“The Web Means the End of Forgetting” by Jeffrey Rosen (published July 19, 2010 on the New York Times) is easily one of the most absorbing article on the Web that I’ve read in a long time!
In a nutshell: Rosen brings together two phenomena that have emerged from the development of the Web and the rise of social technologies. On one hand, we are trying to maintain segmented identities online to control our online reputations — but it’s not working; on the other hand, the permanent memory bank of the Web and cloud technologies are shackling our digital past so “…that we are unable to evolve and learn from our mistakes’. He poses the need to reinvent forgetting: how do we cultivate ‘digital forgiveness’ — giving and getting second chances in a ‘world without forgetting’ — and develop new forms of empathy while reconciling our different but merged identities?
In plain speak: online reputation has increased in importance on both a personal and professional level, but the ability of the Web to store everything we publish online has led to a world that does not forget mistakes. This, in turn, can have drastic effects on our online reputation, eventually spilling over to our offline lives. Once a mistake or failure has made its way to the digital world, it stays there and is distributed in a wink of an eye. Sometimes it’s for the common good, such as in exposing corrupt politicians or unjust situations. But sometimes, it can also just get out of hand, reducing the Web to a personal name-and-shame arena. For those who have made mistakes and sincerely want to make up for it, or for those whose reputations were wrongly tarnished, it can become a frustrating task to move on because their mistakes have been cached, downloaded, shared an continuously scrutinised. How can we forgive, digitally and otherwise, if “…the Internet records everything and forgets nothing”? How do we forgive in a world that has forgotten how to forget mistakes?
Segmented identities and the digital scarlet letter
Identity and reputation are inseparable. Our society has historically championed having only one kind of identity. Whether our identity is based on sex, class, clan, or ethnicity, our reputation is often defined by this single dominant identity. Having multiple identities is discouraged and often looked upon with scepticism if not suspicion. Imagine the frowns and disapproving click of the tongue that were once (or still are) given to, say, an activist nun, a gay soldier, or a porn star by night/homemaker by day. You don’t even have to think of unusual combinations. When applying for a job, for example, being multi-faceted can still backfire. If your resume shows you’re a writer, but also a teacher, who’s also a designer and likewise a project manager, your potential employer might think you’re indecisive and without have any specialisation.
For the most part of or lives, we’ve been trained to focus only on a single dominant identity. But in reality, we are composed of several selves. You can be a doctor, a lesbian, and head of the PTA. Perhaps you’d rather project yourself as a doctor rather than a lesbian as you’re concerned how the latter can affect your identity as the head of your daughter’s school PTA. It’s already difficult as it is to juggle our identities and maintain our reputation offline. But with the onset and increasing pervasion of the Web, the notion of identity and reputation is made even more malleable. With the emergence of social technologies, we’re now seeing a wave of multiple digital identities — “…pseudonyms, avatars and categories of friendship (…) that let people present different sides of their personalities in different contexts.” — and the progressively growing importance of online reputation.
Rosen gives us the numbers: Facebook is now the largest social-networking site with nearly 500 million members. That’s 22% of all Internet users, who spend more than 500 billion minutes a month on the site sharing more than 25 billion pieces of content each month, such as personal stories, news stories, blog posts, photos and videos. The average user creates 70 pieces of content a month. And then there’s Twitter with more than 100 million registered users, sharing daily information on both a personal and professional level. (Sidebar: Did you know that the Library of Congress in the U.S. will be acquiring — and permanently storing — the entire archive of public Twitter posts since 2006?)
All the content being created and shared in these networks directly reflect the identities we project online and have a direct bearing on our online reputation. So you can imagine the professional (and legal) quagmire that a surgeon can land in when, for example, she posts photos of herself drinking and smoking the night away during a holiday in Bali, and then some weeks later have someone die on the operation table during her watch. I bet relatives of the patient might dig up the photos and question her skills as she has been perceived as someone who drinks too much and, thus, can’t be trusted in her job.
