Keep Worrying, Your Past Can Still Embarrass You

Kyle Wagner’s “Stop Worrying, Your Internet Past Is Not Embarrassing” is a short-sighted, blinkered,  completely ignorant post about the simple data-mining employers and others do on their employees, possible dates, friends and others. He argues that one’s embarrassing Web history doesn’t matter because there are so many other people who’ve embarrassed themselves on the Web.

There’s just too much stupid now, ours and the world’s, to really shame you the way you feel you deserve. . . .

That’s relegated what at one time might have been life-scarring bungles into pieces of digital ephemera. Or actually, diluted the idea of embarrassment to the point that your polemic about how all these haters need to back the hell off of Travis Barker is basically the internet equivalent of those pictures your mom has of you when she used to dress you up like a baby duck whenever she took you to the mall, or that Homecoming lip sync video she refuses to let die.

Apparently, he doesn’t understand that when someone (an employer, say) types your name into a search engine, it doesn’t pop up with random videos of people performing embarrassing things on YouTube. It shows YouTube videos of  you doing embarrassing things. The same goes for your old writing, your pictures, everything.

So you can go on imagining your past being held up to the internet’s magnifying glass as a total nightmare. But unless you were doing something especially anatomical with that Labradoodle, no one’s going to be half as embarrassed for you as you are of yourself.

It is arguments like these — ones that gloss over the true importance of privacy and the dangers of Big Data — that need to be immediately dismissed. The argument is merely one of relativity (people have done worse than you!) and a glossing over of the true impact on real humans. It boils down to: Employers are so desensitized to the ridiculousness they can find on the Web that it doesn’t matter if they find some, even seemingly innocuous, embarrassing data about a potential employee. Wagner misses the trees for the forest.

Worse, Wagner engages in Thatcherite TINA-think — There Is No Alternative. There is, in fact, an alternative* to knuckling under to the current (un)privacy atmosphere dominated by private companies profiting off users’ data. And the alternative does not require one to become a Luddite. It requires skepticism and the understanding that, with work, personal privacy on the Web can be better protected via a number of means, from user control to legislation to voluntary limits by Big Data collectors.

*Here’s one such alternative: “Erasing History.”

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