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The End of Privacy, The End of Forgetting?

The author claims that the Internet used to allow individuals to create a different persona online than they had in real life. Social networking websites like Myspace and Facebook have, the author suggests, transformed that feature into something increasingly difficult to maintain:

But the hope that we could carefully control how others view us in different contexts has proved to be another myth. As social-networking sites expanded, it was no longer quite so easy to have segmented identities: now that so many people use a single platform to post constant status updates and photos about their private and public activities, the idea of a home self, a work self, a family self and a high-school-friends self has become increasingly untenable.

In fact, the attempt to maintain different selves often arouses suspicion. Moreover, far from giving us a new sense of control over the face we present to the world, the Internet is shackling us to everything that we have ever said, or that anyone has said about us, making the possibility of digital self-reinvention seem like an ideal from a distant era.

I think the author is perhaps overstating things a bit. While many choose to tie all of their online personalities together in a single persona, there are still many ways to keep separate identities online. Your online chess club doesn’t have to know anything about your real life (and vice-a-versa). Your sexual interests can remain as private as you’d like to keep them. Who you’re dating is of nobody’s concern but your own. I know people who have maintained multiple, distinct online personas for over a decade, despite being on Facebook and having otherwise public profiles.

But what it all comes down to is your conscious choice. You have to think about these things before you take action (not the other way around). You have to consider all of the possible ramifications and consequences of sharing a piece of you with the Internet — not just now, but in the forever future. Because the Internet is forever, and everything you share with it by association also becomes forever shared. (Even deleting your profile from a social networking site doesn’t guarantee it’s not going to show up or be maintained in some third-party search engine cache, or as a copy of information being made by someone not associated with the social networking site.)

So the question then becomes, “How can we make informed decisions about how and when to share when we don’t know where or how the information may be cached, or the site’s privacy policy suddenly changed to make all of my previously private information public?”

The answer is you can’t. At least not today. Facebook can change their policy tomorrow and make every piece of “private” information you’ve shared with them public, with the flip of a switch. There is absolutely nothing stopping them from doing this if it were in their best business interests to do so. The same is true with any other social networking sites. You can delete all of your tweets from twitter, but do you know how many companies are making copies of every tweet sent out and keeping a copy of them in their own databases? The number would astound you. In other words, even when you delete something, it’s not really “gone.”

So does this mean we really can’t “forget” any more? That there is no privacy and we should just stop trying?

I don’t think so. I think the answer is to simply be more careful and selective in what you share and with whom. Choose specific services that don’t congregate your entire life into a single site (like some of the social networking sites try and do), that way even if one site does make a privacy mistake, your entire life isn’t on the line.

I don’t see this as the end of forgetting, I see this as the end of naive sharing any and all information about one’s life with little filtering going on. I see it as people becoming more nuanced about the way their interact with sites like Facebook and Twitter, and understand that what they say and share may have longer legs than they had intended.

The End of Privacy, The End of Forgetting?

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). The End of Privacy, The End of Forgetting?. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 27 Jul 2010)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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