Both The Economist and Slate have recently featured articles about the increasingly long and broad trails people are leaving behind themselves online: everything from comments in forums to Facebook profiles to uploaded photographs. Almost inevitably, some of this content is not the kind of thing that people will later want to see in the hands of their employers, the media, and so forth. I expect that more savvy employers are already taking a discreet peek online, when evaluating potential hires.
The two big questions both seem to concern how attitudes will evolve, both among internet users in general and among scrutinizers like employers. It’s possible that people thirty years from now will view our open and informal use of the internet as roughly equivalent to the famously uninhibited sex had by hippies in the 1960s: a bit of a remarkable cultural phenomenon, but one long dead due to the dangers inherent. It is also possible that people will come to view the existence of such information online as an inevitability, and not judge people too harshly as a result. Less and less human communication is the ephemeral sort, where all record ceases once a person’s voice has attenuated. As a result, more of what people say and do at all times of their lives (and in all states of mind) is being recorded, often in a rather durable way.
Personally, I suspect that the trend will be towards both greater caution and greater tolerance. Internet users will become more intuitively aware of the footprints they are leaving (especially as more high-profile cases of major embarrassment arise) and employers and the media will inevitably recognize that almost nobody has produced a completely clean sheet for themselves. Of course, there will still be a big difference between appearing in photographs of booze-fueled university parties and appearing at KKK rallies. The likely trend is not that a wider range of activities will be excusable, but rather that more evidence about everything a person has done will be available.
We can also expect the emergence of more private firms that seek to manage online presence, especially after the fact. Whether that means bullying (or bribing) the owners of websites where unwanted content has cropped up, creating positive-looking pages that outrank negative ones, or stripping away elements of databases through whatever means necessary, there will be a market for data sanitation services. While some people are likely to push for revamped privacy laws, I don’t see these are likely to be much help in this situation. When people are basically putting this information out in public voluntarily, it’s not clear how legislation could keep it from being scrutinized by anyone who is interested.
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