Barring any unforeseen disaster or crazy Skynet takeover, the internet is pretty much forever. You’re already aware that nearly every tweet in existence is going into a huge government database and that many deceased people still have Facebook accounts. The LiveJournals that people around my age (mid to late 20s) wrote in our angst-filled years are probably still there.
Our search histories are being saved by search engines and ISPs. If a Geocities site we made in our middle school years isn’t around on the live web anymore, any intrepid stalker might be able to find at least some of its content using the Wayback Machine.
The point of writing all of this is not to make you blush with embarrassment, but rather to say that we’re at a unique point in history. Things that normal people are writing are actually being committed to history. Skynet might not care about your opinion on hot dog crust pizza from Pizza Hut, but someday those thoughts might be included in a history book—or whatever passes for a history book in the year 2062.
My question to both you and myself is “how do you want to be remembered?”
Every Word Preserved
Make no mistake, scholars and historians are going to be reading what we’ve written. Maybe they’re not going to ponder every blog post about Ghost Rider I’ve written or every good cucumber salad you’ve tweeted about, but the words and data are going to be analyzed.
Everything’s going to be aggregated, and the implications are bigger than your boss reading about how drunk you got at the beer garden from a Facebook post. The fact that you did get drunk at a beer garden in the year 2012 is significant because it tells real people in the future exactly what we, the normal people, actually did for fun at this point in history.
Jed Brubaker is a leading thinker and writer on this subject, and he sums it up quite nicely,
“Temporality concerns the notion of “lifecycles” as it has been applied in system development—the circumstances under which digital systems come into being, are put to use, and are taken out of service. The life of a user and the life of that user’s data are frequently not the same…”
Whether it’s intentional or not, history is not being written by the conquerors, it’s being written by us—and it’s in our blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, Youtube videos, Yelp reviews and search engine queries.
These things will outlive us all, and they are the ghosts of our lives and thoughts, preserved on hard drives.
Authenticity vs. Alienation
Let’s get back to the question of how you want to be remembered.
How do you conduct yourself in the online world? Do you troll different blogs and image boards using an anonymous or fake name? Do you leave constructive blog comments? Do you leave some real part of yourself behind on the internet?
I’d argue that it’s important, in order to contribute to a healthy and meaningful internet, to conduct yourself with dignity while still remaining true to yourself. A few curse words here and there won’t vilify us in the eyes of future generations, but if every video or blog post that bears your name is full of coarse language and jokes about bodily functions, what will that say to scholars, historians and school kids?
We all know the dangers of posting something damning to us on Facebook or Twitter, but the implications are much greater than that. You do run the risk of alienating family, coworkers and peers with brusque or offensive content, but you also run the risk of misrepresenting yourself.
As we discussed before, there is not much chance of escaping history at this point—do you want to be remembered as “swear word and fart joke guy” or “good dad, IT professional and auto restorer with an occasionally racy sense of humor?” Your blog, Youtube account and anything else that you post content to is the impression that you’re leaving on the future.
I think it’s our responsibility, as part of this pioneering generation, to stop being idiots and start leaving something worthwhile. There’s a place for funny comments and subversive content, but they need to have some sort of real merit.
All of these social media outlets offer us an amazing opportunity to contribute something positive to the world—not just the internet—while expressing ourselves as artists, writers and individuals.
Time and a Place
We already touched on this, but all of this online activity we’re participating in is documenting a particular time and place in history, but I think it’s worth looking into a little bit further. In the distant past, history was recorded by the few people that could write, read or interpret historical artifacts. Transparency, accuracy and diversity in historical information has come a long way in the past 200 years, but it’s never been like it is today. Your blog reflects exactly what is going on in a real person’s life—it talks about what you’re interested in, what your problems are and what your daily life is actually like.
I’d personally pay a lot of money to read a blog written by a kid living in New York during 1977 when punk exploded, but there was no such thing as a blog in the 70s.
Sure, there were journals and diaries, but those are rarely accessible and many of them are meant to remain private. There are plenty of great documentaries, but is anything really as revealing as someone’s personal, emotional Youtube video? Or is there anything as raw and poetic as a great blog post?
Before blogging, not everyone could appear on video or get their words published, but with these new forms of media we have a much better picture of how people actually live.
More than Sales and Marketing
Like many of you, I’m slightly uneasy about my information being collected and aggregated. I feel uncomfortable with the concept of a company, either benevolent or malevolent, painting an accurate picture of me with words and data they’ve acquired from the internet.
Our information will probably always be used for sales and advertising, but I think there’s some real value here as well. I want my future children and grandchildren to know exactly what was going on during my lifetime, through my words and the words of my peers. I don’t want the history they learn to be restricted to the political needs and opinions of the rich, powerful and well-connected.
I want historians, scholars and teachers to remember us for using social media to fight oppression, using our blogs to host incredible writing and using our Flickr accounts to contain our breathtaking photographs.
I want an elementary school child to laugh when she hears about our ridiculous Google searches in 2012. I want future generations to be inspired by our art blogs and motivated by our citizen journalism. I want them to know that people were talking about blogging, talking about web communities and helping to forge ahead in both of those areas. Above everything else, I want them to look back at real people and understand who we were and where we were going.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that our blogs and the content we produce will represent a snapshot in time. I don’t question that we have a responsibility to represent ourselves with authenticity and strong ethics.
Our tweets, Facebook posts, Youtube videos and everything else we commit our thoughts and hard work to are, to a great degree, being preserved for the future. I think our data will be used not just for marketing, but by historians and other great minds.
Keeping all of these things in mind, I want our grandchildren to look back at this intersection of history and technology and be inspired not by the inflated, exaggerated figures in text books—but by real people.
Image © maxkabakov – Fotolia.com