Updated: December 28, 2015
Honestly, I tried to find a less sensational title for my article, but this was the only one that truly and simply summarizes the idea behind what we're going to discuss today. And it applies to the current generation of youngsters, people currently undergoing education or just starting their career in this world. Why? Because they are the first generation in human history that has or can have their entire lives documented. In digital format. Forever and ever.
Without sounding old and wise and all-knowing, although I am at least two out of three, I would like to shed light onto a phenomenon, perhaps even a problem, that is going to affect the lives of hundreds of millions for at least another twenty or thirty years. After that, it may go away or transform into something else. The problem? Social media being used to disqualify you.
Way back then
If you are one of the smug people in their mid-late 30s or early 40s reading this article, think back to your childhood and early teen years. Do you know what you have in common with everyone else more or less your age? Anything that happened roughly before 1995 DOES NOT EXIST.
That's right. There are some family photos here and there, an occasional camera reel or a badly degraded VHS that no one can play anymore. If you're lucky, you may have had a newspaper article about you in the local print, or if you were exceptionally outrageous or successful, you were mentioned on TV for building a nuclear reactor in your backyard, or maybe winning the chess competition.
Now focus hard and try to remember. Did you do stupid things as a kid? Of course you did. Immensely stupid things? Acknowledged - narrated Red Alert style. Immensely completely utterly retarded and dangerous things? Borderline criminal stuff? Yup. All of the above. You've done them all, ten times over.
The thing is, no one has ever heard about your stupidity.
Propagation of information
Before the car, the next village was considered faraway, alien world. Before the plane, moving between countries was a slow, costly, luxurious adventure. Before the Internet, words took their time traveling around the globe. Nowadays, information is almost disappointingly trivial to obtain. If you thought James Bond films were exotic, today, all you need is ten minutes with Google Maps to disillusion yourself from the color and glamor of distant locations.
Stuff that took weeks and then days and finally hours to reach the next person now takes seconds, and best yet, it travels in multiple threads and then explodes exponentially, like the finest viral disease. The more controversial, silly or stupid the stuff is, the faster it travels. Thanks to social media, we can keep in contact with people we've known twenty years ago, as well as accumulate friends (sort of) and followers at a massive rate. Once upon a time, you had to have a cult to get people to listen to you in their hundreds, and it was usually illegal, plus cyanide was costly to come by. Now, you just need a bit of cleavage or similar to have your fans.
The Internet is a beautiful triple-edged sword, and you're like a child trying to lick chocolate off each and every serrated tooth on those razor-sharp blades. It gives you access to anything, everything. You can be worshiped, adored, judged, glorified, and your life is out there, and people are partaking. Village gossip has never been so delightful.
So what's my point, Vanessa? Very simple. The things you did in 1986 were horribly stupid, vain and childish, but they stayed with you, and few people witnessed them, usually other kids just as inept and awkward and completely unaware of the dangers of the world and implications of rash actions as yourself. The other neighborhood was off limits. You barely knew those other kids.
Today, you don't even care about your neighborhood. It's not interesting. Online, you have a rich, virtual world of friends and foes, and you can engage them with little to no risk of physical damage. A lack of tangible threat translates digital actions into frivolous things and dissipates the potency of their real danger.
And so, your information travels, and with the enormous and highly efficient help of social media, it can hit the inboxes and screens of thousands and millions, and should the information prove to be worthy, then tens of millions and beyond. No way to control it. The wild, unpredictable beauty of the Web.
How does this affect your career?
So you might be wondering why this could be potentially catastrophic. Well, you can easily understand how crime you commit on camera can be easily used against you as evidence. Fair 'nuff. Simple, trivial. You can also probably understand that if you behave like a fool and show your various body parts in HD, that could make people judge you in a negative way. That's easy.
The problem begins when you engage in seemingly trivial, innocent actions. A bit of e-bickering in a post. Some harsh words exchanged over a Facebook photo. Comments you post on a political or social item, because you want people to read your words, you want to feel smart and important, you want the attention, and you want to be the one with 179 likes next to their names, because you probably had a deficiency of love in childhood, but also because you are young and you do not understand how things work out. Fine, we didn't back then, either.
