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Dead peeps and deleted tweets reveal some home truths. (Are you in control of anything you publish online?)

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TechCrunch published an interesting post a few days ago about a mysterious mishap at a sweat lodge in Arizona that left two people dead and 19 hospitalised.

But the focus of the story was not so much on the tragedy itself as on the man who organised the retreat, author James Arthur Ray.

It seems Ray is something of a Twitterholic and tweeted several updates during the night in question, then went back and deleted these tweets after the tragedy. Unfortunately for Ray, they remained cached on Twitter search for all the world to read.

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These tweets, read out of context, hint at criminal guilt, though a deeper exploration of the hokey Spiritual Warrior retreat (US$9,695 per head) suggests that this metaphorical death stuff is Ray’s normal fare – more likely coincidental than criminal. Obviously Ray’s decision to delete them doesn’t help his defence.

But the broader issue here is about control of information once you’ve posted it online. In short, you have none.

As Editor of Anthill Magazine, I receive intermittent requests to remove a post or comment from our site on the grounds that it makes the person issuing the request look bad or naive or partial or [add your own socially inconvenient adjective here]. We’ve never acquiesced to any of these requests.

The most recent instance was regarding an uncontroversial comment left on our site last year by a reader who this year decided she would attempt to eliminate all mentions of herself online. To disappear.

I must admit that my first thought was: ‘To attempt a feat so difficult, she must be in some kind of physical danger. Perhaps she is in the witness protection program…’ After enumerating, via reply email, the many reasons why we should and would not remove her comment, I concluded:

“Trying to expunge all trace of yourself online in the age of Google is pretty much impossible. I’m sure you have your reasons, but unless there are extenuating circumstances – such as your personal safety being in jeopardy – we are not inclined to delete the comment.”

She never replied.

Apparently, this stance shocks some people. But surely by now we’re all aware that posting information on the public internet should be guided by the same maxim your mother imparted to you when you were a child: ‘Think before you speak.’

Everything on the public web gets indexed and cached by Google, so even when we delete something it is still publicly accessible. The crisp click you hear when you hit the Enter key and send personal information into the digital wild is the sound of you relinquishing complete control over that information.

The faux intimacy of Twitter and Facebook encourages the illusion that users are in complete control over the information they share there. Yet Facebook is notorious for making it difficult to delete (as opposed to “deactivate”) your account. And completely removing tweets from Twitter is a Houdini act, as every tweet is delivered not only to your Twitter stream but also to the site’s cached real-time search index and to the feed of every person following you, many of whom are using local software such as Tweetie or TweetDeck.

The reality is this: when you make something public, it stays public.

Just ask James Arthur Ray.

Paul Ryan is Editor of Anthill Magazine.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaulDRyan

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