Here we are, now halfway through 2014, and I’ve totally forgotten my New Year’s resolutions, much less the vow I made just a month ago to lose 5 pounds (therefore, v. 2 of that vow is 8 pounds). Our memories are short, and often that fact can be a blessing. The Internet, however, never forgets. Every comment we’ve ever made, every photo we’ve ever posted, remains available to anyone with access to our sites—for a lifetime and beyond.
The Web, now more than two decades old, has matured to the point when it is considering its own version of end-of-life issues.
- Should a photo we posted as a 16-year-old at a late-night party remain accessible to prospective employers when we’re job hunting at 34?
- Should descriptive social network handles we created in our first job (@brickmasonpro) continue to identify us when we’ve completely changed our career path (@prwritingpro) years later?
- And what happens to our profiles when we die? I continue to receive emails from one social network declaring in bold headlines that it can connect me with someone who passed away nearly two years ago (a neat, but chilling, trick), and my late cousin’s profile continues to pop up on my Facebook feed.
Developers are starting to deal with these weird and often troubling concerns. Snapchat has tried to lead the way with photos—and now chat sessions—that can be forever erased from the Web, although its system is not foolproof. The app allows members to send images, videos and captions to a defined list of recipients and limits the time they can view these “Snaps” to just a few seconds. Thereafter, the pictures are deleted from the recipient’s device and Snapchat servers. Third-party applications, however, may capture these communications, or recipients might simply take a screenshot to preserve them.
Facebook now will “memorialize” the account of a deceased person when it receives a valid request, securing the account as-is, although friends may be able to share memories on the memorialized timeline. Family members also can ask that the account be completely removed from Facebook.
Changing your username (handle) or creating a nickname on Twitter, Pinterest and other sites is a simple matter of going to the settings page and entering your new name. Facebook and LinkedIn, however, require that your handle be your real name, so you can’t erase your past there by simply changing the name you use, although you may be able to delete individual posts.
The European Court of Justice has gone much farther, declaring in May of this year that search engines should enable users to be “forgotten” after a specified period of time by erasing links to Web pages unless “particular reasons” exist not to do so.
So the Web may be a bit closer to acting its age and accounting for those who just can’t or don’t want to share everything anymore. Perhaps one day websites and search engines will become so smart that they will be able to mimic humans perfectly—by forgetting everything important.