In Autumn 2007, someone took a picture of me and put it on the web. In this low-angle shot taken at my peak weight, I looked like Jabba the Hutt wearing a blue T-shirt. Since the picture illustrated a popular blog post, it immediately became the first result when you did an image search on my name. Mortified at the sight of what I had become, I immediately did two things: I started to eat better and exercise in order to lose weight, and I flooded the Internet with better-looking images of myself hoping to drive the fat picture off the front page of search results. The second effort was a lot easier than the first, but eventually both were successful.
Recently I wanted to show someone what I used to look like, but the picture wouldn't turn up. Every search term I tried, every date range, every filter, returned nothing. While the picture is probably still sitting on a server somewhere, there seems to be no reasonable way to get at it. For all intents and purposes, I am no longer grossly obese on the Internet.
This is in complete contrast to the warnings we've been hearing since the mid-1990s, that "On the Internet, pictures of you exist forever"; that "These pictures will resurface in the future"; that "You will be tagged forever."
Granted, these warnings were usually aimed at those posting photos of naked teenage hijinks, not of chubby, fully-clothed writers. But it seems that even the naked teens of the early 2000s may not find their lives ruined someday by the rediscovery of a long-forgotten online photo.
Take the case of Margaret R. [not her real name], 30, currently the chief financial officer of a boutique consulting firm. When she turned 18, Margaret R. became a nude model for a website that tried to blur the edges between porn and subculture (vaguely like Suicide Girls, but without the drama). One of the site's most popular models, she did numerous photo shoots and videos, and her images regularly migrated to porn aggregator sites all over the Internet.
By the time she quit the business at 21, an image search on her modeling name returned page after page of these photos.
As the quintessential naked teenage girl on the Internet, Margaret R.'s life should have been ruined forever. But earlier this month, when we searched the Internet for her old pictures, Margaret R. and I discovered that they show up infrequently, if at all. Even better, it's almost always the tamest images that have survived, the ones any model might have in a portfolio. She told me that this confirms what she's known for the past 10 years: Her brief career in internet porn has never had any effect on her life since. "Once I quit and stopped being involved there hasn't been anything. I'm actually a little surprised about that, I sort of expected it to follow me more."
Why are the "experts" wrong about our Internet past sticking around forever? Is it that something has changed in the way we access information through search engines in the past 10 years? Or are these two examples—my unfortunate pictures and Ms. R.'s nude pictures—just weird anomalies?
According to Jon Kleinberg, professor of computer science at Cornell University, there's no real contradiction. "The question of why something stays in a search engine's results, and what causes it to show up in response to searches, is a composite of so many things that it's hard to point to any one overriding factor, but a useful working heuristic is that someone on the Internet has to exert at least a minimum of effort in order to keep it around—it has to remain on a machine somewhere that's getting indexed by a search engine, with some sort of way to get to it."