It is becoming increasingly difficult to escape our past in today’s digital world. Internet experts often warn us that once you post, there’s no going back. Many of us suffer from “social sharing regrets.” Just look at the memorable case of Stacy Snyder who was fired from her teaching position after posting a “Drunken Pirate” photo on her MySpace page. Law professor Paul Ohm questions whether it is really fair for employers to know what their employees post on their social network forums: “We could say that Facebook status updates have taken the place of water-cooler chat, which employers were never supposed to overhear.”
Despite learning about the permanence of our posts, we continue to treat our online interactions as if they were only temporary. Some of us scoff at food pictures on Instagram and overly expressive Tweets, but this is the digital native way to say “hello.” Thanks to technology, we can express ourselves with whomever we want by simply sending a quick text, photo or status update. The intention is not always to scrapbook one’s entire life; rather, it is to communicate in the here and now. Social network platforms such as Facebook prompt you to share “what’s on your mind?” Twitter has been likened to a “series of ‘now’ moments”. We intensely Google chat all day long and connect with relatives around the world thanks to Skype. According to the New York Times, these mediums are “shifting the way we share our lives with one another.” Yet when all the “selfies” and #hashtags become part of our historical record, what price will we one day pay?
In his book, “delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age,” Viktor Mayer-Schönberger illustrates how, “with the help of widespread technology, forgetting has become the exception, and remembering the default.” Digital reality has transformed our civilization from one in which the price of remembering was costly and forgetting inexpensive, into a reversed scenario in which remembering is the default. It is standard to have a plethora of email exchanges collecting digital dust in our inboxes. Text messages make it easy to stay in touch, but they also serve as a transcript of past arguments and embarrassing admissions. We can speak our minds freely in-person, knowing that the conversation comes to a definite end, and forget the details of what was said. Yet when these same conversations take place over social platforms, we can re-read the record as many times as we want, mulling over the words typed. The limitations of memory are no longer an issue. Mayer-Schönberger thus asserts that we need to face the consequences of how our follies become permanently recorded and “forever tether us to all our past actions, making it impossible, in practice, to escape them.” The subsequent trend is to consciously curate our virtual lives at a younger and younger age. Internet guru Jared Lanier’s fear that “we are beginning to design ourselves to suit digital models of us” holds merit. Digital permanence exacerbates peer pressure; it makes use more likely to conform rather than to take risks, make mistakes and think outside the box.
Does it have to be this way? Shouldn’t technology serve we the people? Technology should distinguish between communications we want to be permanent and the communications we want to be ephemeral. In small ways, a number of new technologies seem to be steering in this direction. The success of services like Snapchat may be due to the “here and now” feeling it conveys. Snapchat, which allows users to send photos and videos that disappear after a short time, first become known for its use of sending naughty pics. However, the main draw of this service today appears to be the free-flowing dialogue it fosters without worrying about a permanent digital record. As stated on its website, “the allure of fleeting messages reminds us about the beauty of friendship – we don’t need a reason to stay in touch.” Another new app, Frankly, extends the vanishing message model into the world of text messages. The goal of these services is simple – create something impermanent in a world where data is forever.
- Heather M. Federman. Heather is a Legal & Policy Fellow at the Future of Privacy Forum.