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The danger lurking in the social-media shallows

Do you remember what you posted on Facebook two days ago?

I think I do: one link to a sad song and two half-baked rebuttals on two of the half-baked conversations that were scrolling past my screen that day. The day before? Not the foggiest.

Meanwhile, I see I have issued 8,447 tweets in the past three years, a figure I cite not with a terrific amount of pride, but a devotion to reporting the grim realities of life. To help manage them, Twitter just unveiled a new, radically improved search engine. How far back in time can we search? About a week.

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What a happy school of goldfish we are. The world of social media has bestowed upon us a koi-like fixation on the present. By the time you've tweeted "Reached the other end of the tank!" you've forgotten what you were on about five minutes ago, and are now looking at that sandcastle with a kind of rapt curiosity.

The permanent now of social media has its appeal. We swim in a stream of updates, blithely commenting on them as they pass by, and happily looking the other way as they float off in the current.

But there's a danger lurking in those shallows. Just because you don't have the means or the patience to spelunk through social-media archives doesn't mean nobody does. And this could be more of a problem than it seems.

In recent years, we've enjoyed no end of fretting about the realization that the things we say on Facebook or Twitter will be waiting to jump out of the thicket and surprise us at the worst possible moment: job interview, first-date background check, political candidacy.

But the reality is slightly greyer. Even as they dutifully take note of everything that crosses their path, social networks actually do a pretty good job of burying what's come before.

In their slavish devotion to the moment, Facebook, Twitter and their peers make it hard to access their archives by any means other than laborious digging. To review your own history on these sites, you have to step back one page at a time: click, scroll, click, scroll, click.

This is not piles of fun. The average Twitter web page displays eight messages at a time. I have issued 8,448 tweets (I tweeted while writing, sorry). The only way to view tweets 1 through 7,000 is to dig down chronologically. Facebook is even worse: Scrolling through your old wall posts merely lists where and when you posted things; you have to click on each link individually to see what you said.

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Compare this drudgery to, say, your e-mail application. Want to pull up something you sent to someone on June 6, 2008? All it takes is a few clicks to sort the list. Want to search your inbox for references to fish food? The search field awaits a sprinkling.

(On the bright side, Facebook recently announced a new "Download My Account" feature that lets users copy the entirety of their Facebook accounts to their computers. The feature is still being rolled out. This is undoubtedly a positive step, but more geared toward backup than searching and scanning, as are many of the third-party applications with names like Backupify and Tweetake, which perform similar tasks.)

Search is a priority for social networks, but all their effort goes into searching the present, scanning the wires to make sure they can report what's being said about Justin Bieber right-this-very-second. Very little effort seems to have gone into reporting what you yourself said about Justin Bieber in mid-2008.

Better that this be forgotten, you say? Perhaps indeed. Unfortunately, not everyone forgets at the same pace.

Even if it's a pain to get at, all of this information is still being stored. Moreover, Facebook and Twitter aren't the only ones taking notes. Google gets its tentacles around whatever it can (and, making matters worse, it's another search engine that does relevance better than chronology, so it's hard to tell exactly what it's seen), as do Twitter-oriented search engines like Topsy.

And there's nothing to stop people with access to your Facebook page digging through your postings by hand, or - for especially enterprising souls - with a computer program written to do it for them.

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The problem isn't that the information isn't archived, it's that it's so burdensome to access that it gives an advantage to parties that have the time or motivation to do so. And, narcissists aside, that party is seldom you, the user.

It's a power imbalance, and if it's abstract today, it could be very real soon. You probably don't have the time or motivation to manually scan exactly what you said about whom, and when. But somebody with an axe to grind, a mission to accomplish or a garden-variety obsession to sate just might. You are at a disadvantage next to those who have the time and the means.

Is this paranoia speaking? Not entirely. Information is only useful to the extent it can be accessed. The simple existence of your archives, buried deep in there, isn't significant; it's the index of your information that counts.

As long as social-media companies keep that index to themselves - and leave the door open for third parties to build their own - regular users will come up short.

In the land of the goldfish, the carp who remembers last month is king.

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