Paris Brown: Social media means your awful 17-year-old self is shackled to you forever

The attacks on Britain’s first youth police commissioner for some carelessly offensive tweets show that unless you’re an unusually cautious or discreet teenager, you’re writing a patchwork public diary without realising it.

 

Some days I thank the stars that Twitter wasn’t invented until I was 32. The occasion this time is the Mail on Sunday’s comically disingenuous “exposé” of Britain’s first youth police commissioner, 17-year-old Paris Brown: yet another pseudo-scandal drawn from Twitter’s bottomless well of fauxtroversy.

The tweets revealed by the paper’s reporter Russell Myers tell us many things about Brown. She swears. She gets drunk. She talks about sex that she may or may not be actually having. She uses carelessly offensive language. She thinks weed is funny. She is “self-obsessed”. In short, she is a teenager. To Myers her opinions are so horrifyingly alien that the police might as well have hired Alex from A Clockwork Orange but anyone who actually remembers being a teenager might not be quite so alarmed. (Obviously it’s wonderful to find the Mail standing up so firmly for the rights of gay people and immigrants, although I fear that Myers is in for quite a shock when he reads the rest of the paper that employs him.)

Teenagers are messy, thorny creatures, maddened by hormones, rubbed raw by the onslaught of new emotions and unprecedented situations, prey to obscure resentments, petty prejudices and half-understood, third-hand ideas, often self-righteous and thoughtlessly cruel but just as frequently (though less publicly) vulnerable and compassionate. Growing up is a long process and Brown is still in its midst. The central theme of the TV shows Girls and Fresh Meat is how malleable we are even in our early 20s, constantly re-presenting ourselves to those around us as we fumble towards a stable, adult identity. To a 17-year-old, even a tweet from a year ago can seem like the work of another, more embarrassing, more incomplete person.

Every now and then I’m gut-punched by the memory of something stupid or unpleasant I did in my teens, as I’m sure most people are. Coming-of-age tales from Great Expectations to The Catcher in the Rye tell us again and again what emotional havoc young people can wreak even while believing their intentions are just.

But for people of my generation these are only memories, blessedly undocumented. The problem with social media is that it preserves every step of this chaotic journey. Growing up is a process of rewriting yourself but Twitter and Facebook function as palimpsests of all the versions of yourself that are better forgotten until, if you’re unlucky enough to be of public interest, the traces are uncovered years later by malicious reporters and magnified to unrecognisably grotesque proportions.

I used to think that social media’s muddying of the border between private and public was most problematic for older users whereas so-called digital natives understood the rules of the game, but of course many don’t, for the simple reason that they are of an age when they don’t understand much about the way the world works. Unless you’re an unusually cautious or discreet teenager, you’re writing a patchwork public diary without realising it, revealing things about yourself that you don’t consciously intend to stand by years, or even weeks, later. Even adults sometimes tweet things in the heat of the moment that they later regret so why would people too young to be trusted with a car or the vote be infallibly wise when it comes to what they give away online?

We’re increasingly aware of just how foggy teenagers’ understanding of social media’s implications can be. As Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett recently wrote in the New Statesman, following the Steubenville rape case, “Rather than seeing the web as a witness to their lives, standing outside the action, as many of the older generation would, younger people consider it a component of their lived experience. The internet doesn’t just confirm your existence: it is your existence.”

No doubt Paris Brown’s monstering by the Mail will scare some teenagers into thinking twice about what they say on Twitter and Facebook but thinking twice isn’t really adolescents’ forte. They are too caught up in the fierce nowness of life to consider which tweets or posts might one day rise up to cost them a job or a relationship.

And yet young people are aware there is a general problem. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor of internet governance at the Oxford Internet Institute, advocates an expiration date on online data to establish the “right to be forgotten”. He cites a 2011 study by the University of Berkeley that found that 84 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds wanted this right enshrined in legislation.

Mayer-Schönberger told the Guardian last week: “Our brains reconstruct the past based on our present values. Take the diary you wrote 15 years ago, and you see how your values have changed. There is a cognitive dissonance between now and then. The brain reconstructs the memory and deletes certain things. It is how we construct ourselves as human beings, rather than flagellating ourselves about things we've done. But digital memories will only remind us of the failures of our past, so that we have no ability to forget or reconstruct our past.”

“Right to be forgotten” legislation is currently moving through the EU but this is really more of a moral issue than a legal one. Even if “incriminating” information is out there, we don’t need to dwell on it. Better to forgive youthful errors and let people like Paris Brown outgrow their crasser, shallower selves. It’s fantastic that Kent Police and Crime Commissioner Ann Barnes has rebuffed opportunistic calls for Brown to resign. If Brown’s job is to represent the experiences of genuine teenagers, rather than spotlessly mature mini-adults, then she is clearly well-equipped.

 

Paris Brown during an emotional BBC interview.

Dorian Lynskey is a journalist living in London. He blogs at:

33RevolutionsPerMinute.wordpress.com

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt