The Internet Never Forgets

A celebration of online archives.

Illustration by Ana.

Illustration by Ana.

One of my favorite things about the internet and computers in general is that, unlike a parent or a best friend or a significant other, they never forget a single thing about you. You can download your Twitter archive and scroll back through all your old posts, your most embarrassing middle-school pronouncements displayed dispassionately alongside logistical conversations with friends you’re meeting up with, and your Facebook messages, photos, and wall posts are all similarly archived. I realized recently that I had been using my iCal since 2010 (aka my sophomore year of high school) and, because of my tedious record-keeping, I can see what exactly I was up to almost every day for the past four years, whether it was a geometry quiz or seeing Best Coast live. My account has kept track of what I’ve been playing on my iPod and my iTunes since I was 14—down to the minute of the day I listened to each specific song. For example, it’s fun to think about exactly WHY I listened to “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer 37 times (in a row!) on April 18, 2010. And I can remember how fun Gabby’s fondue birthday party was December 3, 2011, even though that weird dude made her cry and I sang Lesley Gore to her.


Back in the 1930s H.G. Wells wrote about a “world brain,” an encyclopedia of all “important” recorded information that everybody could share and make use of. As he described it, “this World Encyclopedia would be the mental background of every intelligent man [sic] in the world. It would be alive and growing and changing continually under revision, extension, and replacement from the original thinkers in the world everywhere.” Dude was talking about the internet, for real. His thinking was that since each person’s consciousness is the sum of her memories, if we could all agree on the past, we’d achieve a global consciousness that would bring about something like world peace. “Without a World Encyclopedia to hold men’s [sic] minds together in something like a common interpretation of reality,” he wrote, “there is no hope whatever of anything but an accidental and transitory alleviation of any of our world troubles.”

I feel like the internet works like this on a personal level. I regret never having kept a diary as a teenager, but I kind of didn’t have to, because I’ve been blogging and tweeting in some for since I was 13, and my electronic trail serves as a digital diary more detailed than anything I would have forced myself to scrawl at the end of each day. Some of it is hard to look at now—like my whiny girl-hate tweets when I was 14, or the dramatic selfies I posted to my Blogspot in ninth grade—but reading through my old tweets, blog posts, and Facebook updates helps me understand how much I have changed, or not changed, through the years. It’s funny and weird to post something now and then discover that I posted almost exactly the same thing at a younger, less experienced age. There are also unfunny parts: bits of a first love here, bits of self-hatred there. Without this record to consult, I might forget this stuff, and I don’t want to forget any of it—it would feel like deleting a piece of myself. And since everything I type into a computer gets archived somewhere, I don’t get to pick and choose what goes into this virtual journal. With a written journal, I’d probably try to make myself look better to myself, and I’d definitely leave out seemingly mundane details like a Slowdive song or a routine chat with my best friend from three years ago, but these are the very details that most strongly trigger memories of what was happening IRL then. Looking back on them is like getting into a mental time machine.

Everybody always tells people, especially young girls, not to post things on the internet that you wouldn’t want everyone—including future potential employers and criminal-court judges—seeing, because what’s on the internet is out there forever. Everybody loves that word: forever. We’re told that our old pictures and tweets will come back to haunt us in our adulthoods, and there is plenty of evidence that this can indeed happen. Friends of mine have been fired from their jobs because of things they’ve tweeted (#rebellious). The same thing happened to Kimberly Swann a few years ago because of a Facebook status. People have been banned from countries based on Google searches.

And I do worry sometimes that that nude I sent could GET OUT into the blogosphere (ew!) one day, or that the terrible thing that one time I said about a person I love will be circulated by someone aiming to do me harm. California’s state senate apparently worries about this too (not in relation to me specifically): They recently signed a bill that will let California teens erase pieces of their online footprint. On one level, I love the idea behind this law. As long as revenge porn exists, and as long as kids are committing suicide over cyberbullying incidents, it’s important that legislators take Internet and the harm it can do to young people seriously, even if this particular law is pretty limiting in terms of what can actually be deleted. But there’s another part of me that resists the idea of deleting all but the most seriously harmful internet ghosts. I know the urge to cover up embarrassing or potentially controversial things you’ve post on the internet, but I say leave it all up there. That stuff (a) is what makes you human, and (b) will be the funniest stuff in the world to you in a few years.

