About social media, moralistic meme cultures, digging the dirt of our past, and a transparent future without privacy — and why this can all be a good thing.
I once wrote two different songs about killing two different ex-girlfriends.
In my college years I used to rap and freestyle, and using what lyrical skills I had, I recorded a song over Eminem’s “Stan” about killing my ex-girlfriend. A few years later, I did the same thing with Common’s “Retrospect For Life” about killing another ex-girlfriend and eating her baby.
These were sick, horrible, disgusting things that constitute assault and battery — and they make me want to throw up at myself. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
If you search for these songs online, you can probably find them on an old music site under my name. I say this to my own shame and horror, and I’m not proud of this in the least at all. I’m now publicly outing myself — not out of some patronizing “reverse humility” or a victim-card, but because I deserve any repercussions that come my way.
If one day I go public somewhere: I want to have outed myself already. I’m tired of keeping this regret a secret. And it’s okay if you’re disappointed or you dismiss me. At least I can finally breathe, unburdened.
Antisocial Media: The Consequence-less Vacuum
Back then, I wasn’t really thinking about social media and my public image and what’s trending. I wasn’t afraid of becoming a YouTube disaster or a viral footnote.
If these recordings were to have been made today, it would’ve instantly gutted any of my credibility — or as it happens now, I could’ve gained a garish new influence that’s all the wrong type of attention.
Most of us still live in a vacuum-bubble of our own actions thinking that every consequence is reversible — until it lands you in cuffs or court. The only privacy we have left is when we pay cash or sit on the couch.
I do believe social media is good for keeping an eye on us, but dangerous for the exact same reason. Maybe it would’ve stopped me. We really don’t know the long-term effects of having a constantly meshed connection with strangers across the intertubes — but we’re now seeing the effects in short bursts, particularly in the meme culture of self-awareness and satire.
In some ways it’s helpful: in other ways, horrifying.
Showcase For Grandma
I recently saw a grandmother at Starbucks snapping photos of her two-or-three-year-old grandson drinking his juice, and the grandma promptly uploaded the photos, most likely to Instagram.
I was a little sad and angry all at once, thinking this was against the poor kid’s consent and that this old lady was using her grandson as an electronic model in a web-brothel of attention. Look at my grandkid who’s cuter than yours! Leave comments and click “like”! Give me a surge of digital dopamine!
Couldn’t this lady just have a moment with her grandchild? Did it have to become instantly frameable for the entire voyeur-sphere?
And then I thought: If this kid were old enough to think for himself, he probably would’ve been posing and preening for the camera anyway.
Social Media Parade: Death and Re-Death
Again: We don’t know what this is doing to us yet. Only sporadically.
Mitt Romney probably lost the election because of his proliferated comment on the 47%.
Teachers are losing their jobs for making crude complaints about their students on Facebook.
We knew Anthony Weiner, and then we didn’t, and now we do.
Your Google searches are tracked and archived.
Your obscene, hateful YouTube comments leave a trail even when you’ve far outgrown your immature teenager-self.
Cyber-bullying will probably kill you too.
If you’re a pastor who didn’t leave a tip — everyone will hear about it.
That racist Tweet will get you kicked off a football team, your first world problem Tweets will brand you stupid for life, and those tasteless Tweets will socially destroy you (until you’re yesterday’s news and someone else screws up).
Gawker will gawk you.
Write a crazy obscene letter to your sorority girls, and you’ll be kicked out while also being re-read by a celebrity and offered a centerfold shoot.
Imagine Clinton or Reagan or Kennedy living in our culture today, and the memes we could make.
I Pity The Orwellian Fool: Namely Myself
This has been a new era, where Big Brother is no longer the Gubment or Illuminati, but merely the digital footprint we leave in a reckless wake of undisciplined childish behavior. No one had to orchestrate 1984; we did it to ourselves.
Because of online anonymity — what we think is anonymous, but is not — our anger and racism and hostility is given free rein: and every adolescent with a Facebook account is now accountable for his stream-of-consciousness rant.
Is it good? Bad? Again: we don’t know yet. So far, it’s just revealing.
It’s easy to be hard on guys like Christian Bale and Alec Baldwin and Reese Witherspoon, who have had their mad rantings recorded for the public eye. A great guy like Louie Giglio is suddenly forced to drop out of praying at the President’s inauguration because of a nearly twenty year old sermon on homosexuality. And is there any easier target than Mel Gibson?
Whether or not we agree with what they’ve said or done: I pity them just a bit.
In all fairness: The way we tear down celebrities is too quick, too bloodthirsty. If you found out today that every single thing you ever said was recorded and only your filthy stuff would be broadcast to the world — you might be a little more forgiving of these celebrity outbursts. Yes, some of these famous people chose that life: but we are all crazy, and they just happened to get exposed.
Recorded, Re-Played, Re-Lived, Repent
I was angry at my friend once for screwing up his life and I sent him a tirade of angry text messages. I was brash and arrogant: but you know, in those moments, you feel so right and confident.
