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Do We Have the Right to Be Forgotten? (Part Three)

Last thoughts on the right to be forgotten.

So our first discussion was about interacting with huge entities such as Facebook or a government agency.  And the second discussion was really about distant relationships between two people: The concert-goer and Beyonce.  Me and my old college friend, John Smith.  People who may not know each other well, or at all.

Today we’re getting to the core: what about the people who love us?  The ones we interact with every day or who operate within our face-to-face world?  Our acquaintances and friends and family; the people who make up the circle that surrounds us.


Image: Jlhopgood via Flickr


When a Jewish couple gets engaged, they sometimes have a te’naim, which means conditions.  Originally, it was a time for the two families to negotiate the details of the marriage, but Josh and I modernized the tradition and wrote our conditions or vows to each other on a piece of pottery.  We then smashed the pottery and gave a shard (in a glass box) to each member of our family.  We were symbolically giving them a tangible piece of our vows; of our relationship because, by getting married, we were including them on an intangible piece of our vows.

The reason pottery is broken at a te’naim is to symbolize the way the two families would be shattered — unable to be pieced back together in the same way — if the relationship between the couple were to change.  And it’s a reminder not to break the conditions; that trust can’t be put back together easily if people don’t uphold their end of the contract.

Marriages are obviously between two people, but we bring all sorts of people with us into our relationship.  I mean, I married Josh, but I got his parents and siblings and aunts and uncles and cousins.  I inherited his friends.  And the same thing happened in the other direction: he got everyone that I brought with me.  And then we started procreating so the kids were drawn into that circle, and we made more friends so all of those people have been sucked into the vortex of our relationship.

Does everyone else’s sun rise and set due to our marriage?  Of course not.  But haven’t you ever felt physically ill when a good friend tells you that their relationship is over?  A friend once told me that he was divorcing, and I remember sitting down on the edge of my bed, feeling gutted.  It wasn’t my marriage, and yet I felt personally invested in their happiness.  Part of my happiness was tied to their happiness.

Every time we interact with someone, grow close to them, it feels as if we hand them a piece of ourselves, just as I handed that shard of pottery to all of our family members.  Which means that once we start interacting with people, giving our love to our family and later our friends, we can never be completely whole.  Tiny pieces of us are scattered across the world, being figuratively carried by everyone who has come into our life.

Now add in social media.

Social media has done an amazing job making connections between two people who would never have met otherwise due to life circumstances.  For instance, Lori.  There was little chance that we would have met seeing that we live on two different sides of the country.  But we became super close after we met due to our blogs.  And now Lori owns a piece of my story, and I own a piece of hers.

And maybe you feel as if you own a piece of my story.  I certainly feel as if I own a piece of yours.  You’re not a blog.  You’re a human being who happens to write a blog.  I care about your story.  I email with you.  I joke around with you on Facebook.  I’ve cried with you.  Sometimes we step out from behind the computer and get together in the face-to-face world.  I’ve given away tons of little shards of myself — more than I maybe know since I have no clue how many people I’ve affected in this world.  And I’ve collected tons of little shards of other people — maybe more than they know since we don’t always have a clue how we’ve affected another person.

So… when it comes to that right to be forgotten, we can obviously stop writing our blog and slip away.  But what about all the people who read our story and interacted with us?  All the people who hold a figurative shard of my life, that I made a social contract with by reaching out in the first place.  Do they own our interaction or do I?  Do they have the right to write about me or mention old blog posts?  Or is it my right to pull away as much information as possible if I choose to be forgotten so I can shrivel away like the legs of the Witch of the East under Dorothy’s house?

Who owns the collective memories of our shared interactions?  I wrote the post, but you read the post: there are two sides to that experience.  If both of us own our interactions, do we have the right to upload any picture or make any statement online about another person, since we are presenting them as a person in our life.  In other words, we’re still the subject, and everyone else is a player on our stage.  How do you draw your social media lines when what we place online may be permanent in the case of certain sites and far-reaching?

Believe me, I’ve thought long and hard about this because what else am I doing with the Friday Blog Roundup beyond saying how something you wrote affected me?  How I carry that figurative shard of you that I collected by reading your post.  I make the choice — without asking you — to highlight your writing.  And maybe I’m overstepping a huge line when I look at it from this angle even if the act of blogging comes with the tacit permission to link.  You can remove your post, but now, by writing about it, it lives on the Internet unless I remove it too.  And then, really, neither of us can truly get rid of it because the Wayback Machine has probably already archived it.


1 Katherine A { 06.11.14 at 8:09 am }

Well, I think this blog post is a shard I’m going to be carrying with me. Thank you.

The idea that we each give away tiny pieces of ourselves and in turn accept tiny pieces of others…beautiful. The breaking and giving away of the pottery at your wedding is breathtaking, because it’s true. I recently heard someone talk about a marriage break up and say, but I was at the wedding and witnessed those vows and it’s sad that this is happening. Because…yeah. You’ve put your finger in this post on that feeling.

Thank you for writing these posts and giving away those shards of yourself to all of us. I know I am often touched by these posts. I love the idea of blogging as giving away those pieces, and it’s an amazing idea that each of us has those pieces to give away.

2 a { 06.11.14 at 8:47 am }

Nobody “owns” the memories in the sense you’re implying. Everyone owns their own memories, and they rarely match exactly. Nobody “owns” the right to the story either. The social contract says that we try to refrain from embarrassing or shaming others or exposing personal information that they might not want to reveal in order to maintain trusting relationships.

