Digital Diplomacy
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Digital Diplomacy

I spent 3 days deleting 10 years of online content — and lost some of myself along the way

Since I crossed over 20, life has been inextricably tied to the internet, meaning my choice to participate in digital recreation isn’t voluntary. Especially since kicking off a career, it’s rare for me to tweet or post or story because it all feels so exhibitionist, so cumbersome, because at any moment it could devolve into a tweetstorm, or an employer could see my seemingly harmless thoughts on The Dark Knight and believe it’s grounds for termination.

Stranger things, I’m sure, have happened.

But that’s me now, a decade down the road from the first posts made by a very different teenager. As a liminal millennial/gen-Zer, it’s hard not to feel some kind of untested, hovering anxiety when thinking about how accepting I was of distributing my information online. At the advent of Facebook and Instagram, the promise of the internet was youthful and delightfully confusing, and the consequences felt abstract. Somehow, it was a portal for feeling heard — even if it was shouting to an empty auditorium, the rows of seats said there was potential, a peek through the lobby window. An audience would materialize someday to see the show I casually put on.

These were my thoughts on a September afternoon made up of bottomless scrolling. I caught myself opening Twitter, reading the first handful of tweets, and then flicking my thumb so the timeline blurred, and endless stream of day-mode. At that point my activity tracker was showing I could spend up to an hour on each Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tik-Tok.

I went through the stages of social media grief: denying I spent too much time online, getting angry that I was, but on this afternoon I reached a point of bargaining. I’d tried to rationalize by downloading apps like Forest, an arborescent tracking alternative that plants and grows a tree the longer you stay off your phone, convinced the felled timber and curling leaves would guilt me into staying offline (an app that requires you, ironically enough, to be on your phone to start and stop it). This time I decided on a method to break away from this compunction, this need to be online without really wanting to — I’d go back through my social accounts, deactivate some, and strip the others bare. The less I felt an attachment, the less likely I’d be to add to the long canon of digitized thought.

Twitter was first, and the easiest — just get a tweet deleter to scrub everything but the last 2,000 or so tweets, maintaining the last two years of content. After that was Instagram, stumbling into the settings tab and electing to deactivate, which hides your profile from yourself and others for around two weeks to a month.

Facebook was the last, and by far the most difficult. Having been on the platform since middle-school, there were entire years of content extending far past the other platforms, even if I was using the others more frequently today. I went all the way back, to 2009, and began to delete posts one by one.

Drop-down, select, delete — drop-down, select, delete — drop-down, select, and delete.

On the one hand, this exercise was freeing. On the other, it began to feel like a war waged against myself.

Nostalgia Trip

I needed an interpreter to conjure into existence the thoughts now forming over hours of deletion. I found it in prominent New York cultural critic Susan Sontag.

Photography is, today, second nature, thanks to our mobile multi-sense powerhouses crowding our pockets, at times a part of our bodies as much as anything else. But to Sontag, the power of widely-available photography in midcentury America— and its natural extension and current analog, social media —reaches far past a simple point and shoot relationship with the world.

“Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all the objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern,” Sontag writes in her 1977 collection of essays, On Photography. “Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.”

Our lives are curations of moments, and as I went from post to post, I saw my teenage need to craft a convincing personality. Sontag was strictly writing on photography, as it was the technology of her era to become both widely-available and incredibly socialized, entire family histories logged in photo albums to be passed around on casual afternoons. It was both personal and communal, for individual recollection and a Christmas family gathering. The ability to craft a long-standing, sharable history of the self was as easy as a trip to the camera store and a week waiting for development.

To Sontag, the advent of accessible photography meant a new kind of outlook on life, one which preserved any moment for future enjoyment and asked us to see the world as made up of preferable aesthetic dimensions.

