Ephemeral Conversation Is Dying

Bruce Schneier had a a column in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago entitled “Why Obama Should Keep His BlackBerry – But Won’t“. He uses Obama’s BlackBerry dilemma to make the broader point that, we’ve moved from an assumption of privacy to a world where everything is recorded. His argument is that, rather than trying to turn back the clock, we need to adjust our legal and cultural norms to the reality of our digital trails. (via Vincent Gable’s comment at

I’m reminded of these thoughts from Danah Boyd’s Master’s Thesis on managing identity in a digital world:

Although it may seem advantageous to have historical archives of social interactions, these archives take the interactions out of the situational context in which they were located. For example, by using a search engine to access Usenet, people are able to glimpse at messages removed from the conversational thread. Even with the complete archive, one is reading a historical document of a conversation without being aware of the temporal aspect of the situation. As such, archived data presents a different image to a viewer who is accessing it out of the context in which it was created.

Digital archives allow for situational context to collapse with ease. Just as people can access the information without the full context, they can search for information which, when presented, suggests that two different bits of information are related. For example, by searching for an individual’s name, a user can acquire a glimpse at the individual’s digital presentation across many different situations without seeing any of this in context. In effect, digital tools place massive details at one’s fingerprint, thereby enabling anyone to have immediate access to all libraries, public records and other such data. While advantageous for those seeking information, this provides new challenges for those producing sociable data. Although the web is inherently public, people have a notion that they are only performing to a given context at a given time. Additionally, they are accustomed to having control over the data that they provide to strangers. Thus, people must learn to adjust their presentation with the understanding that search engines can collapse any data at any period of time. 

And Danah wrote those words seven years ago, before Facebook and Twitter invented micro-blogging and inspired people to voluntarily live in virtual fishbowls. I’ve blogged about the end of privacy through difficulty, but it seems we’re heading in a direction of no privacy at all. It will be interesting to see how the next generation frames this discussion.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

4 replies on “Ephemeral Conversation Is Dying”

If we are going to believe everything we read…

I think we will soon adapt and grow critical minds, or perish.

Just search for “Daniel Tunkelang BDSM” in Google (without the quotes). Do it now. Of course, this comment will taint you, but right now, I see your name on some hardcore porn blog. Looks randomly generated.

Now that I presume you are not into BDSM… But, you know…

Anyhow, I search my name with various keywords and I was surprised at the results, and a bit scared.


Point taken. But that’s a separate issue–that our “digital trails” can be synthesized. What is funny is that, just minutes after you posted, this page is the top hit for that search.

And, in the spirit of embracing the loss of privacy, no , I’m not into BDSM. Sorry if any readers are disappointed.


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