Monday, October 26, 2009

Once It's On the Internet, It's There Forever

NPR has a story on how material on the Internet can come back to haunt individuals for many years long after it was published.

Back in library school ('98-01), I often met older librarians-in-training who were cantankerously skeptical of the Internet. Among their strongest critiques was that nothing on the Internet is permanent. With just a few keystrokes, it can disappear.

Oh, how wrong they were! Once there's something about you or by you on the Internet, it'll be there forever. The NPR story includes many personal narratives of individuals whose careers have been stopped or destroyed because of reputation-damaging information online. Example:

Take the case of Andrew Feldmar, a Canadian psychotherapist in his late sixties living in Vancouver. In 2006, on his way to pick up a friend from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, he tried to cross the U.S./Canadian border as he had done over a hundred times before. This time, however, a border guard queried an Internet search engine for Feldmar. Out popped an article Feldmar had written for an interdisciplinary journal in 2001, in which he mentioned he had taken LSD in the 1960s. Feldmar was held for four hours, fingerprinted, and after signing a statement that he had taken drugs almost four decades ago, was barred from further entry into the United States.

Andrew Feldmar, an accomplished professional with no criminal record, knows he violated the law when he took LSD in the 1960s, but he maintains he has not taken drugs since 1974, more than thirty years before the border guard stopped him. For Feldmar, it was a time in his life that was long past, an offense that he thought had long been forgotten by society as irrelevant to the person he had become. But because of digital technology, society's ability to forget has become suspended, replaced by perfect memory.

More common examples include people posting compromising Facebook photos and losing jobs (or not getting hired) as consequences. You might delete a photo from your profile or a post from your blog, but in some form, it will usually be archived somewhere on the Internet.

I started blogging while I was on my way into ministry, so I developed an early, healthy paranoia and assumed that people would read me and deliberately try to misrepresent my writings [in retrospect, this should have been a warning sign]. I also decided to blog under a pseudonym, which helped shield me from parishioners digging for dirt.

Most of my colleagues in the Methoblogosphere did not. And every now and then, I get requests by participants in the Methodist Blogger Profile series, asking me to delete sections or entire posts because the bloggers endured flack for what they've written.

Now I have fewer people in my life who are out to get me, but I still take certain precautions. To protect myself from any future problems, I follow two rules:

1. When in doubt, don't post it. If there's even a question in your mind about the prudence of posting something, don't do it. Err in favor of caution.

2. Assume that everything that you write is read by everyone in your life. Don't think for a moment that your name is Google-proof or that your pseudonym will never be discovered.

To which I am considering adding a third:

3. Assume that everything that you write will eventually be read by your children. I don't want my little girl, when she grows up and starts surfing the Internet, to have doubts about her father's moral character or sanity, even if I'm not worried about what people think now. What you write isn't just read by the people in your life at present, but by everyone that you will ever meet for the rest of your life and afterwards.

The Internet has a permanent memory. Act accordingly.


Keith Taylor said...

John, you are so correct.

I used to post frequently on the Usenet group,

I am an avid Tennessee Football fan and I absolutely cannot stand our arch rival, Alabama. (Yes, I am still sick from Saturday.)

If you do a Google search on "John Keith Taylor" and "Hate Bama", you will find a piece of my work from over a decade ago. I don't know whose site it is on, who hosts it, or why it is there, but you will find it.

I figured out that it was out there about 3 years ago.

Of course, I don't care right now, but I'm sure it will hurt me if I ever find myself standing before some Bammer Grad. Judge. LOL.

gavin richardson said...

i am now stalking and commit to making keith's life miserable as an alabama graduate (sorry dude, it happens, but good game none the less).

i've never felt too worried about my identity being out there. though i never was bothered by others doing the pseudonym writing thing. it's kinda like my issue with gun ownership.. if you have a gun & expect to use it (which is the only reason to have a gun imho) then you own every bullet and its end destination & there is no taking it back.

stuff i've put on the internet is on the net and i own it.. its mine and i have to make claim to it. some stuff i've felt 2nd thoughts about but nothing has been so troublesome that i'd just hate for people to find. so to that, i feel fortunate. eric erikson might say in that nostalgia period where i reflect successfully on my prior works of life.. &:~)

Andy B. said...

We've been working with the implications of online identity as it relates to church leadership, pastoral confidentiality, and professional boundary issues. The permancy factor plays a big role in our conversation here.

John said...

Keith -- for speaking ill of God's own football team, you deserve whatever misfortune falls on your head.

Gavin -- I admire your conviction.

Andy -- do you mean in a discussion group at church or conference or intertubes?

Divers and Sundry said...

"...helped shield me from parishioners digging for dirt."

The scary part to me is how folks will actively look for information to use against you. What's with that? They should have better, more constructive things to do with their time and should stay out of other people's business.

Not that I have strong feelings about it or anything...

Larry B said...

So true. A friend of mine "came out" in college and wrote an article for the colleges GLBT newspaper describing her coming out. Subsequent to that, she decided that she would be "straight" based on her religious convictions. It's amazing how many times here article written for the colleges paper has surfaced since then, some at inopportune times. It probably was helpful in one circumstance where she decided to get married to her now husband and realized full disclosure of her past was the only way to proceed because it was out there for him to find. Sometimes people don't disclose significant information that probably should be disclosed if they know it can't be found.

John said...

A lot of information is only a Google search away. That's why I try to keep a low profile on the Internet.

Keith Taylor said...


God would never hire Satan, I mean Saban, as a coach.

BTW, I did go read my Methoblogger Profile on your link. I stand by my answers to your questions, they haven't changed. I didn't know they were still out there. LOL.

Hiba Moeen said...

You are right about it all to the extent of worrying the skeletons out of out ...Whatever you publish online is there forever!

I agree, John Keats died at the age of 26 and his poems became popular after his death! We surely don't want any of our weird blog posts to be read after being deleted ..

And your third reason is the scariest of all hahaha!