I have never thought twice about writing about my life online, probably because, like you, I grew up with the internet. People—especially adults—love to roll their eyes at how much we teenagers are willing to share, and at our constant status-updating, @ checking, tweeting, ’stagramming, and selfie-taking. They use these activities as “evidence” of our supposed narcissism. But I think many if not most of use all these stops on the internet as storage spaces for our memories. I mean, I’m going to take the picture of my dog anyway, but putting it on Instagram will ensure that even if I delete it from my phone, it will be housed in a server somewhere else. That way when I’m like, “Where is that photo I took of my dog wearing a hat on 9/25/13 using a Rise filter?!” I will know where to find the answer. It’s less of a “pics or it didn’t happen” situation than an “Oh, it happened, I just want the pic for my records” guarantee.

Frankly, I hate the idea that we can’t be honest online out of fear that we won’t get a job. I’m actually not too worried about this, though, even though there is SO MUCH of my life online. In a few years, there will be no one applying for a job who doesn’t have at least ONE embarrassing thing—a compromising photo, a drunk tweet, an overly dramatic blog post—come up in a Google search of their name. Any employer demanding a perfectly clean internet record is going to have a hard time finding people to hire. We’re all in this forever-archived world together, so let’s just accept one another and all of our dimly-lit Photobooth selfies, right?

Having said all this, I have to confess that I recently started having internet-shame nightmares—and by nightmares I mean literally waking up in a cold sweat à la some messed-up horror-movie dream montage. In one, a friend publishes our entire Gchat archive, containing everything I’ve ever said about anybody, as a book. In another, a mean thing I said about someone in an email is forwarded to everybody I know. In all of them, something I thought was private is made very, very public. I know where these are coming from: A year or two ago, a close friend decided he was going to publish, in book form, his entire Facebook archive as some kind of weird art piece. At first I was pretty much on board, but I started thinking about all the deeply personal conversations we’d had over FB message, and it started to feel pretty creepy. He did not end up selling his archive. Maybe he will, though, and I guess that’s just another internet ghost floating out there.

The internet is absolutely filled with ghosts. Your breakup notification on Facebook is a ghost. Your drunk tweets are ghosts. That blog post about being depressed is a ghost. I’d rather live with these ghosts than forget about them. This way, when I’m an old woman I’ll be able to look at that a picture I took of my taco during that one lunch back in college. I mean, seriously, think about your grandkids reading your tweets. Damn, I bet you’re scared now. ♦


  • Breen October 15th, 2013 8:29 PM

    Great article! It’s funny, I was just thinking about this!

  • ScarlettRed October 15th, 2013 8:38 PM

    I’m a history student so I too find the archiving of life interesting, and the whole concept of looking back to also be really cool…

    The thing I’m less keen about is kind of the fact this information is public. If there were a private online archive I would probably love to go back and look over high school posts and photos from the past (like we do (or used to do?) with photo albums and home movies)…

    Actually I remember Bert Cooper on Mad Men saying something that sums it up for me… “A man is who he is when he stands in the room” (excuse the sexism in that statement, but it was something like that…) I took what he said to mean that it’s about living in the present, accepting your past just not dragging it around with you…

    I personally feel awkward having things I said or pictures of me accessible to people I don’t know well… It kind of makes me feel a bit trapped, like I’m lugging the past around with me. Having a small internet footprint makes me feel more free in the knowledge people can only attempt to judge me or perceive me as I am, with the information I choose to reveal…

    So I agree and disagree. It is nice to hold onto memories, I just don’t think I’d want to lose too much control of what’s public.

