The fragility and permanence of the digital self
Earlier this week, an acquaintance of mine found himself trapped in a Kafka-esque nightmare, a nightmare that should make all of us stop and think. He wants to remain anonymous so let’s call him Bob. Bob was an early adopter of all things Google. His account was linked to all sorts of Google services. Gmail was the most important thing to him – he’d been using it for four years and all of his email (a.k.a. “his life”) was there. Bob also managed a large community in Orkut, used Google’s calendaring service, and had accounts on many of of their different properties.
Earlier this week, Bob received a notice that there was a spam problem in his Orkut community. The message was in English and it looked legitimate and so he clicked on it. He didn’t realize that he’d fallen into a phisher’s net until it was too late. His account was hijacked for god-knows-what-purposes until his account was blocked and deleted. He contacted Google’s customer service and their response basically boiled down to “that sucks, we can’t restore anything, sign up for a new account.” Boom! No more email, no more calendar, no more Orkut, no more gChat history, no more Blogger, no more anything connected to his Google account.
Bob eventually got his account restored. But as danah points out, the data retention policies that make such fail-safe restorations possible ultimately mean that our data — the information that shapes our existence, both on and off-line — is not inalienably our own.
Some technologists at Google clearly are concerned by this alienation: witness the OpenSocial initiative, an attempt to create open channels between closed social networks. The future may well be that a networked citizen is an independent, self-governing node on an ad hoc social network, rather than the walled garden of Facebook or the communication technologies such as gmail. But does that demand too much of the average net user, when a presence within systems like Facebook or MySpace take so little effort to establish and maintain?