few years, back to when all record-keeping involved stuff actually written on a piece of paper. Physical records were a pain to make, but they have a lot going for them, academically speaking. There are two reasons why. First, written records are durable. Unless you're a B-17 over occupied Europe, it takes a lot of effort to destroy a bunch of physical objects. Second, when written records are neglected, they tend to disperse. You find old deeds in attics. Private letters end up in the wrong hands, and 200 years later, someone puts them in a yard sale.

In a way, the exception proves the rule. It's extremely rare to find instances where almost all physical records relating to a subject were completely wiped out, but they do exist. During the Irish Civil War, the Irish Public Record Office burned down, erasing forever the a huge chunk of Irish history.

The destruction of the Public Record Office was a tragedy, but it was a tragedy that could only happen because of unusual circumstances. Namely, all records were centralized in a single location (a big thanks to British imperial administration for that), a location that then happened to, well, blow up. That's a risk with bits of paper, but a small one.

In theory, centralization-as-a-threat-to-preservation is a problem that digital archives are uniquely suited to address -- you can make virtually infinite copies of any record, with a minimum of effort! But in practice, at least in regards to private archives like Facebook, I worry that it's a problem that digital storage only exacerbates. Digital storage lets private entities keep all their information under lock and key, indefinitely, subject to little or none of the gradual entropic dispersion that affects physical objects in a warehouse.

I have a second concern. Like I mentioned, physical records can't be easily destroyed. But it's not for lack of trying -- history is full of people trying to cover their tracks, destroy the evidence. And yes, there are plenty of less sinister reasons for keeping information under wraps -- business records, for instance. But even in these more sympathetic cases, as time passes, the calculus of preservation changes. Should a private record still be private after 70 years? Or could it do more good if it were opened to the public? But of course, human beings are short-sighted and self-interested. People don't spend much time in the present thinking about how to preserve the historical record for the future.

And as more and more information moves online, that information can be deleted, permanently, without a trace, with greater and greater ease. Incredibly rich archives can be erased in a technical mishap or on a whim. For all we know, Zuckerberg has a giant red kill switch on his bedroom wall, and if he finds himself in a spot of legal trouble -- BAM, a comprehensive record of millions of lives is instantly gone. I'm not comfortable giving small groups of people more power to put the past out of reach for future generations.

Okay, sure, there are ethical issues here. I understand the privacy concerns: my search history, for instance, is basically a window into every dumb thought I've ever had, and I think I'd rather get my teeth drilled, Marathon Man style, than let anyone ever read it. And so maybe we want Facebook and Google and the rest to keep their records in stasis forever. Or maybe business ethics simply trumps academic concerns.

Well, maybe. But I'm fairly convinced that the inherent porousness of physical archives is a feature, not a bug. It's hard to critically analyze someone or something when you're only allowed to see what The Man wants you to see. If we don't want history books reading like press releases, we have to be allowed to peek behind the curtain now and again. It's still not clear to me how well the digital age is going to adapt to that process -- digital storage certainly seems to have eaten away the middle ground between "total blackout" and "full disclosure," for starters.

But that's an open question right now. And until we figure it out... hey, everyone. Let's not go rewriting our Facebook comments willy-nilly, okay? Deal?

OH AND ALSO: I am aware the Facebook may very well just keep archives of all edits. In fact, I suspect they do, because most of these internet companies have a (in my view, admirable) mania for record-keeping. But I think the broader points are still valid, and in the meantime, I'm going to leave my comments alone, just to be safe.


  1. Broader points not valid if Facebook keeps an archive of the edits. Examining what people post and then how they retroactively change those posts in response to future information is WAY more interesting then what they posted in the first place. If what interests you about facebook is how it reflects the way people try to present their image to the world then the edit thing and an archive of it is the greatest shit ever. Plus i spend so much time on facebook im going to recognize edits and call people out.


  2. I meant valid as to the ease of controlling and destroying information in a digital archive generally, not valid as to the specific example of edits to Facebook comments. Obviously a record of edits to Facebook comments would enrich the record, not cheapen it.

    Also I realized I edit my posts on here constantly, even the earlier ones, so I guess that's pretty hypocritical.

  3. If thats the case then your criticizing a phenomenon that hasnt happened.

    Editing your posts is fine, theres value to the ability to refine your initial thoughts

  4. "Editing of Facebook comments" isn't the first time these problems have shown up. For instance: