Very Important—Jeffrey Rosen (NY Times Magazine): The Web Means the End of Forgetting

Posted by Kendall Harmon

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.

When historians of the future look back on the perils of the early digital age, Stacy Snyder may well be an icon. The problem she faced is only one example of a challenge that, in big and small ways, is confronting millions of people around the globe: how best to live our lives in a world where the Internet records everything and forgets nothing — where every online photo, status update, Twitter post and blog entry by and about us can be stored forever. With Web sites like LOL Facebook Moments, which collects and shares embarrassing personal revelations from Facebook users, ill-advised photos and online chatter are coming back to haunt people months or years after the fact. Examples are proliferating daily: there was the 16-year-old British girl who was fired from her office job for complaining on Facebook, “I’m so totally bored!!”; there was the 66-year-old Canadian psychotherapist who tried to enter the United States but was turned away at the border — and barred permanently from visiting the country — after a border guard’s Internet search found that the therapist had written an article in a philosophy journal describing his experiments 30 years ago with L.S.D.

According to a recent survey by Microsoft, 75 percent of U.S. recruiters and human-resource professionals report that their companies require them to do online research about candidates, and many use a range of sites when scrutinizing applicants — including search engines, social-networking sites, photo- and video-sharing sites, personal Web sites and blogs, Twitter and online-gaming sites. Seventy percent of U.S. recruiters report that they have rejected candidates because of information found online, like photos and discussion-board conversations and membership in controversial groups.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchBlogging & the InternetLaw & Legal Issues

Posted July 31, 2010 at 12:35 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. Kendall Harmon wrote:

I haven’t had a chance to link to this vital piece yet until today—it is long but worth multiple conversations in terms of its implications.

July 31, 5:00 pm | [comment link]
2. Terry Tee wrote:

It reminds me of an occasion when going to a ‘get-to-know-you’ supper with a family in the parish, the lady opened the door and literally greeted me with the words:  ‘I’ve been looking you up on Google!’  It was entirely good-natured and I think I have no hideous misjudgements on the internet, but even so, I was slightly taken aback.  It felt just ever so slightly Big Brotherish.

July 31, 5:25 pm | [comment link]
3. BlueOntario wrote:

Further questions are whether we live in a more “no tolerance” culture today than in the past (or at least the memorable past), or whether we are more willing to forgive (or if not forgive, overlook) some people’s indiscretions because of race, or ethnicity, or religion, or social standing, or some other fill-in-the-blank reason. Yet another aspect is how this pertains to adolescent bullying.

The questions are there, I’m not sure that our society or even the world is ready to agree on answers, though.

July 31, 5:29 pm | [comment link]
4. Karen B. wrote:

This is indeed an interesting and important article and issue, Kendall. 

I find myself a bit double-minded or hypocritical as I read it. 

On one hand, I love the ease of finding information on the internet.  (I think of the research I’ve done over the years on Anglican Primates and bishops for instance.)  It has been amazing to discover the power of the internet for accessing and disseminating information.  As an example, I’m recalling the Northern Michigan nomination of Kevin Thew Forrester for bishop and how the internet made it possible to quite easily learn very crucial points related to his theology of baptism, etc., and to read his sermons. 

And certainly, for me being overseas, the internet is a GODSEND for keeping in touch with friends, family, prayer supporters, staying current with news from the States, etc., etc.  (And it makes my life so much easier to have access to online bill-paying, investing, etc.)

Yet, On the other hand, I’m quite concerned about personal privacy.  I don’t use Facebook or Twitter or do much social networking (other than my Anglican blogging.)  Sometimes I worry that I’m a bit “too” paranoid, but then other days, even my moderate - high level of caution seems totally inadequate when I think about the details that could be assembled about me from various sites I’ve visited online or from the comments I’ve posted on various blogs.

It’s easy to read of cases such as that of Stacy cited in the article and think, well she was silly to post a picture of herself drinking.  But what about open declarations of one’s Christian faith online?  I’m afraid I can all too easily imagine a day / context when being “public” about one’s evangelical faith could be a similar red flag for employers, etc. 

There is a lot to love about the internet, and frankly a lot to fear…

July 31, 5:57 pm | [comment link]
5. John A. wrote:

We can’t put the genie back in the bottle but we can change the way we understand each other.  Whether we are talking about a church or being politically correct it seems as though every group or employer declares some thoughts or feelings to be forbidden.

The obvious truth is that we all have ideas that are unacceptable to other people.  Every now and then I recognize that I have thoughts or feelings that even I consider to be unacceptable.  That is why we ask forgiveness for sins committed in “thought, word, and deed.  Things done and left undone.”

The solution that people seem to go to very quickly is to start developing an elaborate legal system.  Instead companies and other groups should start engaging people more honestly, realizing that we are complex and a single event or some degree of skepticism require a more graduated response than automatic firing or no possibility of being hired.

July 31, 8:11 pm | [comment link]
6. Teatime2 wrote:

What scares me the most are the things out there that you cannot control, especially directions to your home and satellite images of it! Not only can weirdos read the words and view the images you might innocently put out there but now they can show up at your house, too.

August 1, 1:54 am | [comment link]
7. Larry Morse wrote:

In a general way, no one can take advantage of you unless you let them. What these villainous shows do is to leave you open to exploitation however unwilling you may be. This is blackmail country; but if you wish to enter it of your own free will, you have no one to blame but yourself when your identity goes all the way south. Larry

August 2, 8:59 am | [comment link]
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