Robert Heaton


Re: All those regrettable posts that you thought were gone

01 May 2018

To my good friend, Steve Steveington,

Thank you for your email advising me of my impending doom and destruction. I’m sorry that it’s taken me so long to reply. Work has been crazy.

I’m also sorry that the gang and I keep pranking you so hard and writing about it on the internet. I see now how you might have found that upsetting, and how you might be thirsting for revenge. As you noted in your email, I can’t really put my finger on anything about your revenge that is wrong or illegal, apart from the fact that I would really rather you didn’t do it.

To answer some of your questions, back in the day I set all my online profiles to be public because I had nothing to hide and wanted everyone at university and beyond to see how cool I was and how much fun I was having. As I’ve gotten older and the warnings have gotten louder, I’ve drastically cut this back, locking down some profiles and deleting others. On advice from one of my friends I did a purge of my social media history a few years ago. I don’t remember exactly what was there, but I do remember feeling extremely relieved that I had gotten rid of it before anyone else had found it.

Of course, I didn’t realize that you have been patiently scraping and archiving everything that I’ve done on the public and semi-public internet for the last fifteen years, just in case you needed it. I didn’t realize that you were the one who had registered my-name-dot-com. And I didn’t realize that you would at some point threaten to use this domain to publish the dump of my public internet activity, sending it soaring to the top of Google’s ranking for searches for my name. Thank you for sending me some extracts from this archive, they did help jog my memory.

I’m dating myself now, but did we really used to have personal conversations on our Facebook walls? Do we even have walls now? Or have we broken down all the walls to be replaced by timelines? In any case, it appears that I used to think that homelessness was much more funny than it actually is.

And regarding the set of posts you highlighted in your email - I’m not trying to say that calling someone that name isn’t repulsive, or that it wasn’t already repulsive in 2007. But I really think and hope that what I said was dripping with avant garde irony, although I do admit that the irony is quite hard to detect a decade later. And those photos with those statues - also deeply ironic if you look hard enough. I’m pretty sure I was trying to be like those comedians who say really quite offensive and unpleasant things but with an implicit eyebrow wiggle that says “can you imagine if I actually said that?” Maybe they’re better somehow. It gets too nuanced for me after a certain point.

It does appear that in the past I have both received and dish out “Facebook rape”, an unfortunately popular term describing the desecration of an unsuspecting victim’s Facebook profile. I have also totally raped people at video games, a term describing a crushing victory. It took me far too long to see why someone might care about this, and even longer to actually change, but on the plus side I haven’t used the word “rape” to refer to anything but actual sexual assault for at least six years.

And this is just the most egregious stuff that might hurt me if I ever wanted to become a virtuous public figure. There’s also all those photos and posts that I’m not exactly ashamed of, but which aren’t who I am now, and I don’t think I want people to be able to flick through them anymore. Especially not my students. After a tough start I think I’ve finally started winning their respect and convincing them that Math is important, but your dump could make things extremely hard. As soon as a teacher is hired, the school tells them to disguise their online presence. This is for extremely good and obvious reasons. Maybe we should really be sharing our whole, authentic, online selves with our students, but I don’t think I want to do that. Do you see what I’m saying? Can I offer you a different type of revenge instead? Let he or she who is without sin release the first database of personal online history. That’s a pretty stupid aphorism of course. No one is without sin, but we can still form and act on meaningful opinions about who needs a stone or two.

Do we eventually converge on who we are? In another ten years time will I be looking back at present-day me and thinking that he too was a giant flapping asshole? Or will I think that he had it about right, although he should have given more to charity and been a bit more politically active? Should I be strongly cautioning the kids in my class not to use public or persistent storage for any of their online communication, no matter how funny or astute they think they are? I’m going to assert without evidence that half of what most under-twenties say is clear-eyed wisdom that humanity would be well-advised to take note of, and the other half is ill-advised bullshit. But as a wise man once said, in the moment it’s impossible to tell which half is which.

Actually I read back over the copy of the dump you sent me, and I’m going to revise my estimate to at least ninety percent bullshit. I also looked more closely at the timestamps; it seems that you never entirely stop saying regrettable things, even when you turn twenty-one.

I’m not trying to hide from what I did or said, although of course I mean that in the same sense as everyone else who says it. If you’re going to release your dump of everything I’ve ever said on the internet, then I’m not going to try and cover it up, because of course that would look even worse. I’ll express contrition for the parts that require contrition, and laugh along with those of my students who taunt me about my emo phase until they either stop or my position becomes untenable. But if I can somehow persuade you not to release it, and I think I can get away with it, then obviously I’m going to do everything in my power to destroy all copies of the data in existence and anyone who knows about them.

Anyway, do send over your list of demands. I like my job and want to make sure I keep it, so I’ll almost certainly meet them. I do understand that you’ll probably extort even more money or dinner party invites from me in a few years time. Blackmailers always make a copy of the disk, or email the contents to themselves, or sync it to their work Dropbox account with premium expanded storage. Realistically my only long-term hopes are that you have mercy on me, or that you’ve really only been compiling this dataset in order to deliver targeted ads.

Hope to hear from you soon. And if not then I’ll see you at ping-pong practice on Thursday.

Your good friend,

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