There’s a thing people like to say about the activities of others on the internet, to the effect of “Watch what you post, an employer will look you up one day.” In my experience it comes from people in their 40′s, though occasionally from a particularly forgetful 30 year old. In the last few weeks it’s been in regard to teenagers posting sultry selfies, but you can typically see it in response to anything ridiculous that might be deemed antics. I don’t think these people are wrong, either. As many have learned the hard way, the internet never forgets. Not really. What I’m going to argue is that the opinion isn’t so much wrong as irrelevant.
The Dawn of a New Age
Livejournal has been around for almost 15 years now, and people are still using it. Some of them have used it from the beginning. This isn’t 1998 where blogging is an amazing thing available only to early adopters and people exploring the world through one of those new cable connections. Two million blog posts are uploaded every day, and 98 years of video are uploaded to Youtube. We live in a world of constant content creation. The people posting that content are getting older and older. The younger ones are aging (much as we don’t want to admit it), and older people are adopting the practice. This means that soon we’ll live in an age where everyone has done something foolish on the internet. Google works both ways. When that hiring manager asks about your fateful twerking video, you can ask them about that video where they sang “Personal Jesus” in their room and freaked out halfway through because of a spider. At that point it’s best to call it even. The internet has democratized silliness.
We encourage people to be courageous, even fearless. To put themselves out there, express their passion and indulge creativity. Half the quotes on my Facebook say so. The caveat “But worry about what your future boss/lover/dog trainer/mother-in-law might think about what you do before you do it” is never included. In all kinds of endeavours we want them to dive into the newness that surrounds them and tame this fast and