"The Internet's not written in pencil, it's written in ink." -The Social Network
Two weeks ago, a man living in Taiwan who happens to read this column emailed my dad to ask him if he could submit the term "generation gasp" to UrbanDictionary.com, a fairly popular and well-known website. Yesterday, the submission was approved and posted on the website, and now anyone in the world might stumble upon a term that my dad made up on a Saturday afternoon with the modest goal of getting it published in the local newspaper.
The point of this neat little anecdote? In today's world, for better or worse, things end up in places you never imagined they would or could. And when they get to those places, they may very well stay there forever.
Obviously, this has its advantages and disadvantages. Take Rebecca Black, for instance. Fourteen-year-old Black gained Internet fame by recording and posting a music video of herself singing an incredibly inane song called "Friday." Black later appeared in one of pop star Katy Perry's music videos, and later at the MTV music awards. By all intents and purposes, Black is now famous (at least for her fifteen minutes).
She also has hordes of detractors, hate clubs dedicated to her and her (bad, but fairly innocuous) song, and probably a lifetime of self-esteem issues to work out in therapy. Maybe Black will somehow spin her questionable infamy into a viable career, but it seems doubtful. I wonder what will happen the first time she walks into a real job interview, or tries to have a normal relationship with a nice guy. Will others be willing to ignore her past, despite the fact that her past will forever be present every time someone Googles her name?
Of course, not everyone who posts a video or a picture on the Internet will achieve Rebecca Black heights of celebrity. But the Internet is becoming less and less anonymous with each passing year and new Facebook-esque website. We feel safe showing ourselves in cyberspace in a way that we didn't 10 years ago. Even on a smaller scale, what we say or do or put on the Internet can have an indelible effect on the rest of our lives - our relationships, our reputations, our job prospects.
My point seems obvious, but based on a quick perusal of YouTube, perhaps it's not. Parents, don't let your kids put themselves on the Internet until they're old enough to understand the ramifications. Just don't.
If members of the younger generation hastily post pictures, videos and blogs they will later regret at leisure, we members of the older crowd tend to be just as baffled about the reach of the worldwide web.
When I was a much younger man, earning my daily bread as a communication director for a major university, an older colleague of mine explained why she preferred newspapers to television news shows. "Television," she said, "always feels to me like writing on water." Now I'm the age she was when she told me that. When I hear talk about computing "in the cloud," it sounds to me like writing on water vapor.
Of course, I couldn't be more wrong. As Claire points out, the past will forever be present, if it's on the Internet.
The other day I did one of my occasional vanity searches of my own name. Among the hits I scored on Google was the archive of Inc. Magazine, where I found an article I'd sold to that rag in 1982. Yeh, 30 years ago! If I still have a hard copy, I'm sure it is as yellow and brittle as a Dead Sea scroll. But there was my piece, fresh and crisp on the screen.
I've always enjoyed Sci-Fi stories about parallel universes. It's not science fiction anymore, folks. There is now the real me and the virtual me . "Real Jim" gets grayer of beard every day. He sports a spare tire that no amount of gym time dislodges. He's often cranky and occasionally constipated… mentally, I mean.
Then, there's the "Virtual Jim." He can be anything I want him to be: a svelte, sharply dressed avatar… an ostensibly savvy pundit… a legend in his own mind. He need never age. He can, for instance, "Enter the World of Warcraft and descend into a world of myth, magic and legendary adventure." [http://us.battle.net/wow/en/] If he dies there, he gets reborn. He can enter "chat-rooms" and chat up chicks who wouldn't give "Real Jim" the time of day.
You're right, Claire. You youngsters, just starting your real-life careers, need to be careful about what you do on the Internet.
As for me, I'm looking for a way to trade places with "Virtual Jim," that lucky devil.