“I’m so thankful the internet was not in wide use when I was in high school”, this article begins, a common refrain among people who grew up without social media sites from Friendster to Facebook, Photobucket to Instagram. Even those using email, chatrooms, Livejournal, multiplayer games and the like did not have the full-on use-your-real-name-ultra-public Facebook-like experience.
Behind many of the “thank God I didn’t have Facebook back then!” statements is the worry that a less-refined past-self would be exposed to current, different, perhaps hipper or more professional networks. Silly music tastes, less-informed political statements, embarrassing photos of the 15-year-old you: digital dirt from long ago would threaten to debase today’s impeccably curated identity project. The discomfort of having past indiscretions in the full light of the present generates the knee-jerk thankfulness of not having high-school digital dirt to manage. The sentiment is almost common enough to be a truism within some groups, but I wonder if we should continue saying it so nonchalantly?
“Glad we didn’t have Facebook then!” isn’t always wrong, but the statement makes at least two very arguable suppositions and it also carries the implicit belief that identity-change is something that should be hidden, reinforcing the stigma that generates the phrase to begin with.
First, the statement assumes that the net effect of social media for teens now and in the future will be negative. Bullying, harassment, and embarrassment as a result of online activity are certainly real—and not evenly distributed, with vulnerable populations at increased risk. However, social media visibility isn’t only a source of harassment but also a source of support. Things like the It Gets Better Project, Harssmap, Hollaback, to say nothing of, for example, the many potentially supportive comments on a Facebook post where a teen comes out of the closet demonstrate visibility, harm, and support in a complicated relationship, something true long before Zuckerberg started coding. I’m not sure how we can make a definitive calculation here, but before being so thankful we didn’t have Facebook to embarrass us, we might also think of how it could have also been a foundation of encouragement, assistance, and validation that many of us might have benefited from.
Second, the statement incorrectly judges a hypothetical other world (where we had Facebook in high-school) by the moral standards of this world (where we didn’t). This assumes that most everyone having had Facebook in the past would have little influence on our current norms around visibility, identity-change, stigma, and so on. But if social media was indeed ubiquitous decades ago, we might not be so embarrassed by the possibility or reality of a little digital dirt today. Whether Bill Clinton ever smoked weed was a major political issue in the 90’s whereas Obama’s admission in the aughts was largely uninteresting. Some stigmas erode, and as past social media use becomes more common, perhaps some mistakes, some digital dirt, won’t be as discomforting as we feel today. Indeed, having a too-perfect, too-clean presence might demonstrate trickery, having something to hide, or unawareness of how these important platforms work.
I wonder if the collective cringing at our hypothetical Facebook-documented pasts is sometimes a conservative and unhealthy tendency. My fear is that the ubiquity of the “I’m so glad I didn’t have Facebook then!” refrain might sustain the stigma that we want to end. What if we, instead, proudly proclaim that we did things that we are embarrassed about and that’s okay?
When Jezebel very publicly shamed racist teens after Election Day, “Glad I didn’t have Facebook when I was their age” was an especially common response, implicitly arguing this sort of behavior is best hidden. The response sends the message that those shamed teens should try to run from and hide these tweets. What if, instead, in ten years those teens-now-adults used those tweets and their lingering presence in search results as a teachable moment? Let’s promote the idea that those embarrassing tweets, or anyone’s embarrassing digital dirt, can be used to validate identity change and growth.
When we applaud not having records of our own embarrassing past, a document of how we’ve changed over time as individuals, we are equally celebrating the cultural norm that expects perfection, normalization, and unchanging behavior. What if more people wore past identities more proudly? We could erode the norm of identity consistency, a norm no one lives up to anyways, and embrace change and growth for its own sake. Perhaps the popularity of social media will force more people to confront the reality that identity isn’t and can’t be flawlessly consistent.
To be clear, selective (in)visibility is very important, especially for vulnerable populations. However, when more people, especially those with non-vulnerable, less-stigmatized identities, are confronted with their pasts—documented, archived, and searchable—maybe, just maybe, it will encourage an understanding of identity as more fluid. This re-understanding might be more tolerant of the non-normal and accepting of change and difference.
Maybe those many social media users in high-school today will look back ten years from now and find it hard to fathom why we ever put so much effort into reinforcing the myth of identity consistency. If/when having granular self-documentation from early teens well into adulthood is the norm, it will be very difficult to support the fiction of an identity that is unchanging, intrinsic, natural, or inevitable. That a person isn’t just what one is but a non-linear process of becoming rife with starts and stops and wrong turns may grow to be increasingly obvious.
A world where a little digital dirt don’t hurt would benefit those most vulnerable. When Krystal Ball ran for congress in 2006, barely-scandalous photos of her at a college party became some of the most Google’d images in the world, which might discourage some women from running for office. Let’s get realistic about the fact that most everyone has photos that do not reflect their current selves, and that’s fine.
Or maybe, instead, we’ll continue to support the norm of identity-consistency by celebrating the lack of evidence of our own change. The consequence might be to force on today’s young social media users an even more restrictive path towards change, growth, and identity fluidity.
Lead image of Joan Didion via. The longer quote,
I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.