Timothy Egan on American politics and life, as seen from the West.
Last week, there came from the dispiriting clutter of the nation’s capital an extraordinary tale of our times. It concerned aides to Representative Rick Larsen, Democrat of Washington, who broadcast via Twitter how cool it was to be sitting in the seat of power at midday while drinking Jack Daniels and watching Nirvana videos on the taxpayers’ dime.
For good measure, these Aides Gone Wild sent out a couple of bad mots about their “idiot boss.” Within an hour of hearing about the indiscretions, which had continued for months on personal, not Congressional, Twitter accounts, the boss fired all three young people.
The moralists had a field day, complaining about the low standards of the millennial generation. No wonder they can’t find jobs!
But there is only one difference between the knuckleheads of yore — me, for example — who did numerous stupid things between the onset of puberty and a late adolescence lasting to nearly 30, and those Twit-iots of the 21st century.
And that is technology. Facebook, Twitter, cell phone text messages and palm-size appliances yet to sprout from Apple’s labs allow all of us to be banal in real time.
“I’m a moron, Siri,” I can tell my new iPhone 4S robo-assistant. “Please share with everyone.”
Let the counterrevolt begin; the shying of America would be a welcome thing. Sure, social media tools have helped foster revolutions (Egypt, Tunisia), while releasing butterflies of free speech in police states (Iran). And it’s great to get baby pictures from that distant relative living north of Nome.
But enough with the everyday shared thoughts, those half-hatched word products that could use more time in vitro.
People I once admired, even looked up to — smart, literate, funny folks — have gone down several notches in my estimation after they decided to reveal their every idiotic observation via Twitter.
From one (I’ll protect him here, even if he won’t do the same thing for himself by going silent for a day), a man known for daring urban design ideas, came these recent insights on his Twitter account:
Stuck in traffic. OMG, this light is long!
Just had the best burrito of my life!
Saw my first deliveryman on a Segway — how cool is that?
Not very, actually. Where did this compulsion for light confession come from? In part, surely, from narcissism, a trait as ancient as our species. But at least Narcissus could only stare at his own reflection until it killed him. Imagine that handsome Greek with a text finger as itchy as say, that of former Representative Anthony D. Weiner, the saddest of the digital exhibitionists.
So I cheered the news from my colleague Jenna Wortham this week that the march of Facebook into every facet of our lives has slowed at last. Of course, with 200 million active users in the United States, Facebook has won the war. It’s all over but the arguing among corporate overseers about how to divvy up our private information for profit. But some brave souls refuse to submit. Hurray for the holdouts!
The most encouraging part of the story were the comments from young people who went cold turkey, saying they realized that Facebook had made them less close to, even alienated from, their friends. The imperative of Facebook — maximum exposure of the personal “brand” — is by itself a form of poison to lasting relationships. It’s hard enough trying to stay close to say, five good friends. Why have surface relationships with a hundred of them?
The fear of those newly proclaimed social-media-phobes is that people will say they disappeared, or that, without regular screen updates, they don’t even exist at all.
But they’ll never vanish — the online graveyard is an oxymoron. Among the haunting consequences of Facebook and Twitter use is the immortality of ill-chosen words and personal pictures. And for that reason, alone, parents now have to give their children “the talk.” No, not about sex. Kids already know enough from the Internet to advise Casanova. The talk is about privacy, and the importance of children keeping to themselves things that could harm them later.
Need I remind everyone that human resource departments have no problem finding captioned pictures of job applicants sharing, um, lingerie reviews from their junior year in college? Cyberspace never forgets.
I hope that those three former staffers fired by Larsen will be given a fresh start somewhere, especially because their Google reputations will follow them forever.
Plus, public displays of stupidity happen at the highest levels. When Sonia Sotomayor was nominated to be the first Latina Supreme Court Justice, Newt Gingrich immediately tweeted that she was a “racist,” and should withdraw her name. He was following that paragon of unfiltered verbiage, Rush Limbaugh.
Gingrich later took his “racist” comment back, saying he’d acted in haste. Of course he wants it back. There are 50 million Hispanics in the United States, and they are the nation’s fastest-growing minority. But no matter how many appeals to Hispanics Gingrich tries to make, his digital tattoo can never be erased.
In his youth, Gingrich married his high school geometry teacher. If Twitter existed then (and given Gingrich’s promiscuity with the language, you know he would have tweeted hourly), he most likely would not be the Republican frontrunner today.
The best advice I’ve heard of late is from the actor George Clooney. “I don’t tweet, I don’t go on Facebook,” he said in a profile. “I think there’s too much information about all of us out there. I’m liking the idea of privacy more and more.”
Easy for him to say. He’s famous. But oh, how he wouldn’t crave a bit of the most precious commodity of the digital age — anonymity.