In the novel The Light Of Other Days, sci-fi great Arthur C. Clarke posits a future where a new technology means anyone can see what anyone else is doing. Any past antics are available for review by any future employers, future spouses, and, when a former kegstander or topless party girl achieves a respectable career, any high-minded rivals can see any youthful indiscretions. We may not have time-traveling wormhole technology quite yet, but now that every college kegger and ill-advised hookup is instantly documented by cameraphone to Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, our lives are increasingly on display.
In the age of googling prospective hires and prospective dates, we are increasingly tied to our online past. With online archiving, our names could be forever linked to a bad review, a high school manifesto, an embarrassing photo or whatever pieces of our past generated the most traffic. Let’s hope it’s not an inadvertent appearance on the Fail Blog.
Omnipresent social media brings the public into our lives. For every Dooce who turns an inappropriate blog overshare into a career and a book deal, there are hundreds of red-faced Twitterati, and Facebookers untagging photos. And, although Cosmo suggests sending your man racy texts or naughty photos to spice up a relationship, I imagine that a certain ex-Miss California wishes she’d skipped that issue. Ex-Miss California, Carrie Prejean, came under fire for her comments on gay marriage, and then again when her fledgling career as a Christian spokeswoman fell apart when a solo sex tape sent to an ex-boyfriend surfaced. But is this outrageous hypocrisy, or just a young girl’s normal identity experimentation?
It is the public knowledge of one’s private affairs that turned Monica Lewinski, a girl who, like most of us at the same age, hooked up with a desperately inappropriate partner, into a girl whose name is now synonymous with blowjob. (As I write this, I shudder to think what that word will do to my contextual ads)
Our first reaction to this kind of story is to wonder how she could be so stupid. How could Prejean think she could make it as a Christian, conservative spokesmodel with a sex video in her past? And for Christian spokesmodel and sex video, feel free to read Olympic athlete and bong, or prince of England and Nazi Halloween costume, or… well, you get the picture. Now that all of our actions are blogged, tagged and digitally archived for social media posterity, it seems that the prereq for a later career as a teacher, politician, pastor, lawyer, or anything other than D-list sex tape celeb, is never having made a youthful mistake.
One frequently suggested solution, then, is not to take photos, not to share them, and certainly not to blog and tweet about our exploits. Would-be staffers for Obama were asked to share their blog URLs and social media aliases to spare the president any future embarrassment. Even small-time bloggers have to weigh the benefits of a post venting about the boss or the in-laws, with the consequences of having that post read. Solidarity and support through comment validation, or an awkward Thanksgiving dinner when that post is mentioned? Social media allows us to connect and share our thoughts, but like anything in print, blog posts, Facebook updates and hastily-written tweets can come back to haunt their writers.
Do we all have to give up blogging, building a group scrapbook of shared photos on Facebook or Flickr, mugging for the ever-present iPhone camera, in short, give up sharing and recording our lives? Must we live the unexamined life to have any chance of future success?
In The Light Of Other Days, Clarke’s society grows to accept that their lives are constantly on view by any interested party. After an initial reaction of repression — that would be the sci-fi version of deleting your profiles, making dual Facebook accounts, or coming up with a clever code name to keep your work-hating tweets from your boss’s eyes — society learns to accept the new intimacy.
Once everyone has a burn box of our embarrassing moments digitally archived and publicly accessible, will it even matter anymore? And, once there really is an society-wide expectation of archived and accessible chitchat, could work-related tweets lead to a new honesty? (I mean, corporate management can’t really think that wageslaves are loving their hours in front of the fryer or ringing a register, and honest discourse could do a lot for employee retention and job satisfaction.)
When the Facebook and Twitter generation becomes the human resources department, the hardhitting journalists and the clergy of the future, we will see a shift towards acceptance of social media consequences. Maybe a silly drunken photo or a blog overshare is only an embarrassment while there are people without any net records of their own coming-of-age.