It used to be that if you made a stupid decision when you were younger you got in trouble, you apologized, you learned from your mistake and everyone moved on. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case. Now if you do something stupid, it ends up on the Internet and if you’re unlucky enough to have you’re name attached to it, you’re permanently branded for the rest of your life… Constantly in fear that when someone Googles you they’ll find this embarrassing tidbit from your past.
I’m not talking about big things that may well deserve to be attached to your name forever — I’m talking about things like lighting off fireworks in the parking lot of your school and getting some trumped up attempted arson charge. Posting something dumb on Twitter and having it retweeted a ton of times while you’re asleep and suddenly you wake up and you’re infamous for something taken completely out of context or for something maybe you shouldn’t have written to begin with, but you were in a half asleep daze and it was only meant for your 75 followers. Or worse yet, you send an email to a friend privately and he forwards it along and suddenly it’s out in the public. In today’s Internet age, it’s easier to screw up your life. Even something meant to be private can very easily become public. Most people still don’t truly understand this until it’s too late.
(As a quick aside, there is something to be said for giving people second chances and believing that people can learn from their past mistakes, no matter how serious, but that’s a conversation for another time.)
Given the effect the internet and social media can cause on the rest of your life, I think it’s imperative we teach kids about the potential long term ramifications even a single action can have in this new digitally recorded age. It’s always been stressed to kids that they need to stay out of trouble because they don’t want to get a bad name in their community or have something on their high school record that could hurt their college applications. Now the potential damage is far more long lasting. You can do something at twelve that could haunt you for forever.
It’s similar to my feelings around schools needing classes on basic computer programming and finances, particularly debt. The internet, computers and loans are now a huge part of most young people’s lives, yet we don’t do nearly a good enough job of educating kids on these subjects. Instead, we’re too focused on helping kids memorize equations and historical facts, things they’ll never need to recall from memory because they have access to that information in their pocket at all times – but I digress…
In some extreme circumstances, it’s not just your long term employment prospects that get damaged, but your safety that is at risk. If you post something stupid that pisses of the online hive minds over at 4chan, Reddit or any other online community, you can look forward to having your accounts hacked, to death threats and everything in between. Typically, when someone is individually targeted in this manner it’s because they said something incredibly ignorant and hateful, but that doesn’t mean they deserve the backlash. My guess is that most of the time these people don’t fully understand the possible repercussions of their comments in today’s socially connected world so a statement which they expected to have a small audience can get amplified to the general public.
My parents were actually pretty good about ensuring that my brother and I didn’t do dumb things online. There was a rule that we were never allowed to use our real names online or ever mention anything that could be used to infer who we were or where we lived. To be fair, this wasn’t anything to do with trying to protect our personal brand from being tainted for life so much as they didn’t want some axe-wielding murder tracking us down and killing our entire family. I don’t think they had the foresight to understand what search engines would do to our names and personal brands – I don’t think anyone did. Then when Facebook came around, they were smart enough to know that just because we thought it was “private” didn’t really mean that it was. They told us to assume anything we post or say on Facebook will be public, and while I didn’t completely listen to them, they had enough of an affect to make me more cognizant of what I posted than some of my friends.
So while I’ve been fortunate becauseI managed to escape my ignorant youthful years without damaging my long term reputation, there are many who are not as lucky. Some of you might say, “so what, they deserve it for their stupidity,” to which I say – bullshit! I think if most of us are being completely honest, we would admit that we’ve done things that if they somehow found their way online and attached to our names we would be incredibly embarrassed. We’ve just either been lucky or slightly more aware/informed about the potential repercussions and so have managed to prevent it.
PS – scariest part of writing this post is that now I’m worried someone is going to go digging into my digital past and unearth something embarrassing that I didn’t realize was out there. Fingers crossed that doesn’t happen or if it does, whoever does the digging is nice enough to email me about it privately rather than expose it publicly (pretty please :P).