I’m kind of glad there was no social media around when I was a teenager … because I was a jerk. Off the top of my head I can think of half a dozen dumb-arse things I said and did that would have got me chased off the internet today, and no I’m not going to tell you what they were. Because you’d totally chase me off the internet for them.
Most people, I’d guess, are jerks at some point or another in their lives. If they’re lucky they get to grow out of it. Nowadays, if they’re not, they get to trend for a couple of hours, and maybe lose their jobs, a bunch of friends, and whatever lives them’ve carved out for themselves.
The way that Facebook and Twitter, but especially Facebook, have become the archives of our imperfect selves and baser impulses isn’t the worst thing about them. (That would be the way they destroyed the basic consensus on what should be agreed to as a self-evident fact, allowing bad-faith actors, demagogues and actual Nazis to take a solid run kicking the legs out from under our civilisation). But no, one of the smaller, less apocalyptic ways social media has ruined everything, is by sucking all the air out of the safe space we used to afford anyone under the age of, say, 25, to really cock things up.
Your teens and your early 20s are that time when you try on different faces, attitudes, and occasionally some really stupid shit. Sometimes life pushes back and sits you down on your arse, hard. It’s how we learn not to do so much stupid shit. It’s where the subject-object division gets broken down and if you’re a halfway decent human being, it’s when you learn that it’s not all about you and your stupidity. Other people exist, they matter, and they have feelings that — hear me out now — count for just as much as yours.
Social media’s Eye of Sauron, which sees all and never forgets, has burnt away the shadowing effect of time’s passage that lets our mistakes slip into history, where they can inform us, but without destroying us.
This isn’t so much about Trevor Noah’s stupid, unthinking racist joke. Or Prince Harry’s pantomime Nazi dress-up fiasco. It’s about you and that time you thought 23 beers was the perfect preparation for racing stolen shopping cart trolleys down the big hill at the local park. It’s about the moronic things you thought and did before you had a lick of sense about you. It’s about all the times, and there were plenty of them, when you were a genuinely ordinary piece of work, champ.
If, like me, you passed through that stage of life without being recorded and uploaded to the cloud, you’ll probably never know just how lucky you were.
Because nobody born after the turn of the century will ever know that luxury, or have that privilege again.
John Birmingham is a columnist for the Brisbane Times. He is also an award winning magazine writer and the author of Leviathan, the Unauthorised Biography of Sydney, which won the National Award for Non-Fiction. He amuses himself in his down time by writing novels which improve with altitude.