I wanted my life to be interesting, so the more I posted and the more my social media’s “acquisitive mood” acquired, the more I felt like I could meet myself — not as this abstract idea of who I saw in the mirror, but as a disembodied self that I could look at and admire. Through the capricious nature of growing up, we’re made to stumble into who we are. We’re swayed by easy deals and stereotypes, reliant on our naive worldview while believing in our own omniscience. Social media was circumnavigation: the more I could test myself with others, the more they’d validate who I wanted to invent myself as. It was an anvil to throw my image against, folding and sharpening my personality to a flawless sheen.

“Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted,” Sontag writes, later claiming, “To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power.”

This power is one in which our experience and desire to share said experience shape the thing captured. Sontag is specifically mentioning the immediate application of popular photography: the “exotic,” whether by landscape or individual. By filling my profiles with geographies, nights out, and books strategically cornered in afternoon dayglow, I was curating my online life. At the same time, I was giving my real life a doppelgänger to stylize, a chance to meet myself and lay a sly compliment on my shoes.

The selfie-studios of today, entire playplaces designed for picture taking, are one example of our modern need to create spaces designed for our interpretation. These otherwise empty cubicles of color and vintage objects aren’t designed to be useful, but as infinitely alterable background portraiture, an analog for the cafes and mountainsides filling our Instagrams. Our “acquisitive mood” is insatiable, feeding on a good trend, a fun quip, and the rule of thirds. From one outside angle you see narcissism; from another, an insecurity born from our image-driven, curatorial world.

Sontag calls this a “chronic, voyeuristic relation,” in which we become obsessed with viewing the lives of others as a bypass for experiencing it ourselves. I wonder if she’d find our digital profiles to be part of this peripheral way of living.

As I went through my photos, moving through 2010 to 2013, I saw posts of candid melancholy — “I’m so sad today. Why?” — to shared memes with the blocky, original typeface that now plagues the pages of the uniquely uncool. I shared photos of every trip, the blurry, unspecific countrysides as strategic as the perfectly curated profile picture. The phrase “fishing for compliments” entered my vocabulary around this time.

‘What was I thinking?’ was my most immediate thought. Today, we have an unspoken code of social media etiquette, where being blatantly sad without unfunny commentary is so un-chiq, so pedestrian. And yet, this teenage Alec enjoyed these public flagellations, all to the chorus of two to three friendly likes.

I was shocked, not because I could remember these moments, but precisely because I couldn’t. I realized I was meeting not myself, but a stranger.

Confronting the doppelgänger

“Photography is not practiced by most people as an art,” Sontag writes. “It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power.”

The anxiety Sontag is writing against is one of forgetfulness, of reaching a time when we can’t remember things exactly as they were — or even going past the point of remembrance, in which a photograph is more of a reacquaintance with ourselves. Hoarding works in much the same way, where objects are impossible to part with because we’re afraid that should we lose them, we’ll lose the precious memories nested within. So we store things, hide them in crannies, tuck them in boxes to grow dust until the next time we need to stumble upon them. My teenage self didn’t think he was chronicling some kind of running anthropology. But after years of assimilation into my online self, my teenage self was using social media as an attic, a basement, a crawl space to fill with words and pictures because, in the future, I might forget it all — the byproduct of which is to forget myself.

I was meeting myself, shocked by the disparate differences between us. Deleting these profiles felt like losing part of myself, tossing photos off a cliffside, sending a letter to sea, burning old journals.

Sweeping through over ten years of Facebook content was tedious, thanks to the fact that you can’t delete whole batches of posts like Twitter, and for every post you’re tagged in, you have to delete it individually.

I saw things I forgot — the especially transparent emotional posts — but there were good things, too. When I first found Pablo Neruda’s poetry, I searched for the original Spanish and sent it out in a series of posts, excited about learning. For a while, during an especially rebellious phase, I was obsessed by protests against police violence in Brazil, even changing my profile and cover photos to voice my support. “The truth doesn’t matter. Justice does” is what I wrote in the wake of the Ferguson court ruling, something pithy and confusing to be debated in the comments.

