Last year at this time, I was busy creating a curriculum to use with teenagers to warn them of the dangers—and permanence—of their cyber identities. The thrust of the lesson was that their uploaded images and status updates, no matter how quickly removed, remain—and forever become part of their identity. [Thank you, U.S. Representative Anthony David Weiner (D-N.Y.), for demonstrating the importance of this lesson.]
What I failed to realize, however, is that online identities can just as quickly vanish without a trace…
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 partner in a prestigious firm in London, fell from grace, ran away, and then later discovered that all traces of her affiliation with the law firm had been erased from its Website. (An online search tied her identity, unfortunately, to the mishap that caused her fall from grace, but her positive career thus far had been erased.)
It seemed a strictly novel, or fictional, experience to me 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 company’s Website to find an announcement of his retirement.
Nothing. Not only did the site not contain an announcement of his departure, but in addition 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 stated that he retired early for a family emergency and was sad to leave.
Thirty years of employment erased from cyberspace.
Our online selves are that transient and powerless, it seems. It reminds me of Romans 7:15 (which I constantly call my personal diet plan): “For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” In real life, this 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 cause a diet to fail, too.)
In virtual life, this might appear like this: The good reports about us we might want broadcasted may disappear while the gory details we’d prefer to hide remain public knowledge. As I have warned my students, we really can’t erase any failing we may have broadcast to the cyber world. But I’ve also learned the flip side of that: We can’t necessarily keep the good reports out there either.
Yes, we should be aware of our social identity, but we also can’t allow it to define who we really are. I hope U.S. Rep. Weiner, at least for the sake of his child, is able to get beyond the identity he thrust privately into the public spotlight. I am praying for my friend to forgive his former employer and move on—into even more significant success.
For the cyber world, as powerful and all-consuming as it seems, isn’t our true 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.
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.