Friday, December 24, 2010

Erasing History - Social Networks

Jack Dikian
December 2010


In recent times it seems a day doesn’t go by if we don’t hear about controversy emerging from the use of social networking sites.

More prevalent issues include:

(A) Crimes originating through or on a social networking site and whether government has a role in regulating such sites, and,

(B) Users' ability to deactivate themselves from a social network and further, have a perhaps unrealistic expectation that their internet chatter can be erased completely.


My objective in this piece is to question the legitimacy of an individual’s expectation to have remarks made by them using a social network to be erased completely and without a trace. I would like to examine this question from a lens of historiography – how history is produced.

Before dealing with this however, it might be useful to briefly review key points associated with the issue of governments in the regulation of social networks.


As awful and regrettable as these crimes often are, much is said about government’s involvement in regulation and surveillance in aid of providing protection to users. Debates over the pros and cons of greater government involvement have raised numerous considerations including, that of philosophical, legal, political, and technical to name just a few.

Some key issues:

  • Government surveillance is always touted as a protective measure, and yet the only ones who usually suffer are the innocent.
  • Despite all of history, despite the record of government - the idea that we can regulate something and magically cure its problems is at best naïve.
  • Government’s right or otherwise to interfere with the fundamental freedoms of speech. The manner technology is used is changing so rapidly - government, due it its size and bureaucratic nature, will always be a reactionary response.
  • Police already monitor some public aspects of social networking in the course of their duties.
  • Would government regulate all social networking or just large websites like Facebook or twitter
  • Does the banning of hate speech ban hatred? The censor of words censor deeds, mind or opinion?
  • The role of social networking sites in the provision of greater user security,
  • Etc.


Here, I am going to make a number of assumptions. Firstly, that users of social networks are, by in large individuals who, as well as appreciating the benefits and conveyance that these networks offer, also understand the potential consequences that may arise when providing personal information, making remarks upon others, and /or even just pontificating about nothing.

Secondly, there is much said about the role of social networking sites in enforcing stricter security schemes and simplifying how users may better protect some aspects of their personal details, This is an area that’s probably best left to technology and system userability experts. From my point of view, the more these sites do to protect user privacy, simplify security set-ups, and reduce the level of data fraud the better.

I wanted to examine the validity of the expedition that remarks, recollection of events, interruption of social signals, etc, made through social networks can, and indeed, should be made erasable once a contributor (user) no longer wishes access to that social network.

Fundamentally, this is more than just an issue of ownership and the arguments of public domain - it questions our ability or legitimacy to rewind the creation of history. History is produced at every point an individual makes a statement. It doesn't matter much how significant or trivial the particular remark is. It is a small part of history. How, overtime, this becomes a part of a broader theme or trend can only be analysed when looked upon from a future stand.

This is no different than say we examining a body of work produced by an author some centuries ago. The author was at the time making history, and we use history to examine his or her work. Also how history is produced, by analysing or conducting a meta-analysis of descriptions of the past, focussing on the narratives, interpretations, world views, etc - this provides an invaluable perspective and understanding of those issues that shaped society at that particular point in time.

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