IDENTITY IN THE VIRTUAL #forgetme(not) //

Blessed are the forgetful: for they get the better even of their blunders.[1]

In the digital age, few are blessed. The internet preserves our achievements and mistakes, and these archives allow anyone with open access to the internet to observe and form their opinion of a person based on this superficial and piecemeal data. These virtual representations of people are maintained and evolve over time, creating shallow and agentless identities memorialized by fragments of notable decisions, good and bad, that end up on the internet.

In September 2016, a thirty-one year old woman in Italy by the name of Tiziana Cantone committed suicide. Prior to her death, a video of Cantone performing a sexual act with a man went viral. The words she stated at the start of the video, “Mi stai facendo il video? Bravo.” (“You’re making the video? Good.”) turned her into an internet sensation in Italy. Her sex tape was used in memes and parody videos, shaping her public identity and limiting her ability to be separated from the video.[2] This notoriety led her to quit her job, move, and start the process of changing her name.[3] The traces of Tiziana Cantone that remain on the internet are in news articles describing her ordeal as the subject of the explicit video. The real, legal changes she made in order to escape IRL (in-real-life) shame that followed her from her digital presence were not sufficient to grant her the freedom and mobility she desired.

The European Union’s (EU) Court of Justice has acknowledged one’s right to be forgotten to protect data privacy on the internet in instances of strong public interest.[4] While this law still requires clarification,[5] this right does not actually provide the ability to be forgotten but grants individuals the power to influence what the public may learn about them through online search engines, the gateways to most online destinations.[6] The right requires search engines to remove personal information if that information is inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant, or excessive for the purposes of data processing.[7]

Search engines are the gateway to information. The EU’s right to be forgotten does not exist to erase free expression or the right to information. The law provides the right to have personal data erased from the gateway.[8] Google, as a data controller,[9] is required to abide by the EU regulations regarding privacy. Regulations will continue to develop and be further defined around the terms “inaccurate,” “inadequate,” “irrelevant,” or “excessive”. This virtually-presented information, however, reaches beyond the internet to frame “in real life (IRL)” identities regardless of how inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant, or excessive it may be. Cantone won the right to be forgotten but the video continues to exist on the internet beyond search engine results lists.[10] The ability to exclude certain websites from search engine results does not extend to the erasure of the actual content. No one truly has the right to be forgotten.[11] It is almost impossible to forget what one already knows. Cantone’s public identity was exhibited as a dirty joke, revenge porn. She was unable to escape this inscribed identity. Furthermore, with media coverage surrounding the investigation into her death, her legacy is forever tied to this video, despite her efforts to distance herself. With mass communication and social media, being forgotten, especially when you want to be forgotten, becomes more complicated.

The internet archives all uploaded data, and on and off-line identities are further integrated.[12] Social media now bleeds into the non-virtual, IRL world and influences perceptions of identity. While one may influence the reception of their identity to an extent, as Cantone did, by leaving a job, changing a name, and moving locations, an online identity can continue to follow a performance of self IRL. Even though we perform different versions of ourselves in different spaces, the identity uploaded onto the internet can become inflexible. The right to be forgotten online cannot extend to the world offline and thus cannot actually grant freedom from a past identity because our identities are then conceptualized through the pieces of information available online.

Photographic self-portraits publicly perform particular concepts or identities of selves.[13] In 1840, Hippolyte Bayard made Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man, captioning it with “The corpse which you see here is that of M. Bayard…”[14] Bayard is at once alive and dead through his photograph, performing his pain with his caption and image. The medium of photography allows for performance as particular images moving beyond the physical reality.[15]

A self-portrait of, or photographic image taken by Hippolyte Bayard of himself, later put on the internet.  Drowned man , 1840. Direct Postive Print.

A self-portrait of, or photographic image taken by Hippolyte Bayard of himself, later put on the internet. Drowned man, 1840. Direct Postive Print.

