During a televised debate in the second half of 2016, Kenneth Bone, a power plant operator from Illinois, asked the two US presidential candidates a question about energy policy. Bone wore a bright red sweater and sported the combination of a moustache with small, dark-framed rectangular glasses. In addition, his question was serious and objective. He fulfilled the common American’s dream of a little bit of sense in the seriously crazy election world of 2016.
For this reason, Kenneth Bone quickly gained fame in the public. He was interviewed by news channels and jumped from 7 to 250,000 followers on Twitter. The sweater he wore was quickly sold out, and people were uncommonly desperate and curious for more of exactly his brand of objectivity and decency.
Then somebody fished his several years old, slightly sleazy porn comments out of the depths of the internet. Scandal.
The same sort of thing happened to Melissa Villaseñor, the new star in the American comedy sketch show Saturday Night Live. One week before she was hired, Villaseñor deleted thousands of racist tweets; tweets that might have been overlooked because she wasn’t ‘somebody’, but which were completely unacceptable for a US media celebrity. Unfortunately, Villaseñor wasn’t quick enough, and the broad-minded, cosy Saturday show lost a battle in the tolerance war.
When an ordinary person ‘goes viral’; i.e., gains extensive media attention and fame in a very short time, it doesn’t take long before someone digs into their past to find smut and entertaining tidbits. We go looking for the celebrities’ worst ‘digital footprint’ that will reveal who they really are.
However, we all have that. A digital footprint.
We leave both a passive and an active digital footprint. Your active footprint is in debate forums and everywhere you log in, in e-mails (with or without attachments), videos, pictures you upload, likes, and the like. This is all the information that you willingly have shared about yourself since you first joined the internet. Your passive footprint is data collected about you without your more-or-less conscious knowledge and saved in e.g. cookies. This could be your browser history or Google searches. Your digital footprint is also known as your internet footprint, your cybershadow or your digital shadow – and organisations as well as individuals cast electronic shadows.
Memories and Lifestreams
Social Networking Systems like Facebook collect all the information they can find about individuals and create a Lifestream of information, which among other things can be used for targeted advertisement. The term Lifestream was introduced by Yale professors Eric Freeman and David Gelernter and describes a digital diary of all your internet activities.
In 2015, Facebook elected to lift the curtain on what the company actually saves of old information about its users. This happened through the function On This Day, also known as Memories. If you click on Memories, Facebook shows what you and others wrote and uploaded on your wall on this particular day e.g. 7 years ago.
Through Memories, I have received some major shocks about myself. Did I really write on my Facebook wall on November 3rd 2009 that I had a hangover and wanted pizza?
I did. It is a memory that I haven’t recalled for years, but which Facebook freezes forever and waves in front of my nose once a year (unless I choose to delete it). What I wrote on my personal Facebook wall was thought and written for my nearest circle of friends as a fleeting image of my state that day. But no. Our digital footprints are wider and deeper than ever, and harder to erase. Still, I feel that the digital footprints all people leave behind are viewed through a ‘time filter’, through which we are easier forgiven for old, forgotten remarks.
The past remains the past
Good things can come out of the saved Lifestreams. These very detailed digital diaries can e.g. be an important step on the path to developing artificial intelligence that acts like people. Lifestreams can also help tailor the information we are presented with or help algorithms find the right recommendations for things we can buy. If we are to wax philosophical for a moment, Memories on Facebook can also remind us that we evolve rather than being stuck in the old versions of ourselves (with hangovers and pizza cravings).
The revealed comments were no doubt embarrassing for Mr. Bone for a little while. Even so, Kenneth Bone still has a quarter million Twitter followers and didn’t care much about the revelation. Villaseñor still works for Saturday Night Live, and I still show my new friends who I was on Facebook in 2009, while we have a laugh at how internet behaviour has changed so incredibly much in an incredibly short time.
Image via Flickr