Social media posts should be impermanent

It’s probably fair to say that social media is at a turning point in western societies. The perception of the balance between their benefits and their risks has shifted considerably since their involvement in the outcomes of the Brexit referendum, the US presidential elections and other nasty things around the world1. Despite many people rightfully pointing out how these events can only partly be blamed on social media and its use by political parties and foreign agents, these companies are nonetheless faced with a choice: reassure users and governments with meaningful changes or face harsher regulations2. Some of these companies have already started to change, using “spin” like Apple championing its focus on privacy and Google, which has recently announced that users will be able to routinely delete data older than three months on their servers.

I am absolutely in favor of features like these; like many people who have benefited from the web in terms of free access to data, communities and social relations, I find it difficult to completely “go native” on technology, and I welcome the opportunity to have a little more control on the information tech companies have access to.

Many have commented on the self-destructing artwork by Banksy, which is both an example of exercising control over one’s persona and, at the same time, not. Others have taken this concept to the extreme, where control actually meant disappearing entirely. The “pictures for sad children” webcomic disappeared leaving nothing but a video of a cloudy sky behind, and street artist Blu deleted all of his works in the city of Bologna as a form of protest.

Blu deleting one of his walls in Bologna

While you can still find the deleted comic strips and photos of the erased graffiti online, the possibility of control puts these artists in a enviable position from the perspective of social media users. I’d argue that giving even just the illusion of control would put the big internet companies in a more favorable position in the eye of the public. For those of us who lack the motive or courage to resort to the “nuclear option” and disappear completely, the solution might be making all social media posts self-destruct after a few months. The fact that many hacks are increasingly being developed to do just that3 is an indication that in the future we may get to be like Bansky for the proverbial 15 minutes.

[1] – including the election of the first “true” populist government in western Europe

[2] – if the GDPR has nudged these companies ahead of these scandals or not is perhaps an open question

[3] – e.g. I use a modified version of this script to keep “only” 500 tweets and 145 favorites on my account at any given time. A similar hack might be available for Facebook