The Right to Move On with Our Lives -- Some Things Need to be Forgotten

By Peter Bernstein July 01, 2013

One of the great marvels of the Internet is that if your curiosity is insatiable you never know where and when you are going to find an interesting tidbit that uncovers some of the unintended consequences of the fact that things that go online tend to never come off. As I wrote about recently, in Europe this “right to be forgotten,” i.e., we should have some control over what is on the net about us, including the ability to permanently delete stuff, has stirred up some serious debate. People want the ability to erase defamatory comments, inaccurate information that could affect their relationships or financial status, while historians and others believe we should not be tampering with primary research that will be invaluable for understanding our times in the future.

The reason I bring this “right to be forgotten” issue back to center stage was an article I saw on the Economic Times (ET) titled, “Facebook should allow a 'break up' feature.” At first I could not imagine what they were writing about, but the headline proved irresistible and in a word, WOW!

Breaking up is hard to do

What ET was covering was research, albeit somewhat anecdotal due to the small size of the sample, done by Dr Corina Sas from Lancaster University and Professor Steve Whittaker of the University of California at Santa Cruz. The two interviewed 24 young people about how they handled the evidence of their broken relationship in the online world. Their conclusions following the interviews were that social networking sites should offer people the ability to delete a couple’s join content if their relationship fell about. 

Image via Shutterstock

I am not sure I agree with the conclusions that having a feature that enabled people to delete the evidence of their relationship would allow them to deal with a break up “more effectively.” It can just as easily be argued that all it would do would be to allow lawyers something more to contest. I can see it now, all of the battles over who has the right to delete what. Indeed, this could get very nasty, very fast and actually inflame what in many instances was not a parting on good terms.

That said, some of the points in the article are if nothing else food for thought. For example, in the battle over what are called "digital possessions"—everything from texts, e-mails, music, video, social media and photos, regardless of where they are kept—Dr. Sas said, "It's particularly hard to remove the traces of a past relationship left on social networking systems and it can be painful to revisit this accidentally."   Sas is further quoted saying, "The greatest problems involved content on Facebook where couples could easily be reminded of their ex unless they deliberately unfriended them. Even then, there could be content about your ex on your friends' pages which you can't delete."  

The article goes on to say the researchers favored a “break up” feature that could be centrally administered because of all the places discomforting content could be stored and such a feature would make the deletion process easier. In fact, it was this ease-of-use capability that led them to conclude that it would also let the individuals break up more effectively.   As noted, I beg to differ. The research, "Design for forgetting; disposing of digital possessions after a breakup," also looked at three strategies people use of dealing with their common digital possessions:

  • Delete everything
  • Save everything
  • Selectively deleting after a while

This last strategy seemed to be endorsed by Sas, who said, "The best approach is not to act on impulse but instead try to wait. Then you can select which memories you want to keep and which you are confident you will not regret deleting."

To be honest, I resonate more with the old Neil Sedaka standard embedded here. Breaking up is hard to do.

In many ways, the Internet has made breaking up more painful by making it less intimate. The stories of relationships ended via e-mail, SMS and chat are legendary, and reflect the growing use of the net as a platform to use in order to avoid face-to-face discussion. 

It now seems that the fact that what goes online stays online has added a new dimension to relationship management that poses not just questions arising from individual relationship dissolutions, but the entire issue of who has the right to delete things. This is not only about a right to be forgotten, it is also about the right to move on with our lives. 

Like I said, this cuts both ways, and becomes really tricky when it involves not just us making decisions about our personal information, but also about our common information that would require consent of the other party if it were to be permanently deleted. The feature being proposed may be simple but there is nothing easy about it, and thinking it would lead to more desirable outcomes seems misguided. 

I don’t foresee any of the social media companies thinking such a feature is a great idea, for a host of reasons including those potentially involving legal liability. However, it would be interesting to see the results of a more expansive piece of research. It also will be interesting to continue to watch just how far policy makers are willing to go in allowing us more control over the intimate details of our lives. There is more than a bit of validity in establishing some boundaries on what we should be allowed to be forgotten so that we can in fact move on without fear of our past haunting us literally forever.

Edited by Rachel Ramsey
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