But the majority of posts I had no memory of. Seeing them vaguely reminded me of those times, most of them trapped in some unspecific memory. In deleting these profiles I encountered a snapshot into someone else’s life. With pictures you can remember the aura of the moment, the faint colors drawn along the outside of the scene, the context faint within. But here was a catalog of everyday thoughts, entire stories, a picture colored inside the lines. I saw a luminous window into somebody else.

This Sad Alec was someone I knew, someone I was intimately involved with, and yet a stranger. I rediscovered myself, uncovering at one point an obsession with YouTube stars and music releases, things I held as specific to me for a time but not any longer. It reacquainted me with intangible things, where, even if I couldn’t remember posting it, I could feel the emotions that supplied the writing. Breakups which at the time felt terminal, nights spent at home instead of at friends’, the inability to keep up with those who looked like they would do nothing but excel. Little did Sad Alec know that this period was drastically easier, filled with limited decisions and carefree life. Maybe that’s why he focused so intensely on his emotions.

But what also struck me was the style of this person. He chose specific language, looked for certain aesthetics in his photos. I saw phases like rings in a tree. He curated his image in a way designed to accent his sadness.

“Every photograph razes us on our ephemeral temporality by forcing us to contemplate a moment — an unrepeatable fragment of existence — that once was and never again will be,” writes Maria Popova in her sprawling work, Figuring. “To look at the [photography] is to confront the fact of your own mortality in the countenance of a person long dead, a person who once inhabited a fleeting moment — alive with dreams and desperations — just as you now inhabit this one.”

I was meeting myself, shocked by the disparate differences between us. Deleting these profiles felt like losing part of myself, tossing photos off a cliffside, sending a letter to sea, burning old journals. I was taking something I’d given to others back for myself.

Sisyphus needs an Instagram

In 1942, Algerian philosopher Albert Camus published the principal testament to his philosophy of absurdism: The Myth of Sisyphus. Sisyphus, in Greek lore, was king of Ephyra. He was boastful, bold, and arrogant, and as a punishment for his indiscretions, Zeus cursed him for all eternity: Sisyphus would roll a boulder to the top of a mountain only to have it roll back down, and he would repeat this cycle each day without end. Over the centuries since the myth’s telling, Sisyphus has come to represent monumental tasks with no end, a cycle of actions with a destination in mind only to come crashing back to its beginning.

It is also a treatise on our ability to understand ourselves:

“…I try to seize this self of which I feel sure, if I try to define and to summarize it, it is nothing but water slipping through my fingers. I can sketch one by one all the aspects it is able to assume, all those likewise that have been attributed to it, this upbringing, this origin, this ardor or these silences, this nobility or this vileness. But aspects cannot be added up. This very heart which is mine will forever remain indefinable to me. Between the certainty I have of my existence and the content I try to give to that assurance the gap will never be filled. Forever I shall be a stranger to myself.

Camus understood that any attempt to formulate a definition of self is rolling a boulder up the hill, believing we’re static when always ascending. I wonder if trying to authentically connect to ourselves and the external world through social media is a similar Sisyphean task.

Sontag, forever watching the lines of tourists, cameras ready for quick-draw at the hip, called the phenomenon of her time “the photographic way of seeing.” Photographic seeing is a constant awareness of our surroundings as harbors of potential, opportunities for individual art when cast in the right light at a specific angle. Photographic seeing is a reduction of the world to a utility, a unique narcissism that validates the world as seen through our eyes, our viewfinder. Our photo collections, like Camus’ water through the hand, are our affidavits of identity and experience.

Sontag saw photography as an illuminative mode with increasingly bold promises:

…between the defense of photography as a superior means of self- expression and the praise of photography as a superior way of putting the self at reality’s service there is not as much difference as might appear. Both presuppose that photography provides a unique system of disclosures: that it shows us reality as we had not seen it before.

Social media has democratized reality. Our smartphones turned everyone into a photographer, a writer, a critic, and by extension, made the digital sublimation of our world simple and easy. It’s allowed us to make art out of moments, significance out of the mundane. It isn’t about only representing the world, but resembling our place and interpretation of it. Yet this awesome power of invention is only freeing until the moment we see ourselves next to our peers — deficiencies, embellishments, and candor laid bare.

