In 2012, something horrifying seemed to be happening on Facebook. Users alleged that the platform was posting old private messages on their walls. After a brief investigation, it turned out that the users had written the messages in question—they simply kept forgetting about how they used to post. It’s a comical extreme of a familiar story. Anyone who scrolls too far back on their Facebook timeline is likely to encounter at least one embarrassing or poorly aged post. It used to be that you would have to go through your old posts one by one, reliving the humiliation as you went, to delete them, or you just had to accept that you may have once posted something that could come back to haunt you. Thankfully, Facebook has finally devised a remedy to these concerns.
On Tuesday, Facebook announced a new feature, called “Manage Activity,” that allows users to more easily archive or delete old posts en masse, instead of having to painstakingly erase them individually. If you delete a batch of posts, it will be gone for good; if you archive it, you’ll still be able to access it, but no one else will. Manage Activity will also allow users to view and reorganize posts, filtering by date, the type of post, tagged individuals, and other categories (so you can elect to archive all of the posts that tagged your high school ex—no need to cringe at them all). In a blog post, Facebook says, “Whether you’re entering the job market after college or moving on from an old relationship, we know things change in people’s lives, and we want to make it easy for you to curate your presence on Facebook.”
Since Facebook’s conception, the social media platform has grappled with related issues of control, permanence, and privacy. In 2014, some raised concerns over a new feature that enabled users to search for posts in the Facebook search bar, fearing that the tool would tempt people to seek out one another’s old embarrassing posts. The only way to prevent such discoveries was tedious and involved users working their way through their Activity Log, restricting the audience of old posts one by one. “One challenge in building social tools is the ‘permanence problem,’ ” Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted in a 2019 post.* “As we build up large collections of messages and photos over time, they can become a liability as well as an asset.”
While the addition of Manage Activity is cause for celebration, the move is far from revolutionary. As Lily Hay Newman points out in Wired, Gmail has offered similar features for more than a decade. Despite this, these tools are not commonplace. But Twitter still lacks the option to delete or archive old tweets in bulk. This has prompted external companies to generate tools of their own, including TweetDelete, which can consolidate and delete users’ old tweets.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.
Correction, June 2, 2020: This piece originally misdated a Mark Zuckerberg blog post. It was published in 2019, not 2018.