Posted by: Mike Willoughby | August 9, 2010

Forgive and Forget in a New Age

Last month, my friend Connie Howell shared an article with me on the topic of Internet privacy.  It is a very interesting piece and I thought worthy of a couple of comments.  Jeffrey Rosen, in the New York Times article published on July 19, 2010 entitled “The Web Means the End of Forgetting” wrote the following:

Four years ago, Stacy Snyder, then a 25-year-old teacher in training at Conestoga Valley High School in Lancaster, Pa., posted a photo on her MySpace page that showed her at a party wearing a pirate hat and drinking from a plastic cup, with the caption “Drunken Pirate.” After discovering the page, her supervisor at the high school told her the photo was “unprofessional,” and the dean of Millersville University School of Education, where Snyder was enrolled, said she was promoting drinking in virtual view of her under-age students. As a result, days before Snyder’s scheduled graduation, the university denied her a teaching degree. Snyder sued, arguing that the university had violated her First Amendment rights by penalizing her for her (perfectly legal) after-hours behavior. But in 2008, a federal district judge rejected the claim, saying that because Snyder was a public employee whose photo didn’t relate to matters of public concern, her “Drunken Pirate” post was not protected speech.

Rosen goes on to point out that with the relative permanence of the data captured and stored on the Internet, the notion of societal “forgiving and forgetting” may be out the window.  Now, the sins of the past including the diary-like self revelations posted by millions of Facebook users, bloggers and email fowarders are recorded, indexed and remembered by search engines making societal forgetting impossible and forgiving improbable.  In the frontier days, one could escape their past simply by moving to Texas and starting over.  Perhaps the days of starting over with a clean slate by virtually “moving to Texas” are over.

Rosen lists several different ideas, technologies and regulations that are proposed to help re-introduce the notion of privacy and/or “forgetting” to the Internet.  It will be interesting to see how this issue evolves as the Internet becomes even more pervasive and more and more people are opening the details of their lives for public consumption.  In the meantime, I have a couple of thoughts.

First, we should all recognize the risks associated with our participation in public domain digital activities such as blogging, social networking and email dialoging.  Any content we “publish” to the Internet including email communication, blog and social network comments, photos and videos could very easily become public domain and fair game for anyone interested in our “secrets” including prospective employers, universities and dating prospects.  We should assume content that leaves our computer (or mobile smart phones including text messages) becomes public domain.  Does that make you think twice about sending that email, text message or clicking “share” on Facebook?

Parents, please discuss this issue with your kids.  Back in the day, many of my friends kept diaries or journals where they would pour out their hearts on paper.  However, none of them would have wanted the pages of their diary distributed to everyone in the school.  How many times did these dairy-keepers record the certain end of their pitiful lives due to some romantic break-up or friendship blow-up only to bounce back days later recording a new mountain-top experience that has given life new meaning?  These natural ups-n-downs of teenage life that were safely tucked away in a private diary or passed between friends in the form of triangular folded notes in class are now all too often self-posted to Facebook without considering the implications.  Help them understand the public nature of their digital expressions.  Please sit with them and inspect their Facebook privacy settings and make sure their information and posts are limited to their fb friends and that their fb friend list includes only appropriate individuals.  Then remind them even in the relative safety of their friend network to think twice about the content they publish.  Remind them that others are publishing content too and even if they are not posting incriminating pictures to the Internet, their friends may be less discriminating and they may end up tagged in a compromising photo.  It matters who you hang out with and where you hang out.  Funny, parents have been saying that to kids forever.  Now it really means something!  Better safe than sorry and it’s much easier to keep the content off the Internet than to try to clean it up after it’s published.

Finally, Rosen points out in his article that the times of compartmentalized lives may be coming to an end.  Stacy Snyder, the central figure in Rosen’s article, no doubt wanted to keep her drunken party life separate from her professional teacher life.  She was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people and her life may never be the same.  However, her notion of a compartmental life was really an illusion.  If we are leading “multiple lives” in the hopes of hiding parts of our existence from others, we should realize that we can’t deceive ourselves and we certainly can’t deceive God.  For many of us, Sunday morning worship is the compartment of life we most want to be spick-n-span and polished up for God and man.  God is not fooled and I doubt many people are fooled either.  I am the same Mike in the pew as I am at work, at the after-hours promotion celebration, at the Friday night football game and at home.  If I think any differently, I am fooling only myself.  If I’m not careful, Facebook may be the mirror that shows me the true Mike at a most inopportune moment.  Funny how God uses different tools to discipline us!

I’ll leave you with a little insight into how God thinks about worship from Romans 12:1-2.  It seems to me that worship may be a 24/7 affair rather than one hour on Sunday!

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Until next week,

Meet me at the intersection!


  1. Timely and excellent – we have discussed this with the boys, but I don’t think it can be overemphasized – be careful of not only what you do, but what others are doing around you as well. I also feel God’s call to grace – I know that I have done things that I don’t want on Facebook and hope we can find ways to forgive, teach and encourage in this all too public lives world!

  2. Mike- Good stuff! Thanks for the timely reminder.

  3. Thank God that because of the sacrifice of Christ we truly can be forgiven and God truly can forget all our trespass and sin against Him. That the handwriting of ordinances that was against us was nailed to His cross and God will never count it against us again and “forget” our debt eternally.

    Even the stuff we may put on Facebook 🙂

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