Imagine a Web That Forgives and Forgets

If you think way back to the 90s – when bubbles were things you blew, social meant having drinks with friends and the only creatures that tweeted had wings – there was this new thing called the Internet. It wasn’t much fun but then, we had so many other fun things to do that nobody really noticed.

That first version of the web was mostly a collection of static pages, information and links to more of the same. Search engines were no big deal – Google didn’t even begin to dominate and become a common verb until well into the new millennium. There was some ecommerce, but nothing like today.

Then the web became dynamic and interactive. That was a turning point.

Next thing you knew we had WordPress, Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), LinkedIn (NYSE:LNKD), YouTube and Twitter (NYSE:TWTR). Then came smartphones and tablets. Fast-forward to today, we have a billion people blogging, posting, commenting, sharing, gaming, following, liking, rating, downloading, buying and updating their mobile heads off.

It’s hard to believe how fast all that happened. How much our lives have changed. And now the question is, are we having fun yet?

If you have to think about it, the answer is probably, yes and no. Sure, there are some great things about user-generated content and some not so great things. But the real buzz kill that’s ruining all our fun – the one aspect of Web 2.0 we would change if we could – is that what we post is forever.

Sure you can delete whatever it is you regret announcing to the world, but once Google indexes and caches it or somebody screen-grabs and posts it all over God’s creation, you’re sunk. Whatever you thought was a good idea at the time can turn into a life-changing nightmare you can never wake up from.

Here’s the thing. There’s no law that says the web has to be that way. It can be made to forgive and forget ... if that’s what we want. But first we have to be honest with ourselves instead of trying to ignore the elephant in the room. We make believe it doesn’t bug us but we all know the web’s most annoying attribute is the way it never forgets.

Think about it. Who among us hasn’t been haunted by the gift that keeps on giving: our literally unforgettable online past? Granted, some have had it worse than others, but it can happen to anyone.

Remember Justine Sacco, the 30 year-old PR executive who had a thing for posting caustic jokes that weren’t really funny on Twitter? One day she tweeted “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” then boarded an 11-hour flight to Cape Town.

Although she had just 170 followers, by the time Sacco landed, her ill-conceived post had gone viral. Deleting the offensive tweet did no good. It was far too late for that. Her name had already become synonymous with racism. She lost her job and her reputation was ruined forever. Just Google her name and you’ll see what I mean.

Not only is that far from a rare occurrence, it’s far from just a social media phenomenon. There are dozens of new media sites from BuzzFeed and Gawker to Vox and Vice, not to mention thousands of influential bloggers, that are always on the lookout for a story that will capture eyeballs, clicks and ad dollars.

Throw a billion people with smartphones into the mix and you’ve got a massive beast that eagerly generates and voraciously consumes content at an ever-growing rate. Truth is, Web 2.0 has enabled a terrifying machine that magnifies events completely out of proportion with reality and then makes them permanent.

You might say this is how people like Sacco learn their lesson, but nobody should have their life blow up for a mistake like that.

Look, I’m not advocating radical rulings like the European Union’s “right to be forgotten” mandate that forces Google and others to remove links in search results on demand. To me, that’s an enormous government overreach and a push down the slippery slope toward institutionalized censorship.

Rather, I think companies should develop a social conscience and take an active role in avoiding and mitigating the more damaging effects of their products. For example, Google’s new policy regarding “revenge porn” and Twitter’s recent move to crack down on the rampant “abuse and trolls on the platform” are both steps in the right direction.

But let’s think bigger. What if web content was more ephemeral – as in real life? You know, like the good old days when the only memories of what you said and wrote belonged to the few you actually spoke and wrote to? I mean, isn’t that the attraction of Snapchat? Every message and post is gone after 24 hours, like it never happened.

I can definitely see some future version of the web, call it Web 3.0, where users have a say in how their posts are handled, how long they last and how searchable they are. Imagine a web that forgives and forgets. Wouldn’t that be great? It can be done. And it will be done if that’s what we want.