Back in the turbulent late 1960s, at the peak of the student power movement, I designed my entry for the college senior picture book to be a lasting testament to the time. I wore my best wire rim glasses to the photo shoot, put on a menacing stare, and then proclaimed in the caption that my college career was distinguished for my having never sung Princeton’s alma mater. The singing comment was an inside joke for my mother, who always maintained that I couldn’t sing any song, no matter how simple.
Three or four years later I was back in Princeton, working as a freelancer covering football games for the alumni magazine. Encouraged by editor Lanny Jones, I turned the stories into reveries about various facets of the football experience, on and off the field.
Some older alumni lambasted Jones and me for not providing the play-by-play analysis they expected from the magazine. The sharpest critic was some old coot who somehow uncovered my senior year picture book entry and questioned my allegiance to my alma mater. For me it was a lesson I continue to carry with me: Think twice before you put anything in writing — you never know when or how it will come back at you.
Judging from calls and E-mails I have received in just the past two or three months, lots of other people are learning the same lesson:
• Just last week I got a call from a former high school coach in West Windsor-Plainsboro. Our sister newspaper, the WW-P News, reported that the coach had been accused of physically assaulting some of his team members and that the school was investigating. A few weeks later we reported that the police had determined the charges were without merit. We posted both stories on our website.
The coach, whose job at WW-P is over, asked — politely and reasonably — if we would remove the stories from our website. His reasoning: The charges were dropped, but the reports of the charges would stay with him forever as he interviewed with Google-minded prospective employers.
• An E-mail came from a man who had been arrested for drunk driving in Plainsboro in 2002: “I do not deny what is in the report. I have paid for my crime — not only with my punishment but every single time I applied for a job as well. I can’t even mention what my car insurance is like.”
Given that almost six years have passed, this writer wondered if there were “any way that this can be removed from your website. Please tell me what needs to be done.”
• A young man who reminds me of me when I was his age sent the following request: “A friend happened to come across [a link to wwpinfo.com] when searching for my name on the Internet, in which several WW-P residents discuss an immature letter-to-the-editor I wrote when I was still in high school. The incident involved a traffic ticket that I had received. Rather than immediately accepting the $70 fine, I decided to write an inappropriate missive criticizing the police and our court for not giving me a speedy trial. This letter subsequently prompted the online discussion found at that link.
“Being in college has taught me the importance of taking responsibility for all of your actions. I regret that I was too adolescent to realize this three years ago. But today I am distressed that this incident is still associated with my identity upon a simple Google search. I would appreciate the opportunity to put my mistakes as a 16-year-old behind me. I respectfully ask that you redact or otherwise remove all nine references to my name found at the aforementioned link.”
• Another request came from a woman who had been referenced in an August, 2002, article in U.S. 1 on a quirky hobby pertaining to “elongated coins.” As the article explained, lots of people put pennies in those “squashing” machines at turnpike rest stops and amusement parks and collect and trade the resulting pieces of one-of-a-kind artwork.
A month ago I got an E-mail from the woman, who in 2002 was moderating an Internet forum for elongated coin collectors. “Please remove any reference to my first and last name on this web page,” she requested.
Why in the world could that be a problem? I asked in return. She responded: “A prospective employer Googled my name and then grilled me in an interview about this article (among other items found on me) and my involvement with E-mail web groups and elongated coins — both of which I’m no longer involved in to any degree.”
So how should I respond to these earnest and not such unreasonable requests?
To all of them I would say first that the Internet is a complicated space, and trying to excise a reference from the past may be as difficult as exorcising a demon. A reference on our website can be cached in any number of different search engines or discussion threads. To try to clear all the references could become a business for some enterprising individual — and I’m not sure we in the publishing business want to encourage that industry.
To those seeking employment in the age of Google, I would suggest they bring the results of their own search to every interview. Point out the good, explain the bad, and remind the interviewer that once we were all know-it-all teenagers.
To those who set up their own home pages on MySpace or who serve as forum moderators, I say welcome to the world of publishing — and grow some thick skin. As easily as you can spread your ideas around the Internet, visitors to your site can strike back with ideas of their own. Every once in a while here at U.S. 1, I receive a page or two of the paper folded up in an envelope sent with no return address: Various simple and stupid mistakes are highlighted. I wince, but I don’t complain. It’s the cost of doing business.
So I keep singing the praises of free speech and the hope that the truth will emerge from the multitude of half truths. Some may find my song a little out of tune, of course, but I tried to warn them.