We all wish we could forget certain things or undo certain actions of the past. While technology has created a world in which it has never been so easy to undo actions, it has also created the conditions whereby forgetting that the actions occurred in the first place is far more difficult (just consider Facebook’s Timeline). Let’s say Joe wants to clean up his Facebook before he applies for a job. He would probably go through his entire Timeline and ask himself whether each post is worthy of remaining published for his Facebook friends (and the world, by extension) to see. Now flip the coin: let’s say I’m the job interviewer and I want to check whether my applicant’s Facebook profile is clean. It would be much easier for me to merely look through all the posts, pictures, etc., just looking for something incriminating.
My point is not that companies want to do this, or that they even have the ability to do this (although even technological privacy settings cannot prohibit peer-to-peer violations). The point is that in general, when confronted with a large amount of relatively unsorted information, it is far easier to search for items related to a specific issue rather than for items in general which violate a certain norm (with regard to my personal Facebook privacy, for example, the norm might be that posts should not be harmful to my identity, future job prospects, relationships, etc.). For example, it would take far less time and effort to go through one’s Timeline looking for posts which are related to, say, sports, rather than going through, evaluating each post one-at-a-time for its favorability to one’s “Facebook image.” The reason is possibly that the decision for the former scenario occurs at an easier level: sorting by issue is a less intensive task than sorting by favorability. Perhaps it is also the case that sorting by issue is more easily automated by computers and search, whereas sorting by favorability requires a more human decision which is not so easily computed.
This notion translates well into the real world, where the commonly expressed fears of investigators — perhaps related to a job application, political campaign, or FBI investigation — digging through one’s online activity from the distant past in search of additional information or evidence. But as a society we must realize that there is asymmetry with regard to the unrealistic time and effort regular people would have to expend in order to sift through the increasingly unmanageable swaths of information on the Internet in order to polish and cull information unfavorable to their interest, versus the time and effort investigators would need to expend in order to seek information relevant to a specific issue. The result is a perverse calculation of incentives: should I incur the costs of maintaining and clearing up all of my online interactions from the past, or should I, from the get-go, just self-censor my behavior so as to ensure no potential blowback in the future? If forgetting and anonymity continue their trend of becoming increasingly difficult to achieve, then more and more people will opt for the latter course of action: to live in a low-risk, low-freedom, virtual Panopticon of self-censorship.