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.