On Monday, the web had a collective panic attack when it was announced that private Facebook messages of days gone by were showing up in public Timelines. It turned out to be a mistake. Users new to the Timeline format, unexpectedly seeing the design on their pages, were confusing public for private, and they were scared. Some news outlets were suggesting that Facebook users make their Timelines temporarily unavailable until the whole thing was certain to be a misunderstanding and not the beginning of libel suits and end of friendships.
But really, what’s the point in temporarily changing settings? If a mistake like this could have happened, it could happen at any time. My list of concerns with what the web is doing to my brain is already quite long – lack of focus and the effects of all this sensory overload. I’m adding more paper to my life, but I refuse add being afraid of social media to that list.
This mistake was a reality check. For all of us. It had me thinking about how much we trust, how blindly we trust, all of these sites – from Facebook to private DMs to our email providers – to protect what we place in the cloud.
We place our everything in the nothing.
If twenty years ago someone described an event like Monday to me, I would have asked why people would share anything important online. Because twenty years ago I was fourteen years old, and I was in the midst of all the drama that comes with middle school. I knew that what we scribbled in notes passed in class was a lot more powerful than what we complained about on the phone or at our lockers during passing period. Fourteen years olds know this.
If I have a bad day and tell a friend in person or on the phone, it’s hardly the same thing as if I send a private Facebook message venting my frustration. What I say in those moments are set in 10-point Arial stone.
I’ve heard it said so often it practically deserves its own needlepoint pillow: “Never say anything online you wouldn’t want repeated on the evening news.” And yet, in 2012, sometimes online communication is the only way people can connect. For business and with our closest friends. This medium has value. Far more is positive than negative. But it’s imperfect. We’re all passing notes in class, and we just need to hope they don’t end up in the wrong hands.
Computers make errors. So do people.
Maybe Monday was a reminder that we need to take control instead of letting the screens control us. Because as we sit texting the people sitting right beside us, as we add more of our everything to the nothing, we can’t control computer glitches, but we can be smart enough to keep track of where we’ve placed out digital footprint.
It reminded me of a bizarre thing that happened a couple years ago.
I got an email from an old therapist out of the blue. The doctor’s email had been hacked. The problem was that these emails were being sent in batches to what I presume were all clients (current or former). Names and emails. I got two emails in one day. All with dozens of names attached. When I got more the next day, I contacted him. Turns out he no longer used that email account, never checked it, and was totally unaware it had happened. Do I think it was irresponsible of him to leave that account collecting dust with a lot of confidential info? Absolutely. But by giving the doctor my email those years earlier, I opened up the possibility that this could happen.
On Monday, I figured if I went through years of Facebook messages I have probably bitched and moaned about work and life and said things I wouldn’t want shared – precisely why they were in private messages to begin with. But I am not going to go back and sift through them and look for things that could possibly cause drama because then I would have to do that every day. And then what’s the point really in using any of this.
Of course, this is totally subjective. I respect anyone who feels more comfortable with deactivating their account until they get the all clear. I just hope they realize that whether it’s Facebook or any other server, every day is like Monday.
If I send a Facebook message to my best friend telling her about my awful day at work, I need to know that by using the web to share my frustration, I don’t entirely own my words. I have to know that there’s always the possibility that a Monday scare could be a reality. It’s a risk I’m willing to take, but it doesn’t mean I don’t expect those overseeing the cloud to take responsibility for keeping an eye on it.