Quitting or Letting Go: Sweeping Away Digital Tracks

Last month’s outcry over the change and then quick reversal in Facebook’s Terms of Service proved that users will demand an active role in control over their own information. It brought to the forefront the issue of our digital dossiers. My digital dossier compromises of much more than a Facebook profile of course – in fact it’s a little alarming how much information is thrown in there – and it is often difficult to know exactly what is in my digital dossier and how much (or how little) control I wield in creating it.

PC Magazine recently published an excellent and comprehensive article on how to delete accounts on 23 popular web services, ranging from Google to eBay to Friendster. It reminded me of how much information comprising my digital dossier is strewn all over the web, especially in abandoned accounts of forums and services I had long forgotten. In various public and private spheres hold, reams of data and my old idle Internet musings are stored. There is a “Registrations” label in my email dedicated to verification emails from signing up for online accounts. I haven’t been too diligent about keeping up with this label recently, but even browsing emails accumulated in the previous years, I found some surprises: I have an account on a gymnastics forum? What is xixax?

I’ve never found the need to go back and close these accounts, mostly because they were named after old Internet handles that have since phased out of use. In fact, I almost enjoyed the way they defined a certain period of my life, providing a snapshot of my interests three or four years ago.

What struck me while reading PC Magazine’s roundup was how difficult it is to close some of these accounts. Not for technical reasons or obstacles put in place by the companies (though this too was the case sometimes), but emotionally. Facebook especially appeals to your emotions. Before letting you deactivate an account, Facebook shows you tagged photos of you and a friend along with a caption of, “[Name of friend] will miss you.” It’s not just the severing of these ties that make Facebook difficult to quit but also the massive trove of data that will be deleted. In the three or four years I’ve been on Facebook, I’ve accumulated thousands of messages and shared hundreds of photos. When I delete my account, poof, it’s all gone. Granted, most of these messages are silly and I can’t think of too many reasons to reread them, but the same principle applies to what may be more valuable photos on Flickr and blog posts on Blogger.

What I realized is how much I relied on the Internet as a personal archive. Google, especially, stores vast parts of my life. The PC Magazine article goes into some of the difficulties of deleting partial accounts (for example: deleting a YouTube account linked to a Google one or Yahoo Mail without opting out of Yahoo services). None of the information is of more than personal interest here, but I would certainly feel a sense of loss. Information online is both especially transient and permanent. Sometimes it can be deleted with the click of a mouse and sometimes it becomes saved forever on servers halfway across the world. It’s an odd tension, but we as digital natives should be conscious of our digital dossiers and how we use them.
– Sarah Zhang