“I can’t believe we haven’t made out either. Thanks for the call, you lush.”
I felt my body simultaneously go cold and hot at the horror of seeing this. I wanted to shut my laptop and throw it in a closet, as if hiding the object responsible for delivering this would fix things. “Things” being a private message between myself and a friend I, admittedly, drunk dialed—back in 2006, when I was but a young, stupid, and yes, drunk, college sophomore.
And there it was, for god and every one of my Facebook friends to see. Sitting on my Timeline, as if it were a public note posted to what used to be my Wall. It wasn’t the only one. Not even close.
This isn’t the first time this has happened. Back in September 2012, about a year after Facebook introduced Timeline, users began reporting that responses to private messages were popping up. This means that they didn’t see their own end of the conversations, just the other person’s. Of course, it was sometimes difficult to tell: Facebook used to be a much smaller, more private place, where people would write more personal things on friends’ Walls. The Timeline gave us instant-toggle access to revisiting those times, and while some of the posts could very well have actually been posted to Walls, some of them were absolutely private.
Facebook extensively went on the defensive then, saying that in
almost all cases these were in fact old Wall posts we’d simply forgotten about—we must have been surprised at our earlier candor. But some did turn out to be private messages that had somehow found their way to a place they shouldn’t have been. [Facebook reached out to me to correct this, saying: "Every post we investigated [last year] turned out to be a wall post."]
And apparently, this bug is back.
It starts like a tick—a small, almost-ignorable twinge beckoning you. You can try and suppress it, and even if you tell yourself you’ve suppressed it, a part of you gives in. And then the inky, oily, unstoppable spread of shame washes over you—not fast, like a wave, but slow. Like molasses being poured.
That’s what recalling an embarrassing memory is like. It’s a very visceral, physical effect—painful, even. We are each an unwilling owner of memories unintendedly stumbled upon while wandering through our subconscious: No! I just wanted to remember who my 7th grade homeroom teacher was, not how I accidentally called her “Mom” in front of the whole class that one time!
We have no choice in it. Anytime I accidentally come across the time I fainted while the Comcast guy was installing my cable or when I had a cast on my leg and got dog poop in it (two weeks before getting it off), I can feel my body trying to retreat into itself, to protect me from my previous horribleness.
Such an unfortunate experience isn’t only spurred by real-life memories. A recent study found that Facebook can cause a significant amount of anguish. “Almost every participant in the study could describe something that happened on Facebook in the past six months that was embarrassing or made them feel awkward or uncomfortable,” Northwestern University’s Jeremy Birnholtz, one of the paper’s authors, explains. “We were interested in the strength of the emotional response to this type of encounter.”
I can now vouch for that.
The investigation started shortly after I read the aforementioned study. I wanted to use my Timeline and that easy-to-access yearly toggle to go back and look at some of my posts from (relatively) long ago, to see if I could read the status updates and comments without embarrassment.
I could not: I’m ashamed of how clever I thought I was to write my status updates in third person (i.e., “[Molly is] surprised by how many bowls of cereal she can consume in a week.”) It’s embarrassing how banal most of my posts were. Why I thought anyone was interested in my daily schedule or how sleepy I was in class is beyond me. And my short-lived enthusiasm for the Twilight saga (which lasted right up until I saw the first movie and then went into a recovery program) is so cringeworthy I want to travel back in time and slap my 22-year-old self.
But all of this pales in comparison to how it felt when I realized I was looking at private messages on my Timeline. A series of posts from my boyfriend at the time seemed oddly inane, and semi-related. As I kept reading them, I realized this was a message he’d sent me—either over Chat or Messages. He talked about some picture of us from a party, his homework plans that night, the tailgate that weekend, what we should make for dinner. Nothing terribly incriminating, yet terribly personal.
It felt strange to see something from years ago so publicly accessible—and I’m sure my ex, who is now married—would agree.
Another confirmed it all for me: A girl from my high school once messaged me sophomore year of college telling me how good I looked (which was odd, but nice), and though we’d never been close we had a short back and forth. I distinctly remember sitting on the bed at my house three blocks from campus, seeing that "1" under my messages icon, and being very surprised when I saw that this very popular, cool girl from high school was complimenting me. And there it was, plastered on my Timeline all the way back in 2006.
I had a friend (someone listed under “Friends” only, not Close Friends or a group with lax privacy settings) head to my Timeline, click to 2006, hit “All Stories” instead of “Highlights,” and tell me if he could see some of the messages I knew to be… well, private messages. He could: There they all were.
This needed to be fixed.
For the purpose of this story—and the larger purpose of, you know, restoring these messages back to a private inbox, where they belong—I contacted Facebook. Facebook Communications Manager Jay Nancarrow asked for a link to my Facebook page. He asked if what I saw sounded like the previous incident from 2012, and I told him yes.
“OK, glad to hear we aren’t dealing with something new,” Nancarrow wrote in his last email to me. “I think these posts explain pretty clearly that this isn’t a situation of private messages leaking—is there anything else you need?”
Slow blink. Wait—what? These are private messages! I know that a great deal of these were sent in Chat or to my inbox. I frantically emailed Jay back:
“Are they going to be gone now? It isn’t SUPPOSED to be that any friend can read these, correct?”
After an hour of no response, I had to email him again. I explained I knew some of these had been messages and I’d like clarification over what Facebook thought about that. And really, that I just want them to leave my Timeline.
I haven’t heard back yet, and the messages are still there, taunting me. As someone who archived or mass deleted their entire Facebook inbox the second the feature was available, it makes me nauseated that these posts are there. It’s not as if I want to forget every quippy exchange I had during college and the ensuing years, but no one wants to see a detailed account of personal conversations laid out for their Facebook friends to rifle through.
Imagine a long, printed out sheet of the chats you had from the time you were 18 to 23. Now imagine about 800 people you know being able to read it.
Now go crawl into a fetal position, set your Timeline viewing settings to "Only Me," and pray that Facebook fixes it. Like I’ll be doing.
Update: I received another response from Facebook this morning, which asked if I could see any of these messages in my actual inbox. Since I've archived and perma-deleted my inbox before, this is impossible to prove. Facebook says I could be confused because the Wall used to be a popular place for conversation... but I know this isn't the case. Please reference the above screenshot examples and make your own conclusions.
Update: A second response from Facebook echoes the former. They believe these inferences to be Wall posts, and not Messages. There's no way for me to prove this, though since I did opt to limit the visibility of my past posts when the Timeline was launched. When I spoke with Nancarrow on the phone however, he pointed out that this button means that Friends and Friends of Friends can see all those old posts, though strangers and non-Facebook friends cannot.
And furthermore, I'm having a really hard time accepting that these were all Wall posts. Here is Facebook's statement on the matter:
"We've examined these claims extensively and remain confident that no private messages are appearing on people's Timelines. As we saw last year, the confusion can be traced back to misunderstanding about the visibility of older wall posts. If you'd like to change the audience of previous posts, you can modify the individual post setting or change them all at once in your privacy settings."
Illustration by Jason Reed