My first week of grad school, a few of my new peers already knew me by my publication record. I wasn’t a prodigy: My writing hadn’t appeared in some prestigious scholarly journal. Instead, they’d Googled their way to an essay I’d written almost a decade before, one in which I enthusiastically declared my love for playing Dungeons & Dragons in the young adult section of my local public library. (And no, I’m not linking to it for you.)
I don’t think they’d looked hard: It was easy to find at the time, a bright beacon of shame on the first page of my Google results. But imagine my embarrassment when I realized that this was their first impression of me. As future English professors, they read it with care, calling out adolescent quirks of word choice and syntax that I would have rather left behind. I never quite lived it down, if only because I imagined that my colleagues never forgot.
To be clear, though, Dungeons & Dragons itself wasn’t the problem. I still play, I still love libraries, and I don’t care who knows. To the contrary, it was my youthful sincerity that ate at me. Free of cynicism and guile, my prose read like the work of another writer. It marked me as a fraud, a wholly different creature from the urbane sophisticate I wanted so badly to be. Think of that moment when your parents insist on showing baby pictures to your latest partner. Even as they coo, you can feel your face flush, unable to reconcile this hapless earlier version of yourself with the mature facade you’ve long since erected. This is why the telltale traces of all our pasts sometimes fill us with shame, even when they’re not particularly shameful.
In the age of Google, intrusions of personal history into present reality have become more common—and more unpredictable—than ever before. Once upon a time, this mostly played out within families: Children paging through their parents’ yearbooks or siblings telling embarrassing stories about one another. But now, anyone can expose us to our earlier selves at any time. For me it was my long-since-forgotten adventures in the library. For you it might be a wild night on the town, a failed Ultimate Fighting career, or something else—anything else—that you’d rather not recall. At the mercy of algorithms few of us understand, we live with pasts that are always on the verge of bubbling up anew. Evidence that we were once entirely different is never more than a few keystrokes away.
This is, of course, a different kind of shame than the sort we normally encounter online. In his much-discussed So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson describes case after case in which individuals were exposed to widespread public ridicule, often for crimes they had considered harmless. He examines the example of Lindsey Stone, who received death threats after posting a photo from the Arlington National Cemetery that many considered disrespectful. And, of course, there’s Justine Sacco, who destroyed her life when a single impolitic—and arguably racist—tweet went viral.
Singled out in every way, Ronson’s subjects—and people like them—become the prisoners of others’ contempt. As I’ve argued before, shame involves fragmentation. It’s not just that we’re cut off from our communities, but that we’re divided against ourselves. When, like Stone or Sacco, we do something shameful, that act comes to stand in for our whole person, and we’re brought low by the elevation of a single, isolated incident.
Today, the very structure of the Internet ensures that we’ll stumble over the rubble of our pasts. Indeed, the more of our lives we document online, the more common such accidents will become. Unlike chronological social media timelines, the vagaries of search engine optimization leave us with a multiplicity of personal histories, narratives at once distinct and simultaneous, all of them competing for primacy. Even when they speak faintly, they can tell compelling stories about us—whether or not anyone else is listening
Over coffee, an acquaintance told me he’d been a public social conservative during his college years, and that those beliefs had continued to haunt him long after his opinions had shifted to the left. More damning was his internship with a notoriously misogynistic senator, a fact that he now feels compelled to conceal. “I think people who see that must assume that I’m some dyed-in-the-wool conservative,” he told me. Aware that new colleagues, prospective employers, and others may have come across this information, he constantly finds himself wondering whether he needs to overcompensate to prove that he’s “not that person anymore.” This may be the quintessence of private shame, a knowledge that informs—and deforms—our behavior. Under its spell, we limit ourselves in response to the mere possibility that others might discover our old truths.
For members of marginalized groups, the potential consequences of exposure can be far higher. By way of example, Meredith Talusan, an LGBT staff writer at BuzzFeed (and longtime friend), pointed out that being conscious of your prior Internet activities is “a necessary part of being trans.” “Almost all post-transition trans people have something about their pre-transition lives that they wouldn’t necessarily want to make public,” she said. Revealing these details, especially through practices like deadnaming, has become a central strategy for demeaning trans activists. These attacks operate on the assumption that our pasts always carry more weight than our presents. What’s supposedly “shameful,” Talusan observed, is the mere fact that someone once appeared to be different than they are now.
Many of those I’ve spoken to tell me that they’ve taken elaborate steps to escape their digital pasts. My formerly conservative friend explained that he’s cautious about even revisiting embarrassing search results in private, fearful that he might inadvertently increase their page rank. Another friend, who was once profiled in a widely circulated article about a soft drink, has tried to pile numerous new results on top of old ones to keep people from thinking he’s a doofus. (He asked me to be circumspect in telling his story, lest years of work go to waste.) While he wasn’t really that humiliated by anything he’d said in the interview, he worried that it would challenge the image he was trying to convey.
Similar fears animate right to be forgotten regulations in Europe—and campaigns for them elsewhere. Advocates of such laws claim that they’re not trying to get offending—or even simply embarrassing—content removed from the Internet altogether, just attempting to make it harder to find. As Mark Joseph Stern has argued, these demands nevertheless verge on censorship, which helps explain why Google is pushing back against them. Living in an open-access world means living with our histories.
It’s also possible that these laws may not keep the most painful materials from coming to light. The Internet has its own ways of reanimating dead memories. One of my friends recently learned that a sex tape she had made long ago was circulating online without her consent. Her name wasn’t attached—it wasn’t going to show up in any search results—but someone still recognized her from it. She described the discovery as “a flattening of the past within the present.” A prior version of herself suddenly loomed over her immediate reality, threatening to destroy the world she was building. “There’s no way to cordon it off into my private life,” she told me, no way to integrate it “into a version of my life that I control.”
Under ordinary circumstances, our pasts always shape present actions. But when they reappear without warning they do far more. Even in the most benign cases—like my Dungeons & Dragons essay—they can give the lie to our attempts at self-reinvention, suggesting that we’re playing roles rather than simply being. But when our ghosts are more malevolent they threaten to reshape every aspect of our lives. Where public shaming entails alienation from our communities, these smaller shames involve alienation from our selves. On the Internet, we are never far from becoming puppets of the people we were.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.