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Facebook past too public for comfort? Here’s what to do

If you’re terrified about the visibility of your Facebook past, we have a few expanatory and hopefully calming words of wisdom.


Molly McHugh


Last week, in hopes of further understanding a study focused on how Facebook can cause us the same anguish as real-life embarrassment, I went down Timeline memory lane. What I found wasn’t pretty: a plethora of absurd, banal, and embarrassing back-and-forths on my Wall.

Worse yet, I believe I found private messages accidentally posted to my Timeline, thanks to some sort of system error. This bug was reported to have happened back in 2012, and Facebook has gone to great lengths to explain that these messages were never private. They were Wall exchanges—whether you remember them that way or not.

Despite Facebook’s response, the story has scared the bejesus out of me resonated with readers and other affected Facebook users over the past year. It’s an admittedly scary thing—your once private messages being shared for all to see—and thus there are a lot of questions to be answered. Some of these I’ve repeated in my head over the last few days, and others readers and friends have asked me. So let’s get started.

Why does Facebook say that these aren’t private messages?

Let’s take a trip back in time, to a simpler place—before Facebook Wall comments. The year is… well, any year between 2004 and 2008. The Facebook Wall consists of a few things: your profile, which extensively lists “About Me” info since there’s little else; the photos tagged of you, which were a sort of rite of passage; and eventually your activity (i.e., Molly changed her profile picture; Molly joined 80 groups today). To see the specifics of how people interacted with each other was a little more hidden.

Because of this, Facebook says, we often confuse what were public messages with what are now considered private messages. Because the line between a “message” (something we’ve been taught to interpret as private and more like an email than anything else) and a “comment” (which we associate with a tweet or another type of public remark) was blurred during Facebook’s evolution, there’s been a lot of confusion (and some anger, even).

Facebook calls this a “misunderstanding about the visibility of older Wall posts.” You would write on a Wall, then someone would write on your Wall. You could hit a button showing the Wall-to-Wall conversation if you wanted to see the whole thread.

For instance: Perhaps in college, you might hit “message” and ask your roommate if they had bought the Fireball or if you needed to buy said Fireball. Because there essentially was no way for you to publicly leave this comment, it was looped into this big, overarching category of “Facebook inter-user communications” that has been reinterpreted by now-a-day Facebook as a Wall post.

What’s the difference between the Wall and the Timeline then?

The Timeline is really just the roided-out version of the Wall. It’s the Wall the Wall always wanted to be.

Basically, the Wall was a way to show people what you were doing and interacting with on Facebook. Nothing will motivate you to participate like seeing all your friends and folks Facebooking it up.

The Timeline increased this tenfold. Now not only can you see that three people left me comments and that I liked two photos, you can see nearly anything you want… say, perhaps, what I was up to in 2007.

I will warn you now, I already switched my feed so you can’t see nothin’. Also, my roommate and I spent a lot of time talking about a parody sitcom we planned to film starring our cats called America’s Next Top Kitty. (No I am not joking; yes I’ve dated successfully as an adult.)

OK, so why do people still suspect some of their private messages are on the Timeline?

Because I’ve talked to too many people now who, like me, remember using Chat or the inbox for specific conversations. Unfortunately, if you’ve ever perma-deleted your archived inbox (i.e., all that old crap from years ago), there’s no way to prove it. But if you haven’t, I encouraged you to go back and attempt to cross-reference all that mess. You will definitely lose hair and/or sleep in the process, but it could bring you peace of mind.

How do I find out if I have embarrassing, horrible monster-posts on Facebook?

Easy. First, hit up some year you remember being particularly awful and on Facebook a lot. For me, that was sophomore/junior year of college. Hit that up on the Timeline. Then where you see “Highlights,” choose “All Stories.” Start scrolling.


Everything you see, all of your friends can see.

Now what do I do?

First of all, allow me to share your fury. Regardless of any of the placating, Facebook changed the rules on us halfway through the game but failed to help us realize the consequences. I’m never one to side with privacy-mongerers who get mad at Facebook (you’re using Facebook… you don’t get to be mad about much), but we were sold one thing that functioned one way and wrapped our communication in a certain (if thin) veil of discreetness. And then, the Timeline came along and changed all of that. In one fell swoop, all of your idiocy could be unveiled but with a press of “2005” and a click of “All Stories.”


When I asked Facebook about the ability to archive old posts, I realized how pointless this feature is. Sure, you can choose to archive pre-Timeline posts to help alleviate this issue, but it only hides those posts from strangers. If you’ve accrued new Facebook friends (perhaps some family members) in the past few years, they will be privileged to all of your old posts.

So then, all there is to do is go back and manually change these posts to “Close friends,” or more like “Only me.” The only way to totally hide everything with the press of a button is to make your entire Timeline “Only me,” which means that friends won’t see what anyone else ever posts on your Timeline. That’s fine, but it means if someone posts a status that you would enjoy other friends chiming in on… they can’t.

What can we do about it?

As with most things, nothing. This is a truly heinous oversight but one that cannot be corrected. Facebook is sticking with the policy that the Timeline will remain as is, and we have to manually changed settings for individual posts or deal.

What I wish would happen? I wish Facebook would allow you to archive certain years; hell, we put that info up, and I can delete an individual posts… why can’t I delete 2006? Or maybe just make all that information “Only me.” Or just delete comments from a certain time period. I honestly don’t even care if Facebook has access to it, but the fact that I can’t control my information this way makes me just want to delete my account, sign off, and start over. Destroy it all! Burn it down! And then rise out of the rubble.

Or not.

Illustration by Jason Reed

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