Leaving a Trace

If we are all leaving searchable trails on the Internet, wonders Steve Hall, how is that going to affect social behavior in the future? Are you going to be more careful knowing that anything you do might turn up easily on the Internet?

For example, let’s say someone (not me, of course) has a minor run-in with the law such as running a red light, etc. In the past, one would simply pay the fine and the event is then swept under the rug of bureaucratic history. Today, it is not unimaginable to think of all sorts of instances such as this that might be captured, distributed and archived providing a publicly searchable trail of data on people throughout their lives. (Now that I think about it, I suppose this very blog entry will be searchable and attributed to me even 50 years from now). With information exposure and preservation increasingly becoming the norm rather than the exception, will individuals actually begin to positively modify their behavior based on this unitended system of check and balance?

As evidence, he points not just to the search engines, but a firm called Elyion that aggregates corporate-related biographical information. It’s eerie how much information about us is out there; to this day, there are decade-old messages I have left on message boards that turn up on Internet searches. Doing a search on myself through Lexis/Nexis or CapitalIQ, which pulls much of its information from SEC documents, is also somewhat eerie.

We have already seen the impact of such traceability on journalism and politics. It is much easier to search for an article by a particular journalist–or word uttered in public by a politician. Every word they have ever written or said can potentially come back to haunt them. How is that for reputation forming? (Can you say "flip flop," anyone?)

I wonder how it is going to specifically affect literary careers Many of my writing friends submit their stories to both print and online venues. It is a legacy of the traditional publishing that many print journals remain the most prestigious, partly since appearing in paper form seems less ephemeral to the young writer quixotically seeking immortality. Print publications have the feel of the real about them: you can see, touch–if you want, taste, the story that had been printed on paper. You can show them to your friends to prove that you are a "real" writer. Online publications have the potential to reach more people, though, as Jason Sanford has argued in Story South.

Most literary magazines just can’t compete against the reach and long-term exposure of online magazines. Want to read a back issue of storySouth—no problem, just go to our back issues page. Want to read a back issue of the New England Review—best of luck finding a copy. In fact, I suspect this is why many mid-list literary magazines are in trouble. Some are switching to dual online and print publications. Those that can’t, or are unwilling, such as the respected journal Crazyhorse, simply cease publication.

It also means, however, that both your best–and worst fiction, stays in circulation much longer than it formerly did. If a typical writer or artist does not hit his peak until he is in his 30s, how do we judge the output that came before and after? Before, it used to be fairly easy to deepsix your early work. You let it languish in the remaindered bins, or if you were particularly paranoid and independently wealthy, you snapped up any remaining copies. Bad writing fell out of print. Embarassing journals could be burned. Instead, these days your journals are called blogs, and you share them as publicly as you can. They, and your short stories, might stay online forever.

On the other hand, the web might provide an interesting way for you to look at the career of a writer in totality. You can read through a succession of Honore Balzac’s novels of WIlliam Shakespeare’s plays through Project Gutenberg , or look at manuscript collections online (like the F. Scott Fitzgerald online exhibition at the University of South Carolina).

Which doesn’t deal with the central issue that Hall brings up: how to keep yourself from becoming infamous. Graham Greene’s family has taken exception with the latest volume of Norman Sherry’s biography of the great writer. They say that they portray him as an over-sexed man. Notably, Sherry was given permission to review private letters. What about the very public journals that some of us now write? You might choose to keep some of your musings more private and be more judicious in your actions. Or at least, don’t let your indiscretions get onto the Internet.


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