There’s a new internet campaign in town – a demand for ‘iRights’ which will allow people to delete social media posts or images from their youth, lest they embarrass them in later life.
It touches on an interesting and relatively unconsidered point about social media. Twitter is a mere nine years old, and Facebook is 12 – no-one has yet fully grown up as a social media native, from having their baby pictures posted by proud parents to reaching adulthood in their own right. We have seen examples of teenagers taking their first forays into the world and immediately blotting their copybook, and of young adults coming under fire in the workplace and in politics for things the posted a few years before, but these are mere previews of what is to come.
Baroness Shields, the former Google and Facebook executive turned Minister who is reportedly supporting the right to delete content, does have a point in that we need to consider the full ramifications of a society in which we share things when young and unwise (or indeed drunk), and simultaneously judge people harshly for doing so.
But is the answer to encourage more censorship among social media users, teaching them to hide their actual views and their real lives, or to work towards a society which is less puritanical and less likely to punish teenagers for being teenagers? Saying stupid things on Facebook may be childish, but it is equally childish to hold what someone said at the age of 14 against them for the rest of their life – we ought to be able to adopt a more grown-up attitude to the excitement and the error of youth. Today’s Times argues that we should teach children to grow wiser by allowing them to make mistakes – that’s true, but we also need to teach others to stop over-reacting to the childhood mistakes of others.
There is certainly a new puritanism in the air, but it would be harmful to encourage it. The reality is that youth is a process of experimentation and learning for everyone. No-one is born grown-up, and no grown-up is perfect, never mind every teenager. That ought not to be something we suppress and conceal, it should be something we can come to terms with.
In politics, that hyper-scrutinised and hyper-risk-averse pursuit, this choice between bowing to a puritanical approach to life or challenging it is is particularly acute. There are, though I shudder to think of them, young people today who, due to political aspirations, are terrifyingly sanitised in their online life. I once met one who refused to be photographed at all in the presence of alcohol. He had seen the prospects of others rubbished due to photos of nights out and had drawn the obvious conclusion.
Do we really want to promote a process by which only those who are robotically self-censoring from an early age, who conceal their views and pretend to be prematurely 50, can be successful in the political world? It’s a recipe for blandness at best and power-hungry lunacy at worst.
The electorate clearly don’t want their politicians bleached of all their character. Look at the rise of Farage, Johnson and Corbyn in response to the years of factory-fresh politico-bots turned out by the Blair years. These are politicians with views, with sometimes eyebrow-raising personal lives, and with history – and voters like them all the more for it, because they are glaringly human.
The next few years will be crucial as to how democratic politics deals with a social media world. Either we will see the mass manufacture of featureless, character-free politicians, armoured against online controversy by their lack of history, or we will see society become more relaxed about the realities of life and the thrills and spills of growing up, and the need for such armour will recede. The former may work for a while, though it would be desperately dull, but politicians who have the colour and character of a water biscuit will always be vulnerable to the rise of colourful, energetic and controversial characters. I suspect that we can try to hide from real life for a while, but not forever – so we may as well embrace it now.