The internet is a permanent digital time capsule. Every Google search, every photo posted, every purchase made can follow you like a shadow. It follows us even after death—so much so that social media sites can act as digital graveyards for the deceased. According to a recent study by the University of Oxford, Facebook may eventually have more dead users than living ones. If the platform continues to grow at its current rate, the number of deceased members by 2100 could reach 4.9 billion.
Although there are countless benefits to the limitless communication we have created, it’s also understandable for people to be concerned about how much of their personal data is being handled. It begs the question: what if I eventually did decide to disappear from the internet? Is it even possible to escape the push-notification whitewash? And if so, how easy would it be to do so?
To answer this question, we first must address the concern of our ‘digital self’. Journalist Jamie Coles describes the concept of the digital self to Screen Shot as a “collection of material online, which belongs to you or someone else, that make up your digital identity. This could be photos you post, descriptions you write in your bios, things people write about you, what and how you write (how you use your words can be an identifier and can give clues into your personality and attitudes), how you interact with others, the content you consume… anything that’s online that can be used to build a profile of the user.”
James Irwin, Director of the digital marketing agency Straight Up Search, describes the concept as a “digital representation of yourself, a personal avatar, that can communicate with others and engage in commerce. It might be an entire 3D virtual world, or simply your Facebook page.” However, the key difference between a digital self and a real self “is that you directly control the former, but it acts independently from you.”
There are many reasons why people would want to go off the digital grid. One reason may be to escape social media; a technology that can, in many cases, be harmful to our mental wellbeing and happiness. Jon Ronson, author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed says, “With social media, we’ve created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It’s all very sweeping, and not the way we actually are as people.”
Coles agrees, going further to explain that sometimes the toxic nature of the internet can make people want to unplug altogether. “Maybe you’ve found yourself portrayed as an online villain and attacked for it; maybe you’ve become a fallen hero. In both cases, you may just be sick of social media.” He continues, noting that there are also “more sinister reasons” for wanting to erase yourself off the internet, “I can’t imagine a fugitive wanting too much of an online presence, and I have no doubt police and detectives use social media and digital content consumption to build a profile of a suspect.”
That doesn’t mean innocent individuals may not want to delete themselves from the internet too. Recent history has shown us that, unfortunately, the somewhat permanent nature of the internet can lead many people, from activists to journalists, to become vulnerable. This was especially apparent in the recent events of Afghanistan, where in August 2021, many Afghans raced to delete their online lives in fear of repercussions from the Taliban.
So now we’ve established some of the many reasons why an individual would want to delete their online identity—here’s how you can do it. Spoiler alert: it’s not easy…
Search engines are, obviously, the first place anyone would start when trying to look up information about you. After all, the phrase ‘Google it’ didn’t seep into international discourse and, quite literally, became a new verb in the English language for no reason. You should search your name in Google but also other rogue search engines available in your region: Yahoo, Bing and Ask Jeeves… if that’s still a thing.
The search will likely also show results with sites like Whitepages, Spokeo and MyLife, that act as data brokers: sites that collect data points with names, phone numbers and addresses of random people. Alarmingly, this data is available for sale to anybody (according to the technology site MUO), therefore it’s extremely important you promptly request your information be removed if you find your name on these sites. If you’re lucky enough to live in Europe, you can fill out this form to request Google to remove your personal information from its search engine—you can thank progressive European privacy laws.
This one’s for if you want to remove a webpage that contains personal information about you, for instance, a former employer’s staff page or a blog page of your old university’s website. Even if they delete the page, your name still remains on Google—the page still appears in search results despite your name not actually appearing when you visit the link. This is because previous versions of the page are still cached on Google’s servers.
To get past this, submit the URL to Google, requesting that it updates its servers and in turn deletes the cached search result associated with your name. However, word of warning, there’s no guarantee Google will remove the cached information but it’s worth a shot.
It’s a no brainer: if you’re wanting to (digitally) vanish from the Earth, it’s counterintuitive to keep tweeting about last night’s drama on Love Island. Without a doubt, social media accounts contain a huge cache of your very personal details.
Luckily, it’s fairly straightforward to delete and deactivate all of your social media accounts. Please though, don’t rush into it—consider the long-term implications of deleting your social media account before you go ahead.
Every time you make that tempting next-day delivery with Amazon Prime, you’re leaving personal and financial information on the site. The same applies to any online shopping site, from eBay to the dodgy dropshipping sites which keep bombarding your Instagram. If breached, these sights could reveal a host of personal and sensitive details about you. To prevent this from happening, make sure all your shopping accounts are either deleted or deactivated and clear your browser history—including passwords, cache, cookies, bookmarks and payment methods.
Any emails associated with your name have to go too: this is incredibly important as a lot of emails contain personal, financial and trivial information about you. Blogs, posts and comments containing your opinions also need to be deleted—everything from online blogs to internet forum subscriptions. Once you think you’ve covered everything, make sure you run your details through several search engines to ensure that nothing has been missed.
We’ve all had it, that annoying pop-up every time you’re opening a newly downloaded app. If, like me, you mindlessly agree to give the app permissions and continue on scrolling, you might want to think again. Most devices now have multiple functions, for example, mics and cameras that can easily record you at any given moment… Yes, it does sound like a George Orwell novel.
If you want to achieve complete anonymity, your Alexa, Siri, Google Home (and any other smart speaker you can think of) has to go. You should also restrict apps that have access to permissions like location and your phone microphone and camera.
Ultimately, yes, it’s possible to delete yourself completely from the internet—to, quite literally, put the ghost in ghosting—but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily realistic. The task of requesting the full deletion of your account and everything pertaining to it, one-by-one, on every site you’ve ever registered is, as Irvin describes, “mammoth.” Instead, he suggests that changing your identity legally might be your best bet. Besides, that way you can also choose the name you always wished you had. Hello, the name’s Jimmy Damage, lovely to meet you.