Eternal life made easy: How the Internet never forgets and why we should remember that

Hi, my name is John Schmidt, and with this sentence, I’ve gained immortality. This column is, so to speak, my philosopher’s stone, my Great American Novel, my legacy. Each time a future employer, romantic interest or curious acquaintance Googles my name, somewhere in the search results this’ll be there, and I’ll be reviewed on Yelp! accordingly because of it. This is the 21st century. Youthful mistakes are here to stay.

It used to be that a column like this one would run in a student paper, and some people would read it, most wouldn’t, and then the bulk of the newsprint containing it would be trashed or repurposed into the shredded lining of a gerbil’s cage. A few copies containing my column would survive and live a shrunken life on the library’s microfiche or carry out a jaundiced existence in a bound tome in the Student Life archives. You could maybe find a copy of it if you wanted—if you called my grandmother on her rotary and asked for her scrapbooked clipping or if you braved entering the StudLife backlogs—but by and large, my column would have been a limited engagement in the vein of the musical adaptation of Stephen King’s “Carrie”: it would have had a shelf life of about three days. No one would need to know about it except my friends, who might occasionally allude to the time I thought I could pull off an obscure Broadway reference in a public forum.

But then the Internet changed everything.

“Facebooks” transitioned from print to a centralized, digital social networking site, and our future grandchildren gained the ability to “backstalk” their now-wrinkly old folks during our red-Solo-cup heydays (shout out to little John III and Marcia—Pop Pop loves you!). We accomplished what humankind had sought to do since it started passing genetic material from one generation to the next. We found out how to live forever.

On April 8, 2014, students began a sit-in in the Brookings Archway to fight to dissolve Washington University’s ties to Peabody Energy. That afternoon, one of my professors gave my class the option of ending our discussion early to witness the formation of the protest. This was an opportunity, she said, that didn’t come around too often—a chance to see activism in action—so with that in mind, some of my classmates and I made the trek to Brookings. We sat on the steps with the protesters. We listened to impassioned pleas. We were surrounded by chants of “Hey, ho, Peabody Coal has got to go.” Some of us were photographed doing so, and our faces were brought to Twitter feeds, Tumblr pages, television coverage and even StudLife articles, where you would never know we weren’t members of Washington University Students Against Peabody Energy.

When I left the sit-in that night, I encountered a couple of my classmates sitting on a bench in Brookings Quadrangle. One had her coat draped over her head and refused to remove it until we had reached the library, safely out of view of the cameras. I may apply for government jobs in the future, she said, and I don’t want that coming up on a background check.

This kind of concern is—or perhaps should be—constantly on our generation’s periphery. On a recent episode of “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recalled how prior to accepting a fellowship in Lyndon Baines Johnson’s White House, she had written a column suggesting Johnson be removed from office because of his involvement in the Vietnam War. This was the ’60s, so no one had the resources to find everything that an intern had ever published before hiring her. Kearns Goodwin was certain she would be fired when the article came to light a few days after she had been accepted into the program. Though she kept her internship, she was assigned to the Department of Labor instead of serving as Johnson’s Oval Office assistant as he had previously requested. With today’s technology and research into potential hires, it’s debatable if Kearns Goodwin would have even made it to the interview stage for her internship if she had applied in 2014 instead of 1967.

With the advent of the Internet and its permanent cataloguing of every virtual fingerprint we make, we must be vigilant of what leaks online because, barring a Y2K-esque digital apocalypse, the Internet is forever and ever, amen, meaning that those decisions we made before our frontal cortices were fully developed—things like creating a Myspace account, uploading a cinnamon challenge video attempt to YouTube or liking the “Eragon” movie on Facebook—have become the drunken Tweety Bird face tattoos of the millennials, questionable decisions that will follow us from dorm room to tomb. And it seems like such a shame that during our college years—during the time when we’re exploring our identities and discovering who we are and who we want to be and taking risks and living just to live—we must be eternally aware of how our youthful actions will look when Big Brother finds us 20 years from now.