Will the Internet make it impossible to make clean starts in life? Will every word and every picture we have posted, however ill advised, find a way to haunt us? This is the fear legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen articulated in his NY Times piece, “The Web Means the End of Forgetting.” That is the same piece that led me to wonder several days ago if we might need a new economic statistic to track social media induced unemployment.
According to David Dylan Thomas at In Medias Res, the real problem might actually be the opposite of what Rosen feared. In a post titled “The Myth of Online Inertia,” Thomas argues that “things disappear from the web” all the time. The evolution of hardware and file formatting renders much of what is produced potentially inaccessible with the passage of time. “As a web manager,” Thomas explains,
I’ve overseen the overhaul of many a content management system, and there’s always a compatibility issue which forces editors and technology teams to ask the same question. How much? How much will it cost (in time and money) to convert how much information? Do we really want to bother reformatting 400 news stories that were published in 2000 to a whole new format on the off chance that someone will search for them? The answer is almost always no. And that’s just 10 years.
My sense is that both Rosen and Thomas are on to something and that if they were to sit down together to discuss their positions, a synthesis preserving elements of both arguments would emerge. Regardless of how powerful the Internet’s long term memory proves to be, however, its short term memory is quite good and potentially quite damaging. Consequently, we are becoming increasingly self-conscious and cautious about what we post and where.
Some are concerned enough to implement tools such as Google Goggles that are designed to keep us from sending that stupid drunken email that ends up costing us our job or a relationship. A great deal of time and money is also being spent to keep individuals from not only ruining their own reputations with a misguided tweet, but also tarnishing the image of the institutions with which they are associated. In a recent story about the effort colleges are putting forth to manage the social media activities of their student athletes, a consultant gave the very basic rule he tries to instill in student athletes: if you would have a problem with your mother reading or seeing it, don’t post it.
This is good advice as far as it goes, I suppose. Although, it would depend a great deal, wouldn’t it, on the sensibilities of each particular mom. In any case, this all brought to mind a recent article in The New Republic by Jed Perl. In “Alone, With Words,” Perl laments the loss of writing that begins as and remains a private act.
Writing, before it is anything else, is a way of clarifying one’s thoughts. This is obviously true of forms such as the diary, which are inherently solitary. But even those of us who write for publication can conclude, once we have clarified certain thoughts, that these thoughts are not especially valuable, or are not entirely convincing, or perhaps are simply not thoughts we want to share with others, at least not now … I believe that most writing worth reading is the product, at least to some degree, of this extraordinarily intimate confrontation between the disorderly impressions in the writer’s mind and the more or less orderly procession of words that the writer manages to produce on the page.
Most of what is made public in the arena of social media was never private in Perl’s sense, at least not for very long at all. We are becoming used to the idea of providing a more or less real time feed of our thoughts and actions to the world. The process of clarification and crafting that Perl describes has been replaced by the urge to publicize immediately. Little wonder then that some of what we make public is damning and much of it is quite inane.
Citing Jaron Lanier, Alan Jacobs makes a point that we seem to have forgotten:
“You have to be somebody before you can share yourself.” And the process of becoming somebody takes time, effort, discipline, and study.
That process also tends to happen when we have preserved a certain private space for our selves. Social media and the Internet have given us an unparalleled ability to make our thoughts, our writing, our pictures, our very selves public. Our task now may be to carve out and preserve a private space that will help render what we make public meaningful and worthwhile. Or, at least not potentially disastrous.