The Internet never forgets
The Law of Selective Net Immortality
“The Internet never forgets” exclaims a sidebar to Daniel J. Solove’s article, “Do Social Networks Bring the End of Privacy?” in the September 2008 issue of Scientific American.
Sometimes it does seem that way, doesn’t it? And yet, any veteran net writer who has posted to forums, blogged, or written articles for websites knows that this isn’t quite so.
The Internet does forget, and in the most perverse way possible.
That is, a Google search will ruthlessly reveal the intemperate posting you made, while drunk, one Saturday evening ten years ago. Your rant is still there, in all its ingloriousness, and does truly seem to be immortal, a spectre raised from a dank, fetid, unwholesome corner of your personality and freely available to any employer, colleague, or family member who cares to look for it.
We can be thankful that most don’t care to look for it.
And we can hope that we have now learned — unlike Paul Giamatti’s character in Sideways, who drank and dialed — to never tipple and type.
But what about that carefully researched and cogently written essay that you contributed to a certain professional website? The one that did you proud, that declared to all both your high intelligence and your perspicacity, as well as your world-class vocabulary?
It has, of course, vanished into thin air when aforementioned professional website moved everything (but not quite everything) to a new server, and now it cannot be found anywhere, anyhow. Google knoweth it not, and therefore it existeth not. Even Google’s cache and the Wayback Machine have missed it.
You saved a copy on your hard drive, but that vanished long ago when you dropped your MacBook in the bath water. And you never did quite get around to that backup. But no problem, you thought, because the Internet never forgets.
Except that it does.
All the time.
I know what I’m talking about, for my best work has vanished, leaving only the stuff launched late at night after three glasses of cheap merlot.
Some years ago, I posted a fabulous piece to Publib, the online discussion group for public librarians. I dealt masterfully with a problem that has bedeviled our profession since we opened the first public library in Peterborough, New Hampshire, in 1833 — namely, how to keep library patrons from sneaking behind the reference desk to filch the hold-ID items such as the Value Line and Consumer Reports. (Not that they had IDs and the Value Line in 1833 but they no doubt had patrons trying to filch important 1833-type stuff from behind the desk.)
I explored, in depth, the three most practicable methods — poison gas, mines, and small-arms fire — examining the advantages and drawbacks of each approach, and richly supporting my contentions with references to the pertinent professional and scientific literature. My examination was both exhaustive yet succinctly written, a small masterpiece and — I have been told by those who read it when it still existed — one of the finest contributions to the professional literature in many a year.
But when Publib changed hosts, poof! — it was gone. You can search for it yourself in the Publib Archive — try “poison gas” as your search string — but you will find it not.
Thus, the Law of Selective Internet Immortality:
The likelihood of your work surviving forever on the net is inversely proportional to its significance.
The photo of you blowing milk out your nose will last forever; your brilliant multivariate analysis of revenue inputs and service outputs in public-sector institutions will vanish into thin air.
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