Monday, July 26, 2010

Forget me not

Soon after writing my previous post on being able to filter what you write on social networks I read an interesting article in the New York Times, The Web Means the End of Forgetting. This discusses the digital trails we leave and the fact that whatever we write may come back to haunt us. Since everything is searchable whatever you put on to the net may be taken down and used in evidence against you. Online reputation is a fragile comodity and many have discovred the drawbacks of not thinking too hard before posting.

Forget Me Not by snopek, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  snopek 

Identity boundaries are getting increasingly blurred as we reveal more of our work life to friends and relatives and more of our provate life to colleagues at work. Even if we do manage to filter our posts as I suggested earlier once you tell a few people something interesting you can assume they will pass it on. It's the first law of gossip and is even more true on the net.

There's even a service called Reputation Defender that promises to enhance your digital reputation by making sure that all the positive information gets top scores in a Google search and although the embarrassing stuff cannot be deleted they make sure it ends up at the far end of a search list. A sort of personal spin doctor. It's no longer only celebrities who need help with their media profiles.

One tempting solution mentioned in the article is that of being able to label content with a digital sell-by date after which the content will self-destruct, in true Mission Impossible style. I like that idea on social networks where you must choose how long you want a photo or text to be accessible. It would certainly free up storage space otherwise clogged up with digital junk. The problem is whether we can trust such a system. When we delete something on our computers we naively assume that they are gone forever but if a skilled IT technician gets hold of your hard drive it's amazing what they can dig up.

Dirt diggers will always find something in your past no matter how careful you are. We may have to get used to a web that never forgets and become more forgiving and tolerant of previous misdemeanours.

"Our character, ultimately, can’t be judged by strangers on the basis of our Facebook or Google profiles; it can be judged by only those who know us and have time to evaluate our strengths and weaknesses, face to face and in context, with insight and understanding. In the meantime, as all of us stumble over the challenges of living in a world without forgetting, we need to learn new forms of empathy, new ways of defining ourselves without reference to what others say about us and new ways of forgiving one another for the digital trails that will follow us forever." 
New York Times, The Web Means the End of Forgetting


  1. Hi Alastair, thanks for this blog post. As a quick 'plug', these are the sorts of issues we have been trying to raise awareness of with the This Is Me project (originally funded by Eduserv, and then extended by University of Reading), producing learning materials to help people think about what the potential affects of sharing on the internet may be. Our resources are available as free downloads (Creative Commons SA licenced) at if you are interested.

    Right, plug over! I really wanted to comment about the quotation from the NYT. Whilst I have sympathy that some aspects of our character can't be judged on the basis of social media profiles, I do think we need to realise that, in general, it can't really be judged all that well in the face to face contexts either. People segregate aspects of their lives; work/home for instance. Very few people behave in the same ways in different social contexts. One of the issues with online identities is that once any 'cross-over' between them is established the longevity of information on the 'net means that they are likely to remain linked forever.

    One of the 'strengths' of offline communication and identity formation is that, in general, although it is perhaps harder to have completely separate identities, it is also easier to overcome mistakes which might link the two together as memories are poor, and people are fairly easily persuaded that a mention of something was never 'really' made (or was a slip of the tongue, etc.)

    Perhaps more importantly, although we may feel, as individuals, that other people can't really judge our character using social media tools, the other people will, in general, believe they have a fairly good 'measure' of us. If that were not the case, we would not bother to look people up online. Allowing for some caveats, we do, in general, expect that what we infer from someone's Digital Identity bears a reasonable relationship to how they are - at least to how they will respond if we have dealings with them in an online environment.

    We can define ourselves as individuals however we like - the problem is that the important thing in day to day life is how others see us, how they 'define' us on the basis of what we portray. It's no good me defining myself as an angelic chap with superhero computer science skills if others see me getting in to fights with trolls on forums and making elementary mistakes repeatedly. My 'character' as such, is defined by what others see me do, not on how I would like myself to be seen.

  2. Thanks for the comment and sorry I haven't replied sooner (holiday time). I fully agree with you. Whether on line or face to face we generally try to impress people and present ourselves as postively as possible. You may be fooled at first but regular contact will give you a good idea of personality no matter what the context.