    I liked the perspective of this piece though, really interesting. :)

  • taste test October 15th, 2013 9:26 PM

    I just read this a week or so ago and it feels super relevant, so here. it’s an the text of a speech by the guy who led a bunch of big online archiving initiatives, like a massive scrape of geocities data before yahoo pulled it all offline. it’s about the importance of online archive data.

  • llamalina October 15th, 2013 10:24 PM

    this is gorgeous, beautiful. i love looking back at my old internet posts. they’re usually cringe-worthy, but some of them just make me want to go back in time and give young me a big hug because she was so great but sad all the time. but i really love this piece, especially the idea of “internet ghosts”. let’s just like say that forever and ever.

  • Suzy X. October 16th, 2013 1:09 AM

    I think my frustration these days is how much more difficult it is to keep things private or at least more contained. Some platforms (like Twitter or Ye Olde Live Journal) offer that. Whereas with Tumblr it’s best to not use your name at all, and Facebook is becoming much less secure and harder to maneuver. As employers become more diligent about tracking everyone’s internet presence, I think we have to be more diligent about protecting it. But I’d also like to see social networking sites develop better user privacy settings. The same way you keep a lock on your front door or shutter your windows, you should have the option to keep things private. (I mean unless radical vulnerability is your thing.)

    However, there are some payoffs to having your embarrassing old stuff out there. I would personally like to thank the Way Back Machine for helping me find my old Xanga. And my Geocities page, where I kept all my gothic cartoon dolls. I regret nothing, at least nothing I posted in 2003. Long live rockergal182!

  • alesssurprise October 16th, 2013 2:24 AM

    such a great post Hazel

  • elliecp October 16th, 2013 3:15 AM

    Love this article. I forget everything I write online is saved somewhere…it’s a bit scary to think that one day people might find all my cringey Facebook status updates..

  • Maryse89 October 16th, 2013 5:26 AM

    haha i’m so old I can’t do this…

    although i’m sure my high school myspace is still floating around there in the internet ether, I’ve long since forgotten my password…

    too bad! i spent a long time making that thing into what i thought was a perfect representation of myself, looking at it would probably be like finding a time capsule!

  • Sophii October 16th, 2013 8:42 AM

    I love this article. I often get frustrated about the age that we live in and the pressure we feel to share everything on the internet and the competition that the creates. However, I can now see the positives there are to this. I’d quite like to get a book printed with all my tweets in it which will be quite funny because I really didn’t understand Twitter when I first got it ahahaha! I look like suucchh a loser on my Facebook though and I’m friends with everyone who goes to my school so I rarely post on anything. I use Twitter and Tumblr a lot more because it feels more private to me. I love this article.

    Sophie xoxox

  • Zac October 16th, 2013 10:38 AM

    great piece hazel. feel like you’re one of the first young people to write about this perspective— and i have a feeling that this opinion will be almost unanimous (like, employers no longer really caring about less-than-savory search-results) within a few years.
    i also think that my idea for my facebook archive being printed will seem less radical and scary and provocative as time goes on and i postpone it. like, does anyone even use facebook anymore? feel like social media is taking a shift to quicker and more temporary forms of persona-building (a la snapchat or vine) that are more mobile and less searchable. i think that shift is in direct response to the ‘ghosts’ you speak of, on both the parts of the users and the designers of newer online platforms.

  • saramarit October 16th, 2013 11:45 AM

    I think people who talk about social media content or blog posts being out there FOREVER are forgetting that you can actually delete these things. Unless someone has taken a screencap of it (unlikely) then it’s gone forever. I know social media sites might have ways of digging stuff up but that probably won’t happen unless you commit a terrible crime or something.

    It’s amazing what you can find out about other people though. I once googled an employees name to check out his design work which led me straight to his flickr page full of his naked self portraits and amateur gay porn. Which I was not expecting.

    On a seperate note, I would give anything to see my crappy old geocities website from the 90s again but it was deleted without warning *weep*

  • maxrey October 16th, 2013 3:24 PM

    In my Human Resources Management class we have to do peer social media audits. Basically we have to pick a partner and try and find anything online a future employer could find about them and report our findings to the teacher. My teacher started it when one of his past students went in for a job interview and the interviewers had an entire file of stuff printed from his social media and online presence.