The stage of the World Wide Web poses a more expansive platform on which to be seen and limits our control over the content (quality deemed by both compression and editing) and context of our own images, and the audience who views them. Conceptualizations of our identities are out of our control and spread faster and further than ever before. We title our memories with short phrases and Emoji’s, in attempts to explain our performance and relay our intentions. These captions, however, do not dictate the perception of these performances; intent is most often irrelevant to the viewer. With the widespread use of mass social media, our photographs, whether or not intentionally distanced from our IRL identities, dictate our overall identities – what remains even when we wish to be forgotten. We surrender this control when we allow a friend to snap or “take” a photo of us, as we have no idea where and to what extent the image will (re)appear. The inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant, or excessive demonstrations of ourselves that spiral beyond our control can create our identities.

For Cantone, the likeness she shared with a few friends spiraled free of her control, and bled into her IRL identity. Technology, and its instant expressive capabilities, provides us with the opportunity to shape who we are and highlight specific features in ways we are unable to do offline.[16] Whether we consent or not, the public exercises its rights to distribute, manipulate and defame the self. However, Cantone meant for the video to be perceived, once it was shared with people who she had not intended see it, it became an inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant, and excessive portrayal of her identity. She was recognized and laughed at on the streets.[17] In order to escape this life that grew from the internet, she took her own life even though she had won the right to be forgotten, framed as a protection from ubiquity.[18]

An overwhelming amount of information is at our fingertips. We decide with a click who others are for the virtual audience. As news travels in an instant, our online reputations precede us. We get to know people through a screen. This data, these life stories of lives lived, personal moments, love experienced, etc. may be removed from search engine results, but continues to remain accessible.

The idea that identities are ascribed existed before the internet.[19] The internet however memorializes so much that embarrassments can become viral and restrict our abilities to accept that inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant, and excessive instances that should not or unfairly come to define our identities. Many users of social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter compulsively post, so they are not forgotten. They share to avoid being forgotten or being unknown. But, these abstract identities are always insufficient to acknowledge each person’s personhood. Although the right to be forgotten may help us avoid some public scrutiny, search engine erasure always comes too late, after the information has already been observed, shared, and manipulated to create the conceptual identities we live under. Numerous claimants who have expended the time and money to win the right to be forgotten are memorialized through their efforts to be forgotten.[20] Efforts to bring suit for this right are often in the news, capturing names and the stories behind why claimants are going through the ordeal of requesting the right.

Disciplinary academic studies on social media, identity, and privacy are prevalent and one must practice criticality when examining the impact of our online presence and activity, especially when there is no possibility of complete oblivion. Search engines are the gateway to personal data but we can control the data itself. The right to be forgotten does not exist in every country and personal data continues to cross borders and remains accessible. This is not a comment on whether this right should or should not exist as legislators continue debating the right of expression versus privacy but a question of what forgetting means to our identities while we have access to archives via the internet. In this time of eternal, digitized memory, when we want to be forgotten, how can we actually forget?

  1. Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Heinrich Mann. The essential Nietzsche (Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc, 2012), 219.  ↩

  2. Tiziana Cantone is described as an Italian bombshell by news articles and slutshamed by public figures. She had attempted to kill herself twice before she committed suicide.  ↩

  3. See Tiziana Cantone: seeking justice for woman who killed herself over sex tape.  ↩

  4. Jeffrey Rosen, “The Right to Be Forgotten,” July 2012,  ↩

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  6. Viviane Reding, former European Commission’s vice president, acknowledged: “It is clear that the right to be forgotten cannot amount to a right of the total erasure of history.”  ↩

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  8. The Article 29 Data Protection Working Party works under the Guidelines on the Implementation of the Court of Justice of the European Union Judgment on “Google v. Spain.”  ↩

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  12. See  ↩

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  14. This was the first self portrait photograph. It was the first photograph to demonstrate the deceptive capacity of the medium.  ↩

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Clarissa Choy studied art theory/criticism, communication, and law. She is especially drawn to issues in privacy.