Private chats may be private now, but what would happen if our private writings were 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 And while this popular (albeit slightly misogynistic) author was gone, his unpublished works continued to be released posthumously.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, health, and 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.

But what about our own posthumous reputation? Sorry if I’m a little crazy but I think I can assume we all want to depart this Earth on a good note, perhaps having made a positive difference to the world. But what will happen to our private social media data in the decades after our death? What would happen if your descendants, biographers even, in 100 years time define you by trawling through your most private Facebook chats, just as we look at births, deaths, marriages, and letters of our ancestors? You may not care (your body being a mere pile of dirt), but your descendants might. Personally, it alarms me a little that in 100 years – my body long gone – my only legacy could be the “banter with the boys” group chat, tipsy Saturday Snapchats, or worse: late night MSN conversations in 2009 with cute girls I admired.

What if social media surveillance someday leads to our private and public lives getting mixed? Image: Arnolds Auziņš  (CC by 2.0)

I think something we should consider is just how much we actually separate our private and public lives, although this seperation is not new. Karniel & Lavie-Dinur (2015, P.10) state that the separation of public and private information was important even in ancient cultures. 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, just like censorship, empowers 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. On every website, behind-the-scenes mechanisms exist that track, save and archive users’ data, and we are often left oblivious to this (Shelley C. Moore 2012, P.86). On the flip side, we are also frequently told that governments and commercial entities alike have our most private data “securely” stored. But unless that data is somehow permanently destroyed, who knows when it will resurface? Could the laws someday change to allow its release? Could it be passed to our descendants for research? Think of your great great grandfather. Now imagine if you were given records of his 19 year-old Tinder conquests without his consent.

Regardless of the method, there is every chance our biographers could be writing about these 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 - text messages.jpg


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.