I keep hearing and reading how the Internet has changed everything. First we learned how it was the end of privacy and no less a man than the head of Facebook (who might have some self-interest involved) noted that the age of privacy was over earlier this year. Of course that’s in Facebook’s best interests to make you believe privacy is “over.” Zuckerberg claimed, without a shred of scientific evidence or data, that lack of privacy is now a societal norm. (Apparently when nobody was looking, Zuckerberg got his Ph.D. and did some sociological or epidemiological research.) Nothing could be further from the truth — privacy is very much a societal norm. It’s also a personal and private decision most of us make on a daily basis. For example:
- How much do I tell my significant other about what happened at work today?
- That’s a cute photo, should I share it with others?
- Should I tweet about what I just that person do in the coffee shop?
- I just got a raise — is it something I should put on my status update?
- Should I tell the clerk about what happened to me this morning?
We make privacy decisions every day, but most of us give little thought to them because we expect little will become of our personal, daily sharing. But when you open that sharing up to the infinite Internet, it can become another thing entirely.
So it was with some trepidation that I read The Web Means the End of Forgetting in the New York Times Magazine recently. But I was pleasantly surprised.
The article puts some much-needed context and data around Zuckerberg’s marketing ploy privacy claims:
A University of California, Berkeley, study released in April found that large majorities of people between 18 and 22 said there should be laws that require Web sites to delete all stored information about individuals (88 percent) and that give people the right to know all the information Web sites know about them (62 percent) — percentages that mirrored the privacy views of older adults.
A recent Pew study found that 18-to-29-year-olds are actually more concerned about their online profiles than older people are, vigilantly deleting unwanted posts, removing their names from tagged photos and censoring themselves as they share personal information, because they are coming to understand the dangers of oversharing.
Far from our becoming a society that doesn’t care about privacy, the more our privacy is misused and abused by Big Companies for their own profit and gain — or used against us by a potential future employer, current employer, significant other, etc. — the more sensitive we become to privacy issues. That’s because people aren’t stupid. They know if they post something online, it can come back to haunt them. If they didn’t know that once, they’ll know it the minute they do it and find out it prevents them from obtaining something they want out of life.
How did we get ourselves into this mess to begin with? It all starts with the idea that everything that is said online is stored somewhere. We used to think, back in the 1980s and early 1990s that conversations on Usenet (the Internet’s discussion forums at that time) were fleeting and lost to time within a few weeks after being posted. But then a website started in 1995 called “DejaNews” (which eventually became Google Groups) that allowed people to search the entire archive of all those old Usenet messages we all assumed were lost to time. The past literally was reclaimed by technology.
This wasn’t always the way it was in society. When you told a story at a small gathering or dinner party, the story usually stayed within the group:
In traditional societies, where missteps are observed but not necessarily recorded, the limits of human memory ensure that people’s sins are eventually forgotten. By contrast, Mayer-Schönberger notes, a society in which everything is recorded “will forever tether us to all our past actions, making it impossible, in practice, to escape them.” He concludes that “without some form of forgetting, forgiving becomes a difficult undertaking.”
It’s often said that we live in a permissive era, one with infinite second chances. But the truth is that for a great many people, the permanent memory bank of the Web increasingly means there are no second chances — no opportunities to escape a scarlet letter in your digital past. Now the worst thing you’ve done is often the first thing everyone knows about you.
Indeed, because the memory of the Web appears to be infinite, there is no limit to the amount of data that may be stored for an infinite amount of time about you.
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.)
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.