The phrase “it’s not my story to tell” irks me a bit. I understand that the use is intended to indicate a respect for another person’s privacy. But what it does for me is imply that a story exists and piques my interest, where I would otherwise pay no attention. So, rather than protecting privacy, it calls attention to the fact that THERE’S A STORY HERE —>! (I do enjoy unloading all my mental quirks in your comment box. 🙂 )

Anyway, yes, I would say that anyone who interacts with you has the right to write about you, publish pictures they have of you, etc. Because they were there too. But they do it at the risk of losing future interactions with you. Some people don’t understand what the big deal is, because they’re free and open with everything. Other people would never consider it (I’m at that place now, due to past interactions) because it’s not worth the annoyance of someone complaining about it.

3 andy { 06.11.14 at 11:49 am }

I believe that I own my thoughts and feelings, but that those thoughts and feelings are made up of the pieces of other people. I must chose to treat those pieces with the respect that I would want my pieces treated by others.

4 kateluthner79 { 06.11.14 at 2:25 pm }

I’ve been writing a little blog (and FB) for a lot of years and while I write to record my story and share it with my far away friends and family it still is ‘odd’ when someone already knows something about me I didn’t tell it to their actual physical self. For owning other peoples stories; I feel like the things I read on blogs are like reading a book or news story when I retell it. I do tend to retell interesting things or things I learned and I attribute to ‘a friend’ or ‘a blog friend’. As for fading away, some of my favorite early blog friends stopped writing but the things that stick with me still stick. Just my view on a very interesting and deep topic.

5 Lori Lavender Luz { 06.11.14 at 3:24 pm }

Awww….what a lovely surprise, to be mentioned as an exchanger/sharere of our stories. <3

Friendship comes with responsibilities. Even thought I am a holder of memories we share, stories we created together or exchanged, I have a responsibility to you to not break our agreements, expressed or implied. For example, I would never put up a photo of you without getting permission first. So even thought I CAN, I WOULDN'T.

I think it would be a better world if people thought and spoke more of responsibilities than about rights.

That said, whenever I read comments of an old post of mine, I do mourn people whom I used to interact with on my blog and theirs, people who have slipped away.

6 torthuil { 06.11.14 at 4:01 pm }

This is such an interesting topic; I’ve really enjoyed reading the trio of posts.

I can’t think of any definitive right or wrong here, except to quote Laurie’s statement again: “… it would be a better world if people thought and spoke more of responsibilities than about rights.”

As for how I guide my disclosures about others, I try to take the cue from how that person talks about it. If someone discusses information or tells a story publicly on a blog, for example, then I think it is OK for me to share that because they did make the choice to make that story or circumstance public. However, if the person only disclosed information to me, then I don’t think it’s appropriate, certainly not without their permission. And when in doubt at all I will air on the side of keeping the information private. The only time I might make an exception is if I see a situation where a third party might (hopefully unintentionally) say or do something hurtful to that individual because they are not aware of information that I happen to possess. Then I might (in as vague a manner as possible) try to communicate that “you probably shouldn’t say/do X” because I know of a reason why X would be a hurtful thing to say.

I’m not sure what to say about the angle of who is a public or private figure and do one’s rights change depending on that. I don’t think they should, but it is true that we do make assumptions that we have a right to know things and see images of public figures. I want to say that the rules shouldn’t be any different for public figures, but that’s easy to say and harder to enforce.

7 Queenie { 06.11.14 at 10:29 pm }

I have nothing thought provoking to respond with, but great post. And yes, you’ve impacted loads of people, and made our lives better in more ways than you can imagine, not only from turning a light on in this little corner of the world many years ago and making us all feel less alone, but also now, with what you continue to put out into the universe. I can always count on you for interesting discourse. 🙂

8 Life Breath Present { 06.12.14 at 10:48 pm }

Yes, I believe that we each all “own” anothers’ story, in that we have interacted and thereby affected one another – maybe a change in perspective, maybe new information, maybe added information, maybe something entirely different. Either way, as humans, we each belong to one another anyway (or so is the way I see it). In that sense, so long as we are responsible to one another in a respectful and loving way, then there is no harm in sharing those pieces of one another, thus ourselves and “our story” with still others.

I use discretion when speaking about others, unless there is a shared sense of confidence and no need for anonymity. At the same time, I find that I shy away from those that might overshare (or what to me is oversharing) and/or politely request a boundary be followed. For instance, I asked a family member to remove or change something they’d posted online. It was a positive post, but included a feature about a someone I did not want online. The family member asked why, and I politely and lovingly explained the purpose of my request. They removed what I’d asked. No other issues. They have since referred to this person, but without the one feature.

For me, the same goes for any online friends and relationships I have or develop. I do believe that, just as in talking, writing about how someone or someone’s work has affected me is alright to do. Besides, I know that my story would be quite different if I “hid” others that were actually part of my story as well 🙂

9 Justine { 07.06.14 at 5:48 pm }

I remember that post that Esperanza, Bodega Bliss and Jjiraffe wrote about the failed sleepover. It was a good example of social media done right; people offering their perspective on a shared experience, contextualizing it as shared.

We can’t extricate ourselves from the stories we create together. But in the same way we’d be respectful of a public figure, we owe it to our loved ones to tell stories in ways that allow them agency (even if that agency is silence). And we owe it to our readers to make sure they know this is our voice. This gestures at the problem or challenge of reading, too … as responsible readers, we need to know that we read a version of the story that doesn’t necessarily belong to the subject. We hope that the author knows the subject well enough to know and respect those boundaries, but we can never be sure.

I don’t often write about my husband on my blog, for example. That presents a challenge for me, because I’d love to unpack our relationship with some thoughtful readers. But he reads my blog, and even if he didn’t … would it be fair to him to do that? Maybe it’s the people we hold closest to us that we can’t write about, the experiences that are most shared?

I don’t know … it’s food for thought. And I’m not done thinking. Thanks for hosting the multi-part series.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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