Should we have full control over our digital footprints?

Identity (mis)construction in the internet age.


I occasionally purge my digital histories and this includes deleting my old tweets. Sometimes I deleted them because of typos, sometimes because of grammatical errors, but often, it’s because I regret what I tweeted.

One of Twitter’s shortcomings in terms of managing our online personas is that we cannot undo what we were trying to convey if our old tweets were being taken out of context. This is because Twitter — and any other social networking sites — is oriented around the present. We want our tweets to represent our current selves and frankly, no one needs to know how naïve our opinions from 3 to 5 years ago. Not to mention that Twitter’s capacity to store our tweets is somewhat frightening. Even if we choose to lock our Twitter accounts, our followers can still have accesses to our old, angst-ridden, and mostly embarrassing tweets. And there’s always a possibility that someday, somebody out there will use our tweets against us in the public opinion.

The recent Twitter outrage of the comedian Trevor Noah immediately springs to mind upon writing this article. Noah, the new Daily Show host, came under fire because of his anti-Semitic and sexist jokes that he tweeted several years ago. Free speech aside, clearly, the jokes were in a bad taste and deserved a scorn or two. Yet, the amount of backlash is inanely disproportionate to his arguably innocuous tweets. It’s almost as if those small number of tweets are the ones that define him as a person.

Elaborating on the notion of context collapse, sociologist Jenny Davis over Cyborgology wrote, “Within the social media space […] such that the actor must now present to her/his family, colleagues, and drinking buddies, each of whom harbor different views of who the actor is, and different interactional and presentational expectations.” In this framework, people expect him to have some class within his comedic act, yet Twitter is context-free environment. It’s hard to provide intricate jokes for limitless audience. And what Noah did is probably just another youthful indiscretions, analogous to college beer-bong picture. Unfortunately, his erroneous judgment calls are memorialized on the internet, enabling everyone who has an internet access to dig up his past misdeeds.

With that being said, despite my slight uneasiness surrounding social media, I still use Twitter to procure my reading materials. Now that Google Reader is gone, I’ve been using Twitter (along with Feedly) as my ultimate gateway of information. It’s just that in this internet age, everything that we say on the internet can be viral on a whim.

Pew Research Center reported that, “86% of internet users have taken steps online to remove or mask their digital footprints.” This staggering number says a lot about how monumentalization of our digital footprints makes us constantly anxious about our online presence. My ever publicly available online self makes me fully realize that I have to be more astute in navigating the realm of the internet. Hence, disposing my outdated tweets regularly might be the most reasonable option.

Now, you see, at least detaching our historical records from ourselves on social media is doable. But this whole kerfuffle gets more complicated if we add search engines to the equation: What if people discover my cringeworthy posts via Google that I made when I was in my formative, adolescent years? Should Google give me the option to unindex those results?

There’s already a long debate regarding this issue for the past few years. It peaked in 2010, when Mario Costeja González lodged a complaint against a Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia, Google Spain, and Google Inc. He discovered that a quick Google search of his name can pull up two newspaper pages from 1998 on his house foreclosure. He then requested Spanish Data Protection Agency to order the newspaper to delete them since he doesn’t want to associate the news with him anymore considering he already paid his debt to the society. However, the agency refused to do so because the newspaper had published the notices by court order. Therefore, he asked Google Spain to remove the links from searches for his name. After a prolonged legal process, the case ended up to Europe’s supreme court (European Court of Justice) and they finally approved the ruling of the right to oblivion, or more commonly known as the right to be forgotten.

From this one particular case, I know it’s going to be a tricky situation. On one hand, we have a case like Christos Catsouras, in which he wanted the internet to take down the gruesome pictures of his daughter’s death that had been spread across the internet by two irresponsible California Highway Patrol’s employees. By contrast, what will happen when corporations or politicians abuse the ruling by sending out an army of lawyers to mitigate their situations as fast as possible when they’re facing public outcry?

It’s quite obvious by now that the crux of this issue lies on whether the right to privacy should be prioritized over freedom of speech or vice versa. From US perspective, free speech trumps everything, no buts. Media can publish whatever they want even though the person associated with it isn’t ecstatic about it. Whereas from European point of view, private citizen should have some control over information that concerns them. There’s a major cultural split between how American and European addressing the issue and I can’t say which one has the right answer.

This subject matter has been saturated with educated opinions and I don’t think I have anything to add. As for right now, I will try to follow C. G. P. Grey’s sage advice, “Perhaps we need a new cultural norm: decade death. To treat information about a person from ten years ago almost as though from a different person. Though I doubt this will come to pass — it’s too easy to view others as monolithic, unchanging. But that’s not our nature: we are all the phoenix. I have died many times, and so have you.”

Now if only people can find my old LiveJournal account. (Please don’t.)

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