Recently, a professor of mine posed a few questions to his students regarding an article published in The New York Times Magazine section, entitled, The Web Means the End of Forgetting. One of those questions was:

How big a problem do you see this issue (online reputation and privacy) becoming?

As discussed in the article, there are a variety of paths which this issue could take.

Firstly, there’s the notion that we, as a society, will become more forgiving.

To illustrate this argument, I’ll use a stereotype.

(DISCLAIMER ***Please note that this is clearly an illustration of stereotype and not necessarily the way that I view the situation, nor the way others view the situation. It’s probably a really crappy illustration of a stereotype to boot. ***)

During the 1960s/70s/80s, one could make the argument that experimentation with drugs was pretty common. Everyone was doing it and the drug of choice changed with the decade. During those times, people reacted both positively and negatively to drug use and sometimes crafted a person’s reputation around it. “Don’t hang out with him – he does drugs.” “She’s always high, so she can’t be trusted to do this.” etc. Yet, when put in professional situations decades later, those same people who may have smoked pot in the sixties, are given quite a bit of understanding. “Oh yeah, it’s okay. Everyone smoked pot in the sixties. No big deal.” I think the key idea here is with time, comes understanding and that understanding is usually centered around forgiving others for the mistakes made in youth or in a turbulent time. It begs to ask the question: what will future generations think about our drunken Facebook pictures 20 years from now? Was the time just different? Did these people learn and grow? Will we be accepted for our youthful mistakes because, let’s face it, everyone does it? Will things change when we suddenly aren’t that much younger than our bosses?

The simple truth, in my mind, is that people make mistakes and should be given the opportunity to explain themselves before judgment is passed. If the person learned from the experience and regrets an unfavorable action, or can explain the circumstances around an unfavorable action, then that’s one thing. Not regretting a poor decision and continuing to make bad decisions is another.

On the other hand, there’s the notion that we won’t be more forgiving and we may actually further scrutinize each other based upon our digital trails. In this scenario, I see our society as being less forgiving and more apt to jump to conclusions. We’ll probably be a lot less human. The whole “zero tolerance” approach to our digital records seems unfair and I think after enough people come forward, it could be determined that some level of understanding has to be expressed in the making of certain decisions. Plus, I think it will raise questions about the importance of free speech in the online sphere.

Although, a “zero tolerance” atmosphere could cultivate a culture of more professional behavior and more thought before action on the internet. Moreover, the internet may become a safer place if we develop a sense of vulnerability regarding our online reputations. Maybe we’ll think twice before posting something and maybe we’ll take more care to ensure that our personal information isn’t out in the open for everyone to see. Maybe we’ll reduce our rates of identity theft. There’s a lot of maybes surrounding this sort of future.

Will it hurt the ability of people and companies to communicate on the web as we do today?

In terms of communication, I think it all depends on which future becomes a reality.

If we’re more forgiving, employee relations can improve greatly and you may find a greater percentage of people who feel loyal, trusting, and more satisfied in their careers or in their relationships with certain employers. On the flip side, one could argue that a certain level of professionalism in staff would be lowered and that companies would be serving those who don’t think before they act. Not to mention, some people could feel resentment for people getting “a free pass” in certain social or professional situations which they themselves deem to be embarrassing, disturbing, or immoral.

On the other hand, if the future is filled with more scrutiny, I think there will be a culture of resentment surrounding the workforce, employers, and business as a whole. People will feel like Big Brother is always watching and may feel less inclined to express themselves, which could stifle creativity and the sharing of new ideas. Plus, people could feel less loyal and trusting of their employers and could, potentially, be inclined to perform behaviors which could compromise the integrity of the company but not necessarily the reputations of its employees. However, there is the argument too that this future culture of mindfulness could breed a more professional workforce with improved critical thinking skills and a tendency to think before taking action.

I think no matter what way you look at it, the future has both positives and negatives in store.

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