I don’t know what made me do it, but the other night I decided to check out the wayback machine to see if there was any trace of my first website, that I coded by hand almost 20 years ago, in another life (well almost in another life, I was studying for the bar at the time). The wayback machine is an internet archive.
Actually, I do know what made me do it – I wanted to find the Bob Dylan lyric generator I’d once built, something I thought was extremely funny at the time, but in truth, was probably no more than mildly amusing even if you like that sort of thing. I didn’t find that, but I did find my old website. I really wish I hadn’t.
Have you ever read your teenaged diaries – and then immediately destroyed them in fire or by ripping them into tiny squares, face burning with humiliation at how awful they were? Few of my teenaged diaries survive (they were mostly about actual or aspirational snogging), though I have the pretty excruciating diaries from two particular extended trips I took as a student, though I can’t look at them more than once a decade because they make me wince and remind me what an unremarkable idiot I was, and thus of what an unremarkable idiot I probably still am.
Back then, I didn’t know the wayback machine even existed. I thought that when you took your site down that was it. It had never occurred to me since then that the wayback machine would have worked its spider-fingered wonders on my ridiculous nonsense of a blog.
I built the site because I could. I’d had to learn the basics of html coding when I was President of the SU and had to build my own website – and I wanted to put it to use. I didn’t really have much to say, so I was filling space. My rose tinted recollection of the site was that in spite of its lack of substantive purpose it was witty and irreverant, and there was nothing in it that future me should be worried about. To be fair though, the me that thought this was the me who told my mother that it didn’t matter what my tattoos would look like when I was an old woman, because I’d be an old wrinkly woman and it would be a bit pointless worrying about my looks by that point. As it happens, I was right about the tattoos, but for all the wrong reasons. I did display a striking lack of foresight in the information I chose to upload to my website, however.
Firstly, it wasn’t in fact funny at all (save perhaps the Bob Dylan lyric generator which I maintain was a genius idea). Secondly, it was a frank design disaster, notwithstanding the hours of labour I lavished on it. Thirdly, it probably wouldn’t have given an entirely fantastic impression to my chambers, if they had been able to find it. Not because I said anything overtly inappropriate in it, but because it was just so…frivolous, juvenile and unimaginative. The versions that are captured were created whilst I was doing my CPE conversion course. There are some blog entries that suggest I was pretty stressed out with life at the time. There is a CV and a section of entirely uninteresting facts about the me that then existed. I was a proud vegetarian (oh how things change).
If I’d known then what I now know about the indelible marks we leave on the internet even when just goofing about to blow off steam… and how what 20 something year old me was willing to share with the world then might feel different to an older, wiser me – I might have made different decisions. Although if I’m honest, I suspect that even if I had known about the wayback machine I’d have done it anyway – I certainly made a risk assessment in terms of chambers and correctly worked out that since most of the members didn’t even have a computer the chances of them knowing what a ‘weblog’ (as they were then known) was, and of finding mine was vanishingly small.
Idiot. If I could time travel back there I’d give myself a big dummy slap. Some would say what I share now is still more than I ought, but these days I share in the knowledge that once it’s out there it is probably there forever, that there are some things it would be a bit pointless to try and keep secret, and there are some things that I definitely don’t share. In particular, I am very conscious about the privacy of others. I don’t name my children on twitter, I don’t share their faces. My facebook is locked down.
I would be pretty mortified at the thought of anyone seeing my pathetic turn of the century website, so I’m not going to tell you what the domain name was (and I’ve hopefully removed all breadcrumbs and tightened up my privacy on some other old platforms in the course of writing this post). But the reality is it’s still there, and perhaps one day someone will find it and tease me relentlessly until I cry big, hot tears of mortification. I suppose this blog post might prompt some very bored, sad person to seek it out, but even if they did there is a good chance they will be more disappointed when they find it than will I. Fortunately there are no skeletons, merely me being a bit of a twenty something twonk.
But my point is this : I thought I was old enough, wise enough, mature enough, to make sound judgments about my privacy and the privacy of others. I was comparatively savvy for the time about the internet, adopting blogging early on. I made bad decisions that I now squirm at, in part because I was not fully informed when I did so and in part because its hard to think ahead to how the future you will feel about things that seem insignificant now – the young are fearless and egocentric.
I have some experience of having things removed from the wayback machine on behalf of someone else (to comply with a reporting restriction order), there is nothing on my old website that would remotely justify a request for removal. My squirming at the idiocy of past me is not enough.
And so the discovery of how it feels to realise there is something about you online that you can’t get rid of is perhaps a reminder of how careful we need to be when seeking the informed consent of children and young adults to the sharing of their private information.