Information is Forever
Once something is posted online, it can be accessible forever. What was cool, funny, or innocuous at age 16 or 18 could prove embarrassing or even damaging when you're 24 or 42. Even if you delete something, anything you post could be "cached" or stored by search engines. The website www.archive.org operates the "Wayback Machine" that resurrects old versions of websites, even if content has changed or been removed.
If you don't want to share information with the world, don't put it on a public website. If it's something that you absolutely don't want to share, don't even post it on a private profile or send it via e-mail.
In addition to what you post, be aware of what others are posting about you. For example a distraught husband and father recently posted that he was being publicly humiliated on an online profile maintained by a bitter former girlfriend. Unfortunately, there isn't much he can do about it. Though rude and mean spirited, what that ex-girlfriend has posted appears to be constitutionally protected speech. Because it doesn't violate the terms of service, the social networking company that hosts the profile will not take it down.
In some situations, you can get a social networking site to remove information about you if it is libelous, lewd, racist, or otherwise in violation of the company's terms of service or the law. If you feel you are being victimized on a social networking site, report it to that company's abuse department.
There are two basic ways content lives on forever in cyberspace:
1. Peers pass stuff along
- Well, peers and strangers, but more likely someone a teenager knows. Teens can lose control of their words and media in way too many ways, e.g., a comment, photo, or video emailed, uploaded, IM-ed, or shared on P2P file-sharing networks or in old Internet technologies like newsgroups. Once something's in a Web site, shared via P2P, or sent to a friend by cell phone, IM, or e-mail, anyone can grab it, copy 'n' paste it, pass it along, or upload it to a myriad of sites and services. It may be something a friend shares unthinkingly, or it might be passed along "as a joke" or maliciously, by an ex-friend who somehow got the originator's IM or email password.
- If it's in somebody's personal website somewhere, it could be there forever, accessible to anyone's favorite search engine.
- A somewhat strange example is a Kansas City dad's apparently well-intentioned attempt to alert local parents to kids' risky online behavior by creating a website that lists and links to local kids' Xanga and MySpace profiles, in alphabetical order by their first names (see IRL section, below).
2. The permanent Internet Archive
- Even after personal Web pages, blogs, and social-networking profiles are deleted, they can live on. Founded in 1996, the nonprofit Internet Archive “was founded to build an Internet library... offering permanent access for researchers, historians, and scholars to historical collections that exist in digital format" (295) —not to preserve teen socializers' content, of course. But if a page has a URL (its own Web address) and it was on the Web anytime after 1996, it's very probably in the Archive (which contains more than 55 billion Web pages, continuously "crawled" by the Archive's search-engine-like spider bots)
Want to learn more? Join Ms. Katie Koestner, a national expert on student safety and “teen relationship culture” for a special evening session “Parenting Skills for Cyberspace” on Wednesday, January 4 at 7pm in the Janet Root Theatre.