What struck me is how often I look back for those photos, hoping to find again the string of memories and text that helped define those moments. Yet when I’m reminiscent of other memories, memories that weren’t cataloged online, I find they’re two different things. One is hyper-specific, and my yearning to remember isn’t so much driven by the memory itself but by the instance, the fragment of specificity that has since come to define that memory. It’s much better when I can remember wholesale, without the encumbrances of the memory as reinforced and defined by a specific picture at a specific moment. Our memory is eventually replaced by the effort to remember, a softer shade of reminiscence.

What I discovered was that Sad Alec had a lot of passions directed erratically. As an only child growing up through complicated family and friend relationships, screaming into the void felt validating. A few likes was commiseration, somebody seeing my struggle now tasked with the potential of reaching out. What’s frightening to me is the degree to which all of this is cataloged and held onto with a vice grip.

After hours spent over three days, I reached catharsis. Deleting allowed me to forget — to begin to separate from the narrative of myself. “You don’t remember what you did, you only remember how you felt” runs the cliche. But even cliches hint partial truths. I knew how I felt, but only when signposted to a fragment of boxed-in text.

Maria Popova echoes this in reference to the life of Emily Dickinson, a cryptographic writer who, in the more than a century since her death, struggles to remain front and center in her own narrative, a curse of her writerly affectations.

Beyond any human lifetime, and often even within it, what is recorded is what is remembered, the records gradually displacing the actuality of lived events. And what is recorded is a fraction of what is thought, felt, acted out, lived — a fraction at best edited by the very act of its selection, at worst warped by rationalization or fictionalized by a deliberate retelling of reality. The stories we tell about our own lives, to others but especially to ourselves, we tell in order to make our lives livable.

All Dickinson had left were momentos, pieces of writing contained in letters, scrawled in newspaper margins, and cataloged in trusted writing books. Yes, as a teenager, I wasn’t thinking about my Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram timelines as my inexorable legacy. And yet, for most all of us, that decision lies completely out of our hands. In the end, I had to ask: was deletion an escapist tool for hiding from trauma? Even now, was I depriving the future of my past self? Was this a person worth hanging on to?

There’s a partial answer. Just a week ago, I finally wrested my original Instagram from the grips of the app’s digital graveyard. The month-long reactivation period extended farther and farther, lasting a year and a half. I moved on: made a new profile, enlisted some friends, and tried to rebuild. And then, when my profiles were concordant and stripped to the essentials, the lock on my old account was broken. I spent the afternoon going through highlighted stories, looking through captions and old pictures punctuating the last five years. When I consigned them to their data-driven abyss, I believed in good riddance. And yet now, again infinitely scrolling, I felt the pictures were a critical part of me. With everything deleted — the posts, the breakdowns, the arguments — the voicelessness of the pictures gave me nourishment. I didn’t remember the specifics, so instead, the four-cornered frames took me somewhere, placed me within geography and not a stranger. I remembered where I was rather than who I was — a comfortable curation. Crafting the story still laid within my contemporary hands.

This was a reminder that the way memory works is both a blessing and a burden, a memorial of our favorite moments with the baggage of time logged since. Deletion is a common button nestled beside our daily decisions, but the origin of the word means to blot out, an act that isn’t erasure, but instead a covering up. I haven’t forgotten everything, or at least I’ve remembered the things needed for remembering, tucked beneath the profiles through my analog life. Eventually, I will forget, and it will most likely be indiscriminate. But that’s part of growing, is forgetting. Our acquisitive moods need a satiating end.

We are temporary — leave the internet to be forever.




Tech, digital, and innovation, at the intersection with policy, government, and social good.

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Alec Cowan

Alec Cowan

Alec is a journalist working in podcasting and public radio. Current interests include: parsing through old college notes and a cure-all for procrastination.

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