The problem ends with judgment. On one hand, your peers will just look at your antics, shrug and go: Meh, Internet. Indeed, if you are Web savvy, then you will develop a harsh, almost heartless resistance to the ways of the cruel online world, and you will most likely exercise a solid dose of cynicism and trolling as a defensive mechanism plus delight in torturing those with an IQ roughly measuring half yours. No trouble yet.
The cacky hitting the fan moment in slow motion really happens when the judgment passes into the hands of the previous generation, those who have grown up in the 70s and 80s, and whose lives DID NOT EXIST before 1995. These people are currently at the helm of most companies, or at the very least mid-managerial positions, and even if we put the classic marketing-HR-hiring bullshit aside, they will be the ones interviewing you. They will be the ones who might decide to go online and check your social media profile.
What will happen is the following. People with the last-gen mentality will be judging your current-gen mentality, from their own perspective of right and wrong. Sure, the essence of your actions will be more or less identical to what they have been doing as teens or uni students or whatever. They all had their #YOLO and #SWAG moments, except they were called Ice Ice Baby and Marky Mark back then. They will NOT be so much worried by your overall stupidity. They will however not be able to reconcile with the magnitude thereof.
Why? Because many things online are (still) considered bad. Public exposure is not something that happened back then, which is why anything bad + online = guilt automatically. The rationale around actions remains, even though the technology has changed. Urinating against a building wall is a very trivial thing, but getting caught on camera could be the dividing line between a lucrative career and delivering pizzas on a moped.
So what will happen is, you will be judged not for your actions but for the display, and the display will dictate how badly you will be judged. This is an almost Monty Python line. Three shall be the number, and the number shall be three. You get the idea. And now, the strengths and advantages of social media will become your enemies. Your followers, your cult, your whatever, the more you have, the more exposed you are, and tiny things you do badly will become huge problems. Definitely not in your favor.
In a nutshell, your 2015 actions will be judged by people holding 1995 views, and that means that you will be screwed big time. In twenty years, the current generation will climb into the seats of power and decision making, and then, the reality will change. Online behavior will not be an exception, but something else will, and the cycle will keep on turning. Well, NOT having social media might be perceived as weird by some, for instance.
If you need a lesson in history, think of the Rock 'n' Roll generation and how it was perceived by the pre-WWII folks. When you wanted a job back then, long hair and studded metal jackets were sure not beneficial to your success during the interview. Now, we may laugh at such exhibits of prejudice, but the same is happening when the pre-smartphone, pre-Internet generation glimpses the online profiles of the current future generation.
What you should do?
Now comes the tricky bit. Stop using social media? Well, yes, but not the reasons stated above. So what then? Keep using social media? Yup, but with an angle. Awareness that your digitized, fully recorded actions are being judged by people who have had their past hidden in the analogue world. That won't slow down their morality pendulum, and worse yet, the higher the exposure of your actions, the mightier the swing.
If you know that every single word, photo or whatnot you post online could one day be used against you, then you will probably ever so slightly alter your behavior. Think of the previous generation's heyday in the 70s or 80s. They did much less nonsense when there were adults around. The same thing here. Just remember old, conservative gits are watching your social profile, and waiting for you to fail. But if you know this, then you will develop a sense of mental flexibility that still allows you to express yourself without coming across as a fool.
There you go. The best advice you'll ever have been given in the coming twenty odd years. The social media is your voluntary participation in almost court-like evidence trail slash mirror reflection to your own stupidity and rash actions that you do not fully understand, both the immediate as well as long-term consequences and ramifications thereof. Moreover, your actions will be judged by people whose similar if not identical actions were hidden by the lack of technology of their own era.
Now, luckily for my generation, we did not exist before 1995. And I'm not sure if my young me would be as awesome and smart as I am today. Probably, but I can't claim for certain. So the question is, will the young folk reading this article really understand the message? Or read it in the first place? But if you need a reason why you should carefully reexamine your online habits, here's the best one. Just remind yourself that when you come looking for your next job, the person deciding your fate will be a conservative, two-faced bastard whose stupid teen years are lost in the prehistory of technology, and they won't spare any mercy for your little digital sins.
Remember, anything you do, there's a camera over your shoulder. Your own camera.
P.S. The teaser image and the bungee jumping image are in public domain.