Friday, July 23, 2010

The Web Means the End of Forgetting

3348310749_402bf9e97e_m.jpgI am one of those who believe that as a society, we are going to learn to live with the transparency of the Internet. Eventually, we won't hold those crazy things we did as youths against the young men and women who we are hiring for jobs as adults. We'll look at the person they've become and judge accordingly.

Nice sentiment. But as I look around these days, I'm less sure about that position.

The Shirley Sherrod debacle, (not long after the Helen Thomas story) the "holding public figures to higher standards" arguments and the simple "make an accusation even if it doesn't stick" strategy of debate give me pause. Past actions, no matter what they are, are available and ready to be exploited. And it looks like they will be used that way.

If anything, my concerns were amplifed today, with the death of Daniel Schorr. Everyone seems convinced that the integrity and commitment to fairness that he demonstrated died with him. Or so it might seem.

Today, I came across this article, The Web Means the End of Forgetting from the New York Times. It's a well written piece that looks at the impact that our never-to-be-forgotten actions may have down the road, given the nature of our emerging digital age.

It offers a perspective that may influence your view of what's likely to happen.
Four years ago, Stacy Snyder, then a 25-year-old teacher in training at Conestoga Valley High School in Lancaster, Pa., posted a photo on her MySpace page that showed her at a party wearing a pirate hat and drinking from a plastic cup, with the caption “Drunken Pirate.” After discovering the page, her supervisor at the high school told her the photo was “unprofessional,” and the dean of Millersville University School of Education, where Snyder was enrolled, said she was promoting drinking in virtual view of her under-age students. As a result, days before Snyder’s scheduled graduation, the university denied her a teaching degree. Snyder sued, arguing that the university had violated her First Amendment rights by penalizing her for her (perfectly legal) after-hours behavior. But in 2008, a federal district judge rejected the claim, saying that because Snyder was a public employee whose photo didn’t relate to matters of public concern, her “Drunken Pirate” post was not protected speech.
The issue, of course, is that even if we accept that the Internet is going to extract a high price for those pictures being posted on Facebook these days, it does nothing to solve the problem. Kids will be kids, as they say, and I doubt very much that they'll stop doing the things that kids do - nor do I think that we necessarily want them to.

Those "spirited" children, full of endless energy, enthusiasm for life and curious about everything are a handful to deal with when they're young. But they often turn into some of our most interesting people as they age. We want them to explore life, push the boundaries and test their own limits. That's what growing up is all about. If we start warning them about the long-term consequences of their actions and force them to rein in all that natural enthusiasm, we'll pay a larger price as a society.

Now I really don't know what to think about the future. I'd welcome your comments.

Flickr photo via Rafael Robayna

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