This may sound far off, but the article brings up a list of similar incidents that have actually occurred. Take the case of Stacy Snyder, who, in 2006 as a 25-year-old teacher in training, posted a photo on her MySpace page that showed her drinking from a plastic cup and wearing a pirate hat. She wrote the caption ‘Drunken Pirate’. She was denied her teaching degree, because the photo was deemed ‘unprofessional’ and that she was promoting drinking in “virtual view” of her under-aged students. Other examples mentioned in Rosen’s article: “…the 16-year-old British girl who was fired from her office job for complaining on Facebook, “I’m so totally bored!!”; …the 66-year-old Canadian psychotherapist who tried to enter the United States but was turned away at the border — and barred permanently from visiting the country — after a border guard’s Internet search found that the therapist had written an article in a philosophy journal describing his experiments 30 years ago with L.S.D.”
In our own backyard, the recent flurry of anti-Pinoy sentiments brought about by the picture-taking of students and police in front of the wrecked hijacked tourist bus really casts a blinding light to how unforgiving the Web can be. It was, at the most, a stupid and insensitive thing to do, but it wasn’t done to purposely rub salt on Hong Kong’s wounded soul. The students themselves have apologised, but this act has been pushed to the far side. Interestingly, a lot of the blaming and angry retorts actually came from Pinoys themselves. I think it’s good to be critical of our own blunders as a people, but a lot of the criticism was levelled quickly without investigating the facts. And the fact in this issue was that the memorial for the hostage-taking victims was over when the ‘kodakan’ moments took place, and those students participated from the very start in the memorial. Again, it doesn’t make it correct or proper, but it’s important to see this incident within the bigger picture.
These are but a few examples of what people living in a networked world face must confront: how do we best live — and let live — in a world where “…the Internet records everything and forgets nothing — where every online photo, status update, Twitter post and blog entry by and about us can be stored forever?”
Isn’t it ironic that we even as we now supposedly live in a tolerant and permissive time, where second chances can be granted, we are actually all quick to brand a digital scarlet letter. Rosen nails it: nowadays, the worst thing that an individual or organisation has done is the first thing we remember.
I believe in the value of transparency and practice accountability, and I think the social web has done the world an invaluable service of helping expose injustice and other wrongdoings. However, the social web is just like a bullet: it fires where it is shot. The more important question is: who holds the gun? Who controls these technologies and what do we use it for? As much as individuals and responsible citizens have to be critical and expose wrongdoings, we also need to nurture the capacity to forgive (ourselves and others), reinvent our selves and help others reinvent themselves.
Rosen cites the importance of ‘societal forgetting’ in helping us learn from our mistakes and reinvent ourselves.
“In a recent book, “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age,” the cyberscholar Viktor Mayer-Schönberger cites Stacy Snyder’s case as a reminder of the importance of “societal forgetting.” By “erasing external memories,” he says in the book, “our society accepts that human beings evolve over time, that we have the capacity to learn from past experiences and adjust our behavior.” 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.”
Social networks can help us merge our segmented selves — you can share your stories as a lawyer, but also talk about family matter, and yes, even put on the student cap once again as you reconnect with old high school friends. But appreciating our different identities have also to be accorded the respect and right by the law. The law should recognise how digital and social technologies are changing needs and issues related to privacy, the right to information and expression; and that this change requires new laws to govern these areas.
However, it’s not just technology and the law that shape the future of our online identities and reputation. We have to also learn to adapt our social norms in relation to how we perceive ourselves and others. In a world that is slow to forgive and where what we say about ourselves as well as what other say about us — online and offline — are hugely important, we should learn to find new ways to empathise. We can demand respect from the Web, but realistically, we cannot expect it. We cannot control what others will say about us. However, what we have control on is our own reaction to the content on the Web. Instead of jumping onto the like (or dislike) bandwagon or engaging in global gossiping, let’s try to be critical and investigate the content that lands in our profile pages or inboxes. It’s one thing to be critical, analytical and promote transparency, but we should make sure that the content we share doesn’t unfairly, maliciously, or wrongfully represent others. We should also keep our own judgements in check. Seeing photos of “drunken pirates” might offend you, but it might be good to remember that you’re not (I hope you’re not) a megalomaniac alien intent on global domination. We have a big world — and it’s a grain of sand in the scale of grand things in the universe; we are born of diversity and it’s our duty to preserve it. It’s delicate tightrope — respect, diversity and openness — but we need to cross the other side.
Discovering news forms of empathy in this digital world can help us all learn better from our mistakes and actually serve the interest of transparency and accountability better; it can give us the drive to reinvent and be more true to ourselves; we can be motivated to forget and be more forgiving of ourselves and others. Ultimately, I hope it helps us emerge as wiser and kinder beings.