Private chats may be private now, but what would happen if our private writings were to be made public in future decades?

In August 1964, English Author Ian Fleming – the man responsible for British secret agent 007 James Bond – died suddenly of a heart attack. And while the popular, albeit slightly misogynistic author was gone, his unpublished works continued to be released posthumously. In 2015, a collection of his most private letters were released to the entire world, giving us all intimate insights into his love life, his health, and his friendships. The  information he once kept private was now public – his legacy changed. And there was nothing his dusty white ashes could do to change it.

From this story, I’d like to turn your attention to us. We all want to leave this world on a good note, perhaps having made a positive difference to the world. But what will happen to our private social media data? What if our descendants or our biographers in 100 years time define us by trawling through our most private Facebook chats – just as we look at births, deaths, marriages, and letters of our ancestors? Personally, it worries me that in 100 years – my body long gone – my only legacy could be the “banter with the boys” group chat, wine-influenced Snapchats, or late night high school MSN conversations with cute girls I admired.

What if social media surveillance leads to our private and public lives getting mixed? Image: Sam Sinclair

I think the first thing we should discuss is how much we separate our private and public data. Karniel & Lavie-Dinur (2015, P.10) state that the separation of public and private information was important even in ancient cultures. They discuss that our reason for this stems from a need for “control over access to information inter alia about how one wishes to shape his/her personality, the way he is perceived, and what information others know about him” (Karniel & Lavie-Dinur 2015, P.11). In other words, keeping information to ourselves gives us power to define how the public sees us. My concern with social media is that we are investing into a false sense of information control which could someday be made public to the world.

It’s no secret that the internet is not a private realm. As Shelley C. Moore (2012, P.86) writes, there exist “behind-the-scenes mechanisms that the internet user is oblivious to such as their personal information being saved, tracked and even sold to third parties”. We are told that governments, social media and cloud services have our most private data stored and archived. And unless that data is somehow permanently destroyed, who knows when it will resurface? There’s a possibility it will be someday leaked, released under amended laws, or passed to our descendants for research. Regardless of the method, there is every chance our biographers could be writing about our secret overseas flings, Tinder conversations, experimental drug taking, or covered up crime. Our control of our public image will certainly be out of our hands.

So what do we do? Perhaps like me, you’ve already sealed your own fate with MSN conversations as a teen. I think the only answer is to be more aware of what we’re posting, treat the most private online conversations as if you were having them in a crowded street, and remember that you forfeited your control as soon as you pressed “create account”. Maybe in 500 years time, people will be reading this:

Sam Sinclair the book.jpg
Image: Sam Sinclair

Karniel, Y. and Lavie-Dinur, A. (2015). Privacy and fame. Maryland: Lexington Books.

Moore, SC 2012, ‘Digital Footprints on the Internet’, International Journal Of Childbirth Education, 27, 3, pp. 86-91, CINAHL Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 8 September 2016.