As a bride-to-be, I’m always on the lookout for a free honeymoon. There are a fair number of contests to win one online — contests where you, say, spill all the details of your first date — but the problem is that most require you to post your submissions publicly. As much as I dream of Caribbean waters, I just can’t get myself to broadcast the details of my love life to complete strangers.
The Internet both tempts and frightens me. I think a lot of people feel that way. I want to enter the Facebook sweepstakes for a kitchen makeover but worry my friends will be annoyed when I ask them to “like” my entry. I want to retweet an edgy one-liner from Chelsea Handler, but will my mother find it offensive? I’d like to weigh in on the comments section of a news story about paternity leave. But what if I change my mind when I have kids?
The truth is most of us feel compelled to air our opinions online and come to crave the attention we can get but fear the permanence of our posts. We want to share our stories but don’t want to lose control of them — and the Web, that ultimate hoarder, never forgets the past.
Our lives can quickly be defined by the way we construct them online — or at least by the way Facebook’s algorithms construct them — and when we are gone, the social media versions of ourselves still live on. Want to know the late Maya Angelou’s final status update? Easy to find. There are entire websites devoted to publishing deceased people’s last tweets. It terrifies me that a tweet about my dislike of black licorice might be the last thing my family hears from me.
This is partly why I’m envious of the European Union’s new “right to be forgotten” ruling. Europeans can now petition search engines to sever links to personal information, including details like divorce records, professional reviews, even insults made on social media. Google reportedly received 41,000 requests in four days this spring, and it started removing the first links late last month. What a luxury: People now have the chance to try and erase online mistakes that were once thought indelible.
We don’t yet have that escape hatch in the United States, but we do have Snapchat, an app that satisfies the lust for attention while getting around the permanence of the Internet. Users can send photos and videos of whatever they’re up to but retain control of how long the message appears (usually just a few seconds). Teenagers love it; after all, they know the less available something is, the more desirable.
Last summer, I decided I would start writing a Snapchat-style blog on my website, NovelNibble.com. Every weekday, I wrote a post. Sometimes it was a brief mention of a particular recipe that had caught my attention. Other times it was a reflection on something a little more personal, like the fact I can’t help but eavesdrop on people at the beach. Whatever the subject, after 24 hours I would delete the post. If my readers missed it, they missed the moment. It was a little like having a conversation in real life.
On August 1, when I plan to post my last note, I will be left with nothing tangible to show for a year’s worth of hard work. But I feel surprisingly content about that. On the upside, my posts had no time to lose their luster. (Plus, I plucked them before the naysayers could descend.) On the downside, the writing of which I was particularly proud will never be shared with my children one day.
Along the way, though, I always knew that whether a post appears online for a second or a decade, it will probably exist on a server somewhere forever. There’s a responsibility that comes with contributing to the Internet, because no legislation, app, or plea to Google will take the place of personal judgment.
Still, when I get married in September, I will take my husband’s name. And Rebecca Sabky will then get a rare opportunity to start her online life with a clean slate. She’s never tweeted, blogged, or left a nasty comment below an article. She doesn’t even have a Facebook page. Yet I have a feeling that she’ll still think twice before she enters an online contest for a honeymoon. The Caribbean may be nice, but keeping some things to herself will be even nicer.
Rebecca Munsterer is a freelance writer and an admissions director at Dartmouth College. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.