Thanks to Facebook's new "Download Your Information" feature, every forgotten acquaintance and drunken Wall post can be preserved forever. With just a few clicks, all the data from your tangled online life is siphoned into a tidy .zip file on your desktop.
"Download Your Information" is a gesture of good will from FB. It lets us back-up and truly own our data. We can take it home, access it offline, and see exactly what inappropriate information we've inadvertently broadcast to the world.
Given the recent controversy over FB's confusing and default opt-in privacy settings, "Download Your Information" seems almost like an apology to users. But it's not a particularly good one. It's as if FB made us chug beers until we puked on ourselves, but then handed us an Altoid. It's doesn't undo the potential public embarrassment, but it covers up some of the bad taste.
In terms of corporate transparency, "Download Your Information" doesn't deserve too big a woot! The new feature is exciting, however, as is a dramatic reversal of digital trends. Technology usually dissolves tangible and permanent things -- CDs, books, human identity -- into clouds of bits and bytes. Our possessions and experiences are ephemeralized, so that they can be compressed into code and zapped through space and time. "Download Your Information," in contrast, makes your real-time networked web-self a downloadable object, which you can wrap with a bow, bury in a time capsule, or give to future grandchildren on an antique USB memory stick.
Of course, when you "Download Your Information," it's still a cloud of bits and bytes, a compressible, zappable zip. But it's a static, more stable cloud -- a snapshot of you at a particular moment in time.
It's true that the Internet never forgets; our adolescent errors in judgment ferment in the dark web for eternity. But in another sense, the Internet forgets too easily. I remember the crushing feeling when my first e-mail address, firstname.lastname@example.org, deleted itself after months of neglect. My lovesick correspondence with my 9th grade boyfriend, the early drafts of my college essay, the chain-mail surveys I diligently completed, all irretrievably gone.
Similarly, on FB, the past is constantly edited over: profiles updated, Wall posts buried under new ones, messages deleted during a feverish inbox cleanse. FB is a very detailed scrapbook of our lives. But when we're out of space, we start pasting over the beginning.
The yellowing pages and fading ink of passing time have no replacement in an online universe perpetually in the present tense. But "Download Your Information" at least lets you capture a time-stamped relic. As we lose the CDs, books, letters and other physical artifacts that used to code the chronology of our lives, it's reassuring that moments can now be frozen, downloaded, and saved on our hard drives in HTML.