What Everybody Ought to Know About Online Identities

In the spring of 2011, I created a curriculum to warn my teenage students of the dangers — and permanence — of their cyber identities. But I hadn’t considered the opposite, equally dangerous aspect of cyber identities.

The thrust of my lesson was that my students’ uploaded images and status updates, no matter how quickly removed, remain — and forever become part of their identity.

[I pointed to examples of young people who weren’t accepted into the colleges of their choice or fired from positions because of social media they’d posted.]

What I failed to realize, however, is that online identities can just as quickly vanish without a trace…

One for the books — and real life

I had been reading Sophie Kinsella’s The Undomestic Goddess — no, not for teaching in my English classes — and the main character, a lawyer about to become a partner in a prestigious firm in London, fell from grace.

She did what any self-respecting lawyer would do. She ran away and became a housekeeper and cook. When she dared a peek at a computer, she discovered her law firm had erased all traces of her affiliation from its website.

(However, she still had a presence online — but because of her failings, not her successes. The mishap that caused her fall from grace remained front and center with her picture on full display. But nothing positive remained.)

But that couldn’t happen to me

It seemed a strictly novel, or fictional, experience until a friend of mine experienced that same thing.

My friend had been a public figure in his community for nearly 30 years when family circumstances preempted an early, quick retirement. Alerted to his sudden departure, I searched the TV station’s website to find an announcement of his retirement.

Nothing.

Not only did the site not contain an announcement of his departure, but all traces of his employment had been removed — even before his official last day on the job.

The local newspaper covered his departure with a one-source story — he as the source.

No company spokesman thanked him for a job well done and his years of dedication.

The report simply said he retired early for a family emergency and was sad to leave. No one said they were sad to see him go.

I was sad for him.

Gone without a trace…

His company erased his 30 years of employment from cyberspace — as if it never happened.

Our online selves are transient and powerless, it seems. It reminds me of Romans 7 (which I constantly call my personal diet plan):

“For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”  

Romans 7:15, NIV

In real life, this chapter in Romans discusses our struggles:

  • We know what we should do but fail to do it.
  • We know what we shouldn’t do and too often do it.

(You can see how this might make a diet fail too.)

In virtual life, this might appear like this: The good reports about us we might want to be shared may disappear — while the gory details we’d prefer to hide remain public knowledge.

The reality of our virtual lives

As I had warned my students, we can’t erase any failing we may have broadcast to the cyber world.

(Fast forward to the “cancel culture” in 2020 onward. Your past transgressions, even if they weren’t considered such at the time, will be found and interpreted through today’s eyes.)

But I’ve also learned the flip side of that: We can’t necessarily keep the good reports out there either.

So what are we to do? Yes, we should be aware of our social identity, but we also can’t allow it to define us.  We can’t let it stop us from communicating, from being who we really are.

Find your faithful audience

I prayed for my friend to forgive his former employer and move on — to even more significant success. He found a career in teaching and rediscovered joy.

The cyber world, as powerful and all-consuming as it seems, isn’t our only audience.

As Romans 7 concludes, “thanks to our Lord Jesus Christ,” we are able to get beyond the “law” of Romans 7 and live as we should. (Related post: This Is How You Can Live Life to the Fullest as a Christian.)

Thanks to our Lord Jesus Christ, we can put the past behind us — the good, the bad, the ugly — and perform.  For an audience of One. Without a trace — of insecurity or pride.


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