Facebook will probably haunt our lives forever

By Dan Mollison

Last week I wrote a column about former Penn State Daily Collegian Opinions columnist Zach Good, who was dismissed from his paper because of posts that he made arguing with a Greek member on Facebook. While my last column focused on Good’s arguments about Greek charity events, this week I will examine a disturbing aspect of his firing that has the potential to affect us all: The fact that he got the boot because of Facebook, the social networking Web site that is becoming a larger and larger part of students’ everyday lives.

Facebook has grown monstrously in the past few years, with its membership skyrocketing to include students at universities around the world, high school students and company employees. But as we increasingly embrace the digital world of Facebook and other social networking sites, we don’t often think about the ways in which, if we’re not careful, our e-lives can affect – and even thwart – our real ones.

Good isn’t the first in recent memory to find himself in hot water for making inappropriate Facebook posts. Only a few months ago on our campus, a pro-Chief student faced disciplinary action for making threatening comments on Facebook toward a Sioux member of the anti-Chief movement. Both of these students mistakenly assumed that their messages would not be taken as seriously as they were outside of their intended audience. Countless members of public social networking sites live with the false sense of security that their information and posts are confidential when they really aren’t.

There have been a number of columns written before warning us not to post horrible things on Facebook because our increasingly savvy employers have begun to search out this information. But recently I learned about something that may add a new level to our fears: There are organizations, including Internet Archive’s Way Back Machine, that are continually archiving the entire contents of the Internet. Each day, companies like this take a “snapshot” of the Internet, which then can be searched through at any point in the future. You read that correctly: What we are putting on Facebook now is being saved somewhere forever, even if we delete it.

As digital archiving technology becomes more efficient, it will become increasingly easier for our potential employers – or anyone else who can profit from unearthing our past demons – to gain information about us that was not originally intended for their eyes. It’s not too farfetched to imagine that companies could spring up (or have already) solely for the purpose of providing this kind of information. Imagine, for example, what a presidential candidate a few decades down the road might be willing to pay for old Facebook photos of their opponent gripping a vomit-encrusted toilet seat as a college student. There’s no way to say right now how laws surrounding digital archiving may develop, but if this information is being stored now, there will always be the potential that it can get into the wrong hands. And when we someday apply for that big promotion into management or for that grant money, we may pay the price for it.

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Most of the articles warning us about the dangers of Facebook are nearly identical to each other. They usually include one quote from an out-of-touch authoritative old person who tells us that we should treat our Facebook profiles as if we were bringing them into our job interviews, and one quote from a college student that says the equivalent of, “Screw that, I’ll do what I want!” But while we know that no one can stop us from joining that “I hate kids with cancer” Facebook group, its only going to get harder to clean up the digital tracks we leave behind us.

Our decisions about how to manage our e-lives will always be ours, but if we are aware of digital archiving we might be able to save ourselves a lot of hassle down the line. Our “confidential” digital information may not always remain confidential.

Just ask Zach Good.