When social media posts come back to haunt you. Why we all need a right to be forgotten online

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After just a few days in the job, the UK’s first youth crime commissioner, Paris Brown, resigned over some of her past Twitter postings. There are no doubt many posts that she wishes could be deleted, forgotten forever, and she is not alone. As we leave more and more behind us in our digital exhaust there will no doubt be Tweets, photos, comments and the like that all of us would like to be forgotten. And not just because they were misjudged in the first place, as was the case with Paris Brown.

Social media will provide a continual record of our lives – of the detail of what we did and what we said at a particular time on a particular day in the past. Some people liken this to a diary, but it is different in two fundamental ways:

  1. A diary is always written after the event, reporting something we did in the (near) past; our social media records were composed in the heat of the moment, in real time
  2. What we write in a diary is selective, we think about what it is from the day that we want to record; our social media records are less so – our posts and photos often go through fewer filters

So social media is leaving behind us a very different set of records – records that are written in real-time, are less filtered, and tend to discuss the detail of what we were doing or thinking at a particular point in the past. And, in many cases, they can be seen by anybody – without us there to explain where this particular record fitted into our lives at the time; without context.

These new records present a number of potential challenges to us in the future, not least to how we remember and think about our past.

  • We tend to forget detail – except for the most special of memories. Rather we remember events at a macro-level – we know broadly speaking where we were and when, what we were doing at different stages in our lives, and the things that happened to us. Our social media records are only the detail – they provide no context and no structure to our memories. Just a set of detailed comments that we will not be able to escape from.
  • We think of the past through the lens of today – we interpret what we did and said based on our current experiences, beliefs and moral compass. This is why even reading diaries from your childhood can be cringe-worthy. Our social media records will come with no interpretation; there will be no escaping what we said or thought in the past.

So, our social media records will provide a different view of our own pasts (for ourselves and for others) than we might currently want to portray. And this is why we might want to explore a right to be forgotten online, a right for our posts to be removed or replaced and for us to curate our own pasts. Not for that odd ill thought-through Tweet, but because social risks changing the way we make and store memories of our lives.

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