Listen, I’m a child of the digital age. I’m not going to pretend that I’m not aware of the repercussions of posting things on the internet. The stakes were drilled into me at a young age by well-meaning, if slightly alarmist adults: Anything you post online will be around forever. Anyone can see it. Beware, here there be dragons.
I’m not saying I wasn’t warned. I’ve watched the public shaming of dozens of people who have posted incriminating, racist, or just plain dumb things online. In 2013, I eagerly refreshed my Twitter and watched as Justine Sacco’s life was destroyed by an internet mob after she posted a glib, poorly phrased joke intended to lampoon racist views of Africa. Sacco fired off the tweet before she boarded a plane headed for Africa. Unbeknownst to her, while she was in the air, her joke was misinterpreted and misconstrued as an expression, rather than a satire, of racist views. Justine, whose original Twitter had just 170 followers, became the number one trending topic on Twitter worldwide. It was the Blue/Gold dress debacle of 2014. The ravenous internet mob waited until her transatlantic flight landed. They wanted blood. Justine landed to discover that she was infamous. Her reputation was in tatters. She was fired from her job.
Not everyone who gets shamed on the internet is as sympathetic as Justine Sacco. In January, Harley Barber, a student at the University of Alabama was expelled from school after videos that she’d posted to her private “fake” Instagram (or finsta, if you’re hip with the lingo) of her spewing racist expletives were made public. Unlike Sacco, Barber is pretty clearly an unapologetic racist. It was somewhat thrilling to revel in the schadenfreude of watching Barber get what seemed like her just desserts, just as it was equally satisfying to watch as the Harvard University men’s soccer team was sidelined for the remainder of their season in the fall of 2016 after sexually explicit “scouting reports” on the incoming class of women’s soccer players which were sent to the team listserv were made public.
In these cases, there is always the blinding thrill of vigilantism — the ability to believe that justice is finally being served. White privilege is excoriated, blind racists held accountable, sexists punished. It’s the internet delivering on its premise of equality. Online, we can right the systematic wrongs that remain untouchable in our non-digital lives. Internet backlash isn’t about growth or redemption. The internet has receipts and it wants justice.
But what we’ve gained in instant, blind, furious justice we’ve lost in nuance and privacy. It doesn’t matter that Sacco’s tweet was satire. It matters even less that Barber’s racist videos were intended for her small audience of “finsta” followers. Lost in the larger conversation about the culture of college sports at large was the fact that the Harvard “scouting reports” which came to light in 2016 were from 2012.
Legally, most existing conceptions of privacy are dependent on physical space and the typical expectations that accompany that physical space. This makes privacy law poorly suited to govern the demands of the digital age, where information can easily separated from its context and its intended audience. Simply controlling who has access to information no longer controls who can see it. Even information disseminated through private listservs, group chats, or Instagrams can reach beyond its intended audience. The screenshot exists, a terrifying reminder that anything we create in the digital world can and most likely will exist forever, blind testament to our worst moments.
For millenials, none of this is news. It’s been drilled into our minds by teachers, parents, and after-school specials. But as the internet matures and technology advances, it’s become an inexorable part of our lives. Yes, discretion in social media is a well-advised and important life skill. But we can no longer completely separate our private lives from our technological footprint. The inability to separate our private digital lives from our professional digital lives has plagued everyone from Hillary Clinton and Jared Kushner to two philandering FBI agents whose private texts, discovered on their official FBI devices have put the Russian investigation under fire.
As we each leave behind an increasingly complicated record of our lives — messy, contradictory, sometimes unflattering — we have to remember that with the great power internet receipts bring, the power to hold people accountable for their bigotry, their sexism, their idiocy or their oversight, we also have the responsibility to temper our responses with the recognition that we each are all only human. Yes, we’re capable of stupid or terrible things, but we’re also capable of learning and growth and deserving of forgiveness.
REBECCA ALIFIMOFF is a College sophomore from Fort Wayne, Ind. studying history. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Alifimoff’s Alley” usually appears every other Wednesday.