On the Internet there’s no Delete Button

Last term we looked at the statement ‘On the Internet there’s no such thing as privacy’ and asked what life would be like if every book and every page we read reported our reading habits back to its publisher. We then considered to what degree websites and online technologies are in fact reporting our browsing habits to marketers, governments and service providers and what the implications are for our privacy.

This term we look at the idea that ‘On the Internet there’s no delete button’, consider the implications of the digital version of pens and pencils and ask how we might moderate our behaviour if every scribble, note and doodle we pen were somehow permanent, indelible and endlessly replicable.


What does it mean when there is no eraser, no crossing out and absolutely no delete button? Obviously, when we write we are consciously conveying our thoughts and ideas, our plans and schemes to paper. We are also aware of a potential audience. We match our writing style to our intended audience. When our writing is going to be ‘published’ as this article is we craft each sentence and polish each paragraph. We consider the impact of ours words and are careful not to cause offense. Before we post that letter of complaint or submit that job application we read, re-read, edit and proofread.

We are perhaps a little less circumspect when we are writing for a single, know and intimate person. A kitchen table note to our partner or teenage children telling them that there’s a casserole in the oven doesn’t require quite the same careful wording. And when we write for ourselves: a shopping list, a to do list or aid memoirs we can, if we wish, ignore spelling and grammar conventions or scribble and scrawl in our worst handwriting. Once these notes have served their purpose they are screwed up and consign to the bin and forgotten. But when we write online it’s all a little different. Online the act of publishing, sending or going public is quick.

It’s ludicrously easy to write an angry email and press send and then, when our rage dissipates, to regret the strong words we used. Unfortunately, unless you and the recipient are using the same Microsoft exchange server it’s impossible to recall that email. If you send from or to a webmail address or are sending between different exchange servers once the email is gone – it’s gone! Similarly, when we upload images and comments to social media sites the result is instantaneous. There’s no cool off period whilst we wait for the photos to come back from the developers or we stroll down to the post box.

Post online in haste and you’ll repent at leisure.

And now of course things are infinitely replicable. In the old days the ability to make multiple copies of a document or photograph was limited. Yes, there was carbon paper to make one copy and photocopiers to make dozens of expensive copies. Your local photography shop could make copies of photographs, even without the original negative, but again it was time consuming and expensive. And whereas in the past few of us had unfettered access to the means of reproduction, now the world and his dog have the ability to make cheap multiple hard copies with a home printer and, even cheaper, electronic copies on a computer. Being able to create 50 birthday invitations or thousands of marketing fliers without having to involve typesetters, graphic artists and an industrial printing press is great but the same technologies mean that there’s not one copy of that ill-judged drunken holiday snap or vitriolic diatribe against our boss but potentially millions! And how do you find and destroy a couple of thousand copies of your now regretted rant against society?

Then there’s the act of distribution. The discretion of a publishing house might well have limited our parents’ generation’s ability from the wholesale transmission of salacious images, ill-advised works of fiction and libellous comments. Now of, course we don’t need an editor to authorise a print run. We don’t need fleets of lorries delivering our tomes to the country’s bookshops. Social media lets you share photographs, comments, and blogs with everyone. Twitter is a fantastic tool for sharing links to interesting online artefacts with your ‘followers’. Click the Like button on Facebook and alert your ‘friends’ to sites that you… well … like.

Just remember that all of your friends and all of your followers can see your links and likes as can the rest of us if your settings are set to public! And what if you change your mind? What if you see the errors of you ways or feel that the views you have previously expressed might not be appropriate to your new job, relationship or circumstances? Well obviously you can delete your tweets but they will still exist on your followers’ timelines. Yes you can delete your comments from your social network or blog. But how do you delete tweets that a follower has retweeted? How do you have your words removed from someone else’s Facebook page? Virtual paper and virtual pens are not simply electronic versions of the physical articles. In the physical world words are pretty easy to destroy: paper burns, pencil can be erased and ink washes away. My pen does not remember or store the words I wrote yesterday. In the virtual world words are so much harder obliterate. Virtual paper replicates, virtual pens remember, virtual ink is indelible.

Suddenly, that E-Safety presentation slide that says; “On the Internet …there’s no delete button!” doesn’t seem quite so bizarre does it? Next time we investigate if your enemies really are watching!

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