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.