Earlier this year, the failed social networking site Friendster sent a message to remaining users that it would erase all photos, blogs, comments and friend groups on May 31. But that didn’t mean user profiles would be tossed as well. Where did all that information go?

It's a question that comes up a lot when you consider the steadily growing list of failed social networking sites that couldn’t survive the Facebook juggernaut. Sure, plenty of us probably deleted our Friendster accounts before hopping onto MySpace (and then did the same thing all over again when we jumped ship to Facebook), but the early social networking site was still populated when it relaunched in June. Friendster had taken those existing user profiles and rolled them over to its rebranded entertainment-oriented platform. 



Recycling user databases like that isn’t an uncommon practice in the United States, which is still hammering out online privacy standards and laws.

“At least in the U.S., what happens to consumers data after a company shuts down often depends on the company’s privacy policy, which in theory is binding, since the U.S. does not have anything comparable to online data retention laws like the EU’s so-called privacy directives,” said Alessandro Acquisti, associate professor of information technology and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

In other words, what happens to the personal information you leave behind on social networking sites is largely up to the site owners.

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“Back in 2001, a famous case involved etoys.com, which tried to sell its customer database after shutting down, but got into trouble doing that precisely because of its privacy policy (which promised users it wouldn’t sell off their personal information),” Acquisti said. “Since then, companies have become smarter at playing this game, in the sense that they write policies that leave them more room for operation.”

Indeed, the personal tidbits we broadcast on social media are some of the most valuable commodities on the Web, since they give advertisers direct insight on how people behave and what they buy. For that reason, user profile information is like the pearl inside the oyster of a social networking site, whether it’s successful or not.

"Say one social networking site takes over another. In the advertising world, such purchases are often for the data that these companies contain,” said Craig Wills, a computer science professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and online privacy expert. “Thus, rather than a social networking site going away, I suspect they would get bought by another social networking site for the data.” 

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Rolling over user profiles, as in Friendster’s case, can also help jumpstart a new or rebranded network.

“The new site might even use the data to automatically create accounts for users on the site as means to attract these users to the new site,” Wills told Discovery News.

These examples of profile “afterlife” underscore the importance of users paying attention to privacy policies and what they're agreeing to when signing up for social media accounts.

“Once uploaded to the Internet, your data never dies – it just reincarnates in other forms,” Acquisti from Carnegie Mellon told Discovery News.

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