The New York Times convened several tech experts this weekend to debate online privacy and the "overuse of social networking tools." Professor Clay Shirky stole the show, recounting a college tequila run that ended with his hair on fire. That youthful indiscretion was a harmless secret for Shirky, back in the days when you had to be physically present to witness a private event:
Society has always carved out space for young people to misbehave. We used to do this by making a distinction between behavior we couldn't see, because it was hidden, and behavior we could see, because it was public. That bargain is now broken, because social life increasingly includes a gray area that is publicly available, but not for public consumption.
So nowadays, a tequila flaming head incident cries out for instant memorialization via cell phone, Facebook and YouTube. That may ding some millennial reputations, Shirky contends, but eventually it will recalibrate societal norms to tolerate a greater range of benign misconduct -- as long as adults "cut young people some slack." So if President Clinton dabbled in pot and President Obama once tried some blow, the argument goes, then surely we can chill out on today's kids:
Just as Bill Clinton destroyed the idea that marijuana use was a disqualifier to serious work, the increasing volume of personal life online will come to mean that, even though there's a picture from when your head was on fire that one time, you can still get a job.
The arc of social networking does bend towards reality; a society that sees more of itself should eventually discard some delusions about its own behavior and propriety. The examples of Clinton and Obama, however, actually cut in the opposite direction.
Both politicians disclosed past drug use on their own terms, long after the fact, within a larger narrative about their personal growth and fitness for public office.
For Clinton, it was a parsing separation from perceived hippie dalliances. He was lampooned for claiming not to inhale, sure, but candidate Clinton still drove the discussion to distinguish himself from baby boomers who waxed nostalgic about drugs and protests.
Obama tacked more towards authenticity, beating rivals to his own vulnerabilities with a candid, even casual description of drug use in his memoir.
In essence, both men strained to exert control over their history.
Many young people no longer have that option at all. With photos and videos stalking their professional ascent, millenials will have far less control over the timing and framing of embarrassing disclosures. Furthermore, while Clinton and Obama are salient examples of people who excelled despite revelations of adolescent drug use, they are not exactly a reasonable baseline for most people. These are two people who are exceptionally gifted at presenting themselves to the public -- a skill the Facebook generation can appreciate -- while the rest of us will probably have more trouble explaining away the tape.