More than 34 percent of the world’s population uses the Internet, according to research published in June of this year. Not surprisingly, all of these people have different ideas about what an online world should and should not look like.
Recently, many of these conversations have centered on the idea of permanence: Should the web be a library of everything that’s ever happened, or should it be a sort of living organism that changes over time?
These are interesting questions, and it’s likely that we’ll be debating these concepts for many years to come. But it’s more than a cerebral exercise. In fact, the outcome of these discussions could impact how individuals conduct themselves online, and could even have a role in the way we do business online.
The Permanence Concept
For many years, it was widely assumed that the Internet would hold permanent information that would never be amended or removed. (An NPR reporter called the web a “really permanent record” all the way back in 2009.) The idea was that information would be eminently searchable via keyword, so researching anything or anyone would be really easy. A few keyword clicks should take you right to the information you’re looking for.
Not surprisingly, many people who conduct this kind of research probably want to see that permanence stay fixed. Employers, online daters, landlords, bankers, and others probably appreciate the ability to run searches on businesses and individuals before money or affection changes hands.
It’s also just assumed that the Internet will always hold permanent information. For example, in this analysis of bad behavior on the part of a young man in Manhattan, the writer is quick to assume that this video will keep the young man from succeeding later in life (the phrase is “tank their futures,” I believe).
But there is another camp out there that claims that there really should be no permanence in an online life, and that idea is beginning to gain some traction.
Wiping the Slate Clean
Google is the big player here, and much of that sea change is happening in Europe as the result of a lawsuit. The case, which is widely known by the clever “Right to be Forgotten” nickname, requires Google to remove links of an offensive nature when the proper request has been submitted. Recent news articles, including one from Wired, suggest that Google is complying with this request in Europe, meaning old articles are just disappearing from the databases there.
Gizmodo authors suggest that the erasure isn’t complete, as tiny notes that pop up in response to removed stories still have enough damning information to alarm readers. But still. It’s possible this kind of removal will become commonplace, and we’ll see a whole lot fewer permanent articles in the future. That’s at least possible.
Snapchat takes this concept yet further. This app, which is used by 77 percent of college students on a daily basis according to recent analysis, allows users to send photos that are permanently deleted once they’re viewed. Sure, users can use certain apps to save images, but the very idea of impermanence is built into this particular app. In an interview with The Telegraph, the founder of this app said that deletion should be the default, not the exception. His users seem to agree.
So it seems at least possible that we’re moving into an era in which the internet isn’t infinitely searchable and totally permanent. Instead, it might just be a record of a specific moment in time, and that information might change just a moment later.
Making Sense of It
Responding to this sort of change could be a challenge for some businesses. For example, analysis from some marketing experts suggests that some businesses could use Snapchat in order to reach out to a specific market segment. They’ll come across as hip, while suggesting users have insider status, and that could translate into increased revenues.
But using this format exclusively could mean making the company invisible online. They’ll have no record of the promotions they did, and they’ll have no real results when consumers search for them online.
On another sour note, trying to remove business information via Google is futile for Americans, as the ruling doesn’t apply to people within the United States. Some experts suggest this kind of ruling might never come to pass in this country, due to our freedom of speech laws. Companies who hope to suppress bad behavior from a CEO or overreach by sales could be stuck with those results for good.
I’d also suggest that removing data from European Google databases is an exercise in futility. Consider this: Even though the ruling forced the BBC to remove a writer’s 2007 article, that writer responded by simply writing a new one in July of this year. The focus of that article could respond with a new take-down notice, but the writer could then respond by creating a new one. It’s hard to tell when (or even if) that particular cycle will ever end.
Clearly, individuals and businesses have some challenges to overcome in an environment in which information is always changing or has the potential to change. On the one hand, the ability to remove negative information could allow some people to overcome mistakes they’ve made in the past and eliminate reputation problems that linger as a result of those changes. But, that information might be quickly replaced by more damning data. And erasing too much means leaving nothing for people to find when they search online, and that might also raise suspicion.
The middle way, of course, involves using plain-old, tried-and-true SEO techniques to boost positive information and ensure that at least something is found in response to an online search, whether it’s done for a company or an individual. This is the kind of white-hat SEO work that reputation management companies have been doing for years, and while it might not be sexy, it does work.
Adding Snapchat to the mix could be smart, too, for business owners who have a young and savvy market that they’re trying to tap into. But it’s worth remembering that the information shared here can be copied and reproduced in permanent form down the line. In other words, just because it’s on Snapchat doesn’t mean it should be R-rated.
If your company has overcome a challenge in this vein, I’d love to hear about it. What did you do?