Later my friend wanted to meet for lunch to seriously discuss how he could get better. He had copied and pasted all my text messages into a document and printed them — and he read it out loud to me over Chinese food and chopsticks. He didn’t do it to be hurtful or anything else: he genuinely wanted to clarify my words.
I was thoroughly embarrassed. To hear myself say those things made me sick to my stomach. I kept apologizing for my ugly tone. Thankfully, my friend and I are still friends.
From that point forward, I made sure that anything I sent — even righteously angry messages — would be filtered through a third person. If I couldn’t feel safe reading it out loud to someone else, then I had no business sending it to another human being.
The Constant Apology
If you’ve messed up in a small town, it will often feel like you’re outrunning yourself.
You’re accountable to a former version of you that isn’t remotely close to who you are today. We are, even physically, never the same person. Your body cells die every one-hundred twenty days and your skin cells die every thirty-five days. By the time you turn twenty, you’ll have replaced your body sixty times and worn two-hundred different skins.
But no one ever feels there’s an expiration date on our past crimes. Maybe there shouldn’t be. If you could time-travel to the past and slap your past self, you probably would.
Yet once we sincerely apologize, life can’t be a constant apology. We can’t live in fear of being turned into a meme, even when you deserve it. And in a new world where all our juvenile online madness is recorded, maybe we could be a little more forgiving of one another.
Even if it’s a stupid twenty-two year old Asian kid who turned his hurt into some ridiculous amateur rap songs.
Eight Simple Suggestions Moving Forward
So we still don’t know how this will look for our transparent future. We don’t know what social media is doing to our youth, our elders, everyone in-between. So I leave you with some simple guidelines worth considering in our brave new world.
1) Never assume total privacy.
Before you send that nasty text or naked selfie, just assume that the whole world will see it. Chances are, if the other person gets vindictive one day, the whole world will see it. Even if you sue, you’ll still be be exposed already.
2) Wait 12 to 24 hours before sending an important email.
I’ve been following this one for years. In the heat of the moment, you can’t think straight. Once you hit send, that’s it. Cool off and wait it out. Edit and re-edit that email. And see #1.
3) Freedom of speech is not the freedom to be stupid.
I know, there’s always someone who says, “It’s a free country, I can say what I want.” You can yell “fire” in a theater or cuss out your boss, but that doesn’t make it smart. Set aside your pride and use that freedom wisely. Your forefathers didn’t kill for that freedom so you could squander it being a jerk to some kid on Reddit.
4) You’ll get further if you’re not a jerk.
Just be the nice guy. I don’t mean you can’t express an opinion. I mean: don’t get caught in meta-arguments with their endless cycle of drama. If you find yourself commenting, “Read my original post” or “You didn’t read it carefully” or anything about a troll, then close the browser and step outside and remember what it’s like to talk to humans.
5) Take it easy on the photos.
You don’t need to post your entire trip to Cancun on Facebook or even that one time you went to Uganda to the orphanage. You don’t have to post up every stage of your children’s lives; your job is to protect them, so guard their privacy. It’s probably funny to post up your friend’s gross-picture-face, but consider getting their permission. Some moments are better left to memory.
6) Out yourself first.
If you messed up big in your past and you’re now even slightly a public figure, be the first to say it. I call this the “David Palmer Rule” (if you don’t know what I mean, pop in the first season of 24 and put on a diaper). Talk about your craziness. You’ll probably miss some opportunities, but at least you won’t surprise anyone down the line. Everyone is also more forgiving when you’re honest.
7) Say you’re sorry, or at least be courteous.
Thankfully a lot of these big companies that write ill-timed tasteless blurbs are apologizing quickly (maybe too quickly), but they’re owning up to it. I can’t say the same for celebrities, most of whom sound like they’re drunk-texting on their blogs.
An effective habit of big businessmen is to shut off electronic device at least once a week. Whether it’s four hours or twenty-four, consider a shut-down time. It will feel impossible at first, but the world got along fine without cell phones just three decades ago, and so will you.
A Last Word: My Obligatory Christian Conclusion
I have said and done a lot of stupid, stupid things. Fortunately, many of them happened before YouTube and Twitter and our meme culture. Yet I still have to say I’m sorry.
I’ve hurt so many people and have written so many careless things that I probably couldn’t be hired anywhere if they knew the whole truth. I’m certain no community or family or friends would stick around if they knew the half of it.
This is why I’m thankful for a God who understands all this. A God who understands our garbage, our filth, our excess, and all the things we’ve said that we’ve long forgotten. However you think of God: it is not natural to forgive people. It’s not our default mode to look past certain things. Yet I believe in a God who not only forgives us, but also gives us the counter-intuitive gift of forgiveness for others, so we can all move forward regardless of who we were before.
We get this cosmic divine second chance — and we can extend that to others.
We need that grace. It’s the only way we can make it, together, despite ourselves — into a better people, a people that is not who should be, but not who we once were.