I originally wrote this article for Vogue (glamorous).
We live in a time when you can be fired for tweeting mean things about your boss, and you can get arrested for admitting on Facebook to driving drunk. A quick scroll through someone’s Instagram determines whether or not you should sleep with him or her. Social media has made it nearly impossible to separate our personal and professional lives, and like it or not, each of us is our own brand. A friend of mine recently suggested that people who don’t un-tag unflattering Facebook photos of themselves are simply “bad at doing their own PR.” But if the Internet really is forever, as we are constantly being warned, then how carefully should we moderate what we put out there?
I’m the author of a blog called Slutever that deals mainly with sex—everything from personal stories to interviews with fetishists and prostitutes to videos documenting my not-so-smooth efforts at becoming a professional dominatrix. As one can probably imagine, this does not make my devout Catholic parents very happy. Aside from “eternal hellfire,” their main concern has always been how being explicit about sex online will affect my life in the future.
When I started my blog back in 2007, at the age of 21, I was a college dropout living in a squat in London, ignoring my parents’ pleading e-mails to come back to America and get a job. Admittedly, I wasn’t thinking too seriously about my future. I was more concerned with creating an open dialogue about sex. I saw sex as the elephant in the room—something everybody’s interested in but rarely discusses in a straightforward way—and I wanted to change that. I viewed my liberal sexual persona as I imagine some view their tattoos: “I’m going to get that neck tattoo now so I’ll never end up working in a bank.” It’s a way of signing a contract with oneself, of saying, “I promise to be forever true to the person I am.”
The problem with this, of course, is that the “person I am” is constantly changing. And thanks to the Internet, the people we were are always coming back to haunt us—the bad haircuts, the embarrassing drunken nights, that outfit you thought was so cool that you now realize made you look like a loser. I felt nauseated the other day when I revisited a feelings-heavy blog post I wrote about being dumped by my ex-boyfriend. But I resisted the urge to delete it, because, really, who cares? If anything, the visibility of our awkward pasts teach us to take ourselves less seriously. Joan Didion, in her famous essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” discussed the importance of making peace with our former selves.
“It all comes back . . . I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4:00 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”
When Joan Didion wrote those words, back in the sixties, the experience she described was very solitary. The difference now, of course, is that we put our lives on display, up for critique by anyone who chooses to look. My generation was the first to really grow up online—we had LiveJournals in middle school, posted pictures on Myspace in our teens, and watched the Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee sex tape (which took 45 minutes to download on our parent’s dial-up connection) before we’d lost our virginities. We were the guinea pigs of Internet oversharing, unenlightened about the potential consequences of cyber-permanence, yet soon to be well-versed in the concept of the Internet shame trail. At 20, I never considered that years later that photo of me peeing into a sink at a party would still appear on the first page of a Google image search of my name. (Why?!)
When we’re young, it’s easy to see the world as infinitely malleable. The future is a place where past mistakes can be fixed, and regretful decisions can be compensated for. We know now that this isn’t always the case. A friend of mine, recently engaged, was mortified when her fiancé’s conservative mother Googled her and found an essay she wrote in college about her experimental lesbian phase. And I know that if I ever have children, they will be able to find naked photos of me online.
Of course, if your life goal is to become a comedian, you can afford to worry less about this stuff than if you want to be president. But those of us who fall between those two extremes understand that sooner or later we’re all going to have stuff online we wish we could forget. And in turn, I would hope that makes us more forgiving. In his book about Facebook, David Kirkpatrick credits Mark Zuckerberg with the belief that “more transparency should make for a more tolerant society in which people eventually accept that everybody sometimes does bad or embarrassing things.”
I’m not suggesting that we all pull a Courtney Love and rant unedited about everything that comes into our heads. We have to be mindful of what we share. As for my blog, it became evident over time that my transparency was not inhibiting my career, but rather becoming a career of its own. Yet even as I understand that my choices will follow me forever, I also have made a decision not to let my behavior online be dictated by fear—fear of alienation, or fear of how something will be perceived in the future—because fear that makes us passive is boring, and if it persists it’s going to propel us into the Internet dark ages. I don’t think I’ll regret anything I’ve done, because it’s an essential part of who I once was.