    While I think it’s fun to look back at my old stuff, I’m also SO thankful that none of my Myspace information from high school is accessible (at least not to the general public, I’m sure that shiz is out there somewhere). I certainly don’t want to see a lot of that stuff and I would HATE if anyone else did. It’s bad enough living with the memories of some of things I said and posted on there and I wouldn’t want it to follow me around forever. This was back before Myspace had any privacy settings, and I’m just super glad that I never used my real name in relation to that.

  • epw37 October 16th, 2013 8:09 PM

    Okay, so totally not the point of the article, but I couldn’t help noticing that your 16th bday is on the 17th (of May) and you got to come into school late. Tomorrow (the 17th) is my 16th birthday and I’m going into school late.

  • aliastro October 17th, 2013 10:41 AM

    As someone who was in high school in the late 90′s (i.e. early Internet times), it definitely does forget and thank god.

    Companies are bought up for server space and all the content erased (i.e. early social media like Friendster), same thing would have happened to Myspace if Justin Timberlake wasn’t trying to revive it. While Twitter/Tumblr/FB are still around now, there’s no reason to think this won’t happen to them too.

    And I definitely think Snapchat/Vine etc are popular exactly because people don’t want ghosts.

  • mariasnow October 17th, 2013 11:01 AM

    I’ve been posting constantly online since I was sixteen and I’m now 29 and it’s really beautiful and rewarding to be able to look back on things. First of all, so many of us are so much funnier and smarter than we realize. I forget all the jokes I make and sometimes I’ll be checking out something from the past and start cracking up at some joke I made (and then immediately forgot) from years ago. It’s good to know that I wasn’t just a mood-swinging, Morrissey-wallowing teen (although I love that part too).

    I’ve looked through and seen my endless talking about meaningless crushes (I am prone to crushing when I’m bored, it would be so much better if I made projects or completed goals or read books instead of worrying about those random guys).

    I started keeping a secret online journal that only then-anonymous online friends and penpals could read when I was nineteen. Impermanent people that I thought I’d never meet. I can read back through all that and watch myself grow up and find my voice, figure myself out. I can also watch my husband, then my penpal, fall in love with me and watch me fall in love with him.

    This is all especially good for people who may have Borderline Personality Disorder as writing out your thoughts and feelings helps to validate them by yourself. Still, it’s good to have a hard-to-trace username when doing this. My grandpa somehow tracked me down and read about troubles having orgasms and girl-girl behaviors. Luckily he never told anyone else in my family. Still, watch out.

    • maxrey October 17th, 2013 8:54 PM

      Your husband was your penpal?! <3

      • mariasnow October 18th, 2013 9:29 AM

        He was my penpal, yes. Then I met him. I made him fly over here to meet me and I told him if he looked even slightly weird that I’d leave him at the airport. By then I’d been speaking to him everyday for over three years. He’d even sent me a little cd of videos of him talking about things. It’s funny because as soon as I started talking to him I thought, “omg, I am too independent to marry any man…except maybe Jim…but what do I know? I’m seventeen. I’ve kissed one guy one time.” But I was right. We got married when I was 21 and “the course of true love never did run smooth” (that is even more true when two people are very young and in love and from different countries) but yeah, trust your gut and be honest. I was nakedly honest, my posts were confessional. I had no secrets from him or any of my penpals and if someone knows you that well and still loves you, you’re on the right track. Penpals are awesome, I didn’t marry any of my other ones. :p

  • mariasnow October 18th, 2013 9:31 AM

    by weird I mean if he looked at all dangerous or appeared differently to the way he’d been presenting himself to me for years. Not weird as in weird-looking.

  • Etima January 10th, 2014 6:35 PM

    i love this cuz i think about it a lot and i really do enjoy preserving my memories on a platform it’ll never get misplaced but there’s the issue of privacy and cyber-bullying and all that stuff. but the pros are amazing so…