At one point in my life I made it a personal goal to record as much as possible and to do so openly. It started before social media with spreadsheets and text documents but eventually grew to the point where I was an early adopter of most social media platforms and I’ve had a blog online, in one form or another, since the 90s. Recording my life in such a way has always been somewhat therapeutic. It helps me reflect on where I am and where I’ve been. It help me plan for the future. It even helps me, sometimes painfully, to recognize some of my biggest faults and shortcomings.
Most folks call this “journaling” but for me it was always more than that. I can tell you my weight and how many steps I’ve walked almost any given day for the past 12 years. I can tell you almost every purchase I’ve made, no matter how small, going back 23 years. I’ve recorded books I’ve read, conversations I’ve had and so much more over time and as much of it as possible has always been public.
In the early days of the internet none of this felt like a bad idea. We weren’t yet worried about surveillance capitalism or internet trolls and, generally, the web was both a safer and a simpler place than it is now. What has changed, especially over the last 5 years, has made me rethink much of my relationship with my own data to the point where a therapist, if I still had one currently, would probably tell me I have a problem.
Today there’s little that can be considered safe to put online. Whether it is social media posts or a log of places you’ve visited a company will try to monetize nearly anything you record and individuals can and will use any and all of it against you should you ever be deemed to be wrong on the internet. As a result I’ve changed a lot of my own ways these past few years.
I still blog (as you could probably guess by reading this post) and I still record some data, such as steps and weight, that helps motivate me to be healthier than I used to be but I do so, as much as possible, on platforms I control. Today my favorite social media is my Mastodon account and my WordPress site is slowly adding so many of the features, such as books read and more, that I used to put on someone else’s platform. In fact, with the exception of moving back to Apple last year for other reasons, today I have less accounts on the internet than I’ve had at any point since at least college and I now believe that is a much safer approach than the extremely open approach I had taken for about 20 years.
For data still on platforms others control I’ve taken to, instead of embracing the history I’ve recorded, to erasing it on a regular basis. Just last month I completely wiped all the posts, favorites and other data in my LinkedIn, Twitter and Mastodon accounts. On my own devices I regularly wipe all history in every service I use and I generally, these days, restrict any data I create to as little as absolutely possible (notice I said possible, not practical).
Reminders, messages, phone calls, emails and literally everything else that can be erased is erased on a far-too-regular basis. In last month’s purge I even reduced my music library to two albums, deleting the rest of the history and the collection itself in some weird effort to “start with a clean slate.”
On the one hand I like to think this approach makes the web safer for me. On the other I realize that there is more to it in many ways and it probably isn’t changing my data footprint in any meaningful way. That said, I don’t need to be as open, or as detailed, about everything either.
I still love blogging and I really enjoy the folks I’ve come to know on both Twitter and Mastodon. All three platforms have become places that I not only want to continue to use but I need to stop trying to reset all the time. In addition to these very public services, I still use Quicken to record receipts and Apple Health to record data that I really do use to help me be healthier, both physically and financially. Some data, as it turns out, can not only be nice to have but can make a real impact on habits and other things.
What I have to remember is that I can record some things, like my social media posts, and I don’t need to reset them all the time. I also don’t need to erase every last scrap of data generated by any of the devices or services I need to use daily to get through my life. Neither the extreme of too much data nor the extreme of too little data is helpful.
What I’ve learned, over these past few years, is primarily how to be intentional with the data I do generate, both publicly and privately. These lessons are something I can use to, instead of trying to erase my history, to build a meaningful log of thoughts and habits that can enrich my life and serve as a history of who I am and what I’ve done. This attitude would be much healthier than the extremes of the past, if I can make it work. Wish me luck.