Facebook is forever

“You have to understand that the public has a very short memory. But corporations, they never forget.”Quiz Show, 1994

“The Internet’s not written in pencil, Mark, it’s written in ink…”The Social Network, 2010

My third attempt to reestablish a Facebook account in my own name appears to be a success. THIRD attempt, you say? How hard could this be? Surprisingly difficult, it turns out.

The first attempt was played by the book. I created a profile with my new email address. I posted a couple pictures. I included some education info and a link to my blog. My wife accepted a friend request and confirmed our relationship status. Next thing I knew, my account was flagged for “suspicious activity.” One might think that the endorsement of a real, live member in good standing — a spouse, no less — might be an acceptable endorsement. Nope. Strike one.

Did Erica have a secret life online these past fourteen months?

After the first account was disabled, I created another new one under the name of one of our cats. This is explicitly prohibited under Facebook’s terms, but I did it only as an experiment. And it worked.

Buoyed by my success in the realm of fakery, I tried a second time to create a real account in my real name. I used another new email account, created just for this purpose, and posted a new profile pic and cover photo. There was no link to my blog, no relationship status — it was very spartan. Nonetheless, something aroused suspicion. The account was flagged. I provided another picture, but to no avail. The account got disabled. I appealed, providing a photo of my voter ID to some faceless Facebook entity. And…no response. Strike two.

It started to occur to me that the problem might not be what I had been doing with my new accounts, which was very benign stuff. Maybe the problem was — could it be — me?

At this point in our story it is important to recall that I had been a Facebook user in good standing for almost nine years (from May 2009 to April 2018) before deleting my own account. Since data about users is Facebook’s lifeblood, it suggested several things about the data that Facebook had accumulated about me over the years. First, there would be a lot of it. Second, any data that remained on Facebook was under Facebook’s control, not mine.

Facebook had all sorts of information about me. They already knew my name. They knew what I look like (facial recognition is not sci-fi). They knew who my friends had been. They knew a ton of stuff, including things that were not published, such as my email address.

Did Facebook actually think that someone was impersonating me? That I was impersonating myself? Sounds bizarre, right?

Armed only with this sketchy hypothesis, I tried one more time to create a viable new Facebook account under my real name. This time, however, I set it up using the same email address that I had used for nine years — the same one I was using when I closed my old account.

Home run. Facebook welcomed me back with open arms. It helpfully suggested friends, including (surprise!) friends from my first Facebook era. I’ve successfully added a couple dozen friends and requested many more, posted a status update, commented on others’ posts, all without raising an eyebrow on the big, giant Facebook face.

What does it mean?

For starters, it’s true that the simplest answer is often the right one. The simple answer here is that Facebook made a mistake. They mistook me for someone trying to set up a fake account under my name — someone impersonating me. Facebook saw someone who had some info about me, but who lacked something integral to my old, supposedly forgotten, Facebook identity: my trusty old email address. Once that verifiable piece of info was provided, Facebook seemingly recognized me, and apparently remembered a lot of things I assumed might be deleted.

But wait a minute, why did Facebook acknowledge me only when I provided a piece of information that was supposed to be gone? And by “supposed to be,” I mean as implied by Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before the U. S. Senate Judiciary Committee in April 2018:

CAPITO: You tell your children, once you make that mark in… the Internet system, it never really goes away.

So my question to you is, if once ā€” and I think you answered that ā€” that once an individual deletes the information from their page it’s gone forever from Facebook’s archives. Is that correct?

ZUCKERBERG: Yes. And I think you raise a good point though, which is that it is ā€” we will delete it from our systems but if you shared something to someone else then we can’t guarantee that they don’t have it somewhere else.

CAPITO: Okay. So if somebody leaves Facebook and then rejoins and asks Facebook, can you recreate my past, your answer would be?

ZUCKERBERG: If they delete their account, the answer is no.

Is it? Or is the truth something more like this:

While Facebook cannot recreate what’s actually gone, such as the old timeline and deleted content, Facebook may be able to recognize someone who deleted their old account and may let them create a new one. Facebook may even have stuff previously shared with others, and other things that even Facebook doesn’t know it has (or just doesn’t want to talk about).

Things are not as black and white as suggested by Mark Zuckerberg’s “The answer is no.”

In any event, my eyes are wide open. I’ve reestablished a presence on Facebook with some effort, knowing full well that any information I share is out there, with no way to get it back or fully delete it.

We’re writing in ink, and corporations never forget.

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