There are things on the Internet about me that I regret. Things that embarras me. Things that make me cringe. However, it’s nothing that I didn’t do to myself. I own it. I feel like, for the most part, I am responsible for my online persona. I created the “me” that people see online (which, make no mistake, is not the “me” the people around me in real life know). I don’t know that everyone can say the same, and I really wonder about the generation of kids we’re raising, some of whose every move seems to be chronicled on blogs, Facebook and in other social media. I don’t mean the innocent sharing of pictures and cute anecdotes about your kids. I mean sharing things that may one day embarras or harm them. Sometimes it’s narcissism. But I think more often than not it’s simply not thinking about the fact that your child will one day be an adult, and that what you write on the Web has a permanence that talking with a friend doesn’t.
This post on the New York Times Motherlode blog about parents sharing sensitive information about their children online really touched a chord with me. I had a similar thought to Jillian Keenan when I read the “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” article that went viral in the aftermath of the shootings in Connecticut. Sure, Liza Long used a different name for her child, but she wrote it under her own name, which doesn’t make it all that difficult to connect the dots. I’m a big believer that kids can overcome their childhoods. So what if he does overcome it all? What if he’s not the next Adam Lanza? He’s now been branded with a scarlet C for crazy (isn’t that what the NRA wants to do now to the mentally ill?) in an agonizingly public way. As an adult, someone may put two and two together and realize that the person they’re dating, the person they’re considering hiring, or their roommate was once so troubled that his mother thought he could end up a mass murderer. I agree with Liza Long that we need to talk about mental illness and treatment for the mentally ill in this country. I think she could have done that without using her own name and thus connecting this to her son.
Think of yourself as a young person. Think of the bad, stupid, dangerous, and embarrassing things you did. Imagine that all of those things were Google-able because your mother or your friend decided to blog about their own life, in which you just happened to play a role. I agree with Jillian Keenan that unless we committed some horrible crime, we have a right to leave our childhood stupidities and teenage hormone-filled hysterics behind us. I have a lot of friends who have overcome some pretty bad childhoods to become pretty great people. They shouldn’t be marked for life by their childhood because someone else decides to share it online.
I remember once reading a funny blog post a friend had written about her toddler son playing with his penis. While it was an adorable story about a toddler, is it a story that boy, one day an adult, is going to want his friends to see? Is he going to want a potential employer to find it when she searches for his name? Sure, not harmful, but certainly embarrassing for the next Supreme Court Justice nominee or Academy Award winner. There have been many times when my son has said or done something absolutely hilarious that I haven’t wanted to share with the entire world. I often ask myself, if I’d done this as a child, is it something I’d want people to know about me now? If the answer is no, I don’t share.
Back in the day, these were anecdotes we only shared with friends and family in person and on the phone. They were fleeting and not permanent records in cyberspace. We could complain about bosses and spouses and, so long as you could trust those you were telling, no one was any the wiser. But now, when spaces like FriendFeed, Facebook and Twitter are essentially the new third places — the spaces where we can let our hair down and connect with people we care about — it seems only natural to share things similarly to how we did in physical third places. But it’s not the same. Not nearly. In spite of the fact that I totally side with Jenica Rogers on the whole librarians vs. American Chemical Society thing, I do think that calling someone a bitch on FriendFeed is putting something in writing (doesn’t make her arguments against ACS any less credible though). Because even when you create a private feed, if you have hundreds of “friends” you’re not just talking to a few trusted pals. I count among my Facebook friends people I love dearly, people I was friends with 20 years ago, people I’ve met once or twice, and people who I don’t know who happen to be librarians. Unless I go on a rampage and delete hundreds of Facebook friends (or create different classes of friends — both of which seem overly time-consuming), I will never trust that what I write there is “just between friends.”
People my age were the last that got to create a digital footprint free of their parents’ insights and (and, lucky for us, also their own adolescent sturm und drang). I don’t want to get in the way of my son having that opportunity. Sure, there may be some cute family pics of him online and if you’re my Facebook friend, you’ll probably hear some endearing stories, but I hope that he can create his own online persona. Messy, flawed and probably with plenty of things that he regrets; but they’ll be his mistakes to make. I think this next generation deserves that.