Consumers are beginning to learn about data retention, a subject the business world has known about for a quarter century. And the main reason people are thinking about data retention all of a sudden is the Facebook timeline.
The essential idea in data retention is that in most categories of files or other information that you keep, after a certain age, the saved data does more harm than good. You make yourself safer by systematically erasing your tracks after a certain point.
I have not seen the Facebook timeline myself, but based on what I have heard, it makes this principle painfully obvious. The timeline collects the fragments of a person’s life in a chronological fashion that seems almost cruelly designed to embarrass a person with the inevitable inconsistencies and changes that occur in anyone’s life over time.
To take a hypothetical example from my own life, I try to eat healthy food, certainly more so than I did in the past. But if I had a Facebook timeline, the way Facebook intends it, it would be no trouble for someone to locate a picture of me from years ago, noticeably fatter and eating a stack of cheeseburgers or something else equally inappropriate.
It is obviously important to be selective about what documents end up on Facebook, as in any other public medium. But just as obviously, that is not enough. The only efficient solution to the timeline problem is to keep a short history — to delete everything, automatically or nearly so, after a relatively short period, perhaps three months for some things, 15 months for others. You can never conclusively delete your digital history, but there has to be a way to keep it from being as neatly and publicly organized as a timeline would suggest.
Exactly how to keep a short online history is still an open question, but it is a question that I am confident will be solved in short order. Facebook, for example, has to come up with a solution. Because the way it is working now, people are waiting till they come to one of those points of acute embarrassment that the Facebook timeline inevitably generates for everyone sooner or later. And then they are deleting their Facebook accounts all at once. Obviously, that is not the scenario Facebook has in mind for its users. It will have to offer a less drastic answer for its users before abandoning Facebook in disgrace becomes a trend.