Forget me not: the Internet never forgets what you have to say

I’m a bit of a broken record on this topic, so please forgive me but — not a day goes by that I don’t see someone complaining about how their privacy is being violated, by Facebook, by their employer, by Twitter, by Bill Gates, by someone out there, taking information about them found on the Internet and making it public. Lots of angry folks, but every time I see someone rant about this, what I think is: why did you put that information out there in the first place? Yes, breaches in our privacy take place, and those are cause for concern but — no one can wrongly share your information if you never give it to them in the first place.

The thing is, though, most people aren’t aware of what’s out there already. It’s easy to find out: Google yourself. Do it right now. Just plug your own name in. I like to put it in quotes, but sometimes I search it without quotes, or a variation. See what turns up. You might be surprised to see that somewhat snippy post you made to a Twilight message board is front and center, even though you made it three years ago. Or that time you replied to a listserv at three in the morning, after you’d had a few beers. The Internet never forgets, as The New York Times pointed out a few weeks ago:

We’ve known for years that the Web allows for unprecedented voyeurism, exhibitionism and inadvertent indiscretion, but we are only beginning to understand the costs of an age in which so much of what we say, and of what others say about us, goes into our permanent — and public — digital files. The fact that the Internet never seems to forget is threatening, at an almost existential level, our ability to control our identities; to preserve the option of reinventing ourselves and starting anew; to overcome our checkered pasts. But the truth is that for a great many people, the permanent memory bank of the Web increasingly means there are no second chances — no opportunities to escape a scarlet letter in your digital past. Now the worst thing you’ve done is often the first thing everyone knows about you.

And it’s not just about embarrassment, or privacy. Your Internet identity can prevent you from getting jobs or apartments or maybe even dates. (Doesn’t everyone Google their new potential significant others?) I’ve told this story again and again, but I have personally been on search committees where candidates were rejected because of what we found out about them through a simple Google search. And it’s not always anything scandalous. One, for example, we declined to interview further once we found, and rather easily, that she spent all day every day posting on her favorite knitting site — including while she was at her current job. I’m sure she was a lovely woman, but not exactly a stellar employee.

Of course, once you Google your own name and you find something you want removed, is it possible to do so? Sometimes not. The Internet has a long memory. But you can still try, perhaps deleting a forum post or asking a site owner to remove your last name. There are products available that claim to be able to help you with this process, but in my opinion, all you need is the ability to type your own name and diligence. Please believe me, it’s worth the effort.

Google Ancient Places

From The Guardian:

A Google-backed research project is to map out the relationship between location and literature, visualizing works related to a specific era or place using Google Earth.

A joint project between the Open University, the University of Southampton and the University of California at Berkeley, Google Ancient Places will let users search for books related to specific geographic location during a particular time period, which are then visualised on Google Earth or Google Maps.

Academics will be able to access data compiled from a broad swathe of literature, including many out of print and rare material often kept just a small number of institutions. Researchers say the project will help to open up interested in history, classics and archaeology, but will also help develop new tools and research methods as well as expertise in using data in this way.

Google yourself today

No, I don’t work for Google (I wish). But I am posting this to urge you to use Google today. And periodically hereafter. If you haven’t Googled yourself already, you need to. Regularly.

The reason is that the Internet never forgets. The Internet remembers that you once spent hours every day on an X-Files forum, or that you once posted photos from your brother’s graduation party to your AOL account. You can delete all you want, but it’s still out there, forever and ever. There for your friends to find. Your potential boyfriends and girlfriends. And most importantly, your potential employers.

Since the beginning of time, for us humans, forgetting has been the norm and remembering the exception. Because of digital technology and global networks, however, this balance has shifted. Today, with the help of widespread technology, forgetting has become the exception, and remembering the default. (NYT)

Here’s a story I’ll share, with all the names removed, of course. I was once on a search committee for a rather prestigious and well-paying position. This was a national search, conducted at the highest level of professionalism, and taken very seriously by every member of the committee. At the same time, everyone on the committee knew each other very well, and knew some of the candidates. With any profession, it’s always a small world, you know? Anyhow, after a few weeks or collecting resumes, narrowing those down to phone interviews, and then scheduling a few in-person, we commissioned background checks on those finalists. Nothing especially bothersome turned up. Then we Googled, and that’s where it got ugly — for one candidate, at least. This person wasn’t doing anything wrong, per se. She had broken no laws. But what we found was that she spent pretty much all day, every day hanging out on a forum for her favorite television show. All day, every day, including the ones where we knew she was working, at times we knew she was working. And no, she couldn’t have just been on vacation. Not every day for the past six months, including some where one of us personally had seen her in the office. I’ll give you one guess: did she get the job? Obviously not. Because to be frank, we weren’t about to pay someone six figures so she could chat online all day. This woman lost a job opportunity because of Google, and because she was stupid enough (sorry, but it’s true) to post on this forum using the same email address she’d given us on her resume. Using a screen name and a spare webmail address would have gotten her the job. But she didn’t so that, and Google was there to help us, and I can’t say that’s a bad thing. For us, anyhow. Not so much for her.

So if the Internet never forgets, why bother Googling yourself? Well, forewarned is forearmed, for one thing. Even if you’re not applying for a new job or planning on making any new friends any time soon, I still think it’s a good idea to know what’s out there about yoruself. Also, in the event that there is something potentially embarrassing about you on the Internet, while you won’t be able to erase it completely (thanks to the Internet Archive: Wayback Machine), sometimes you can at least “correct” it. Change your public address. Ask a forum moderator to remove an “incriminating” post. Take the photo of yourself chugging beers at a frat party down from the MySpace page you forgot you had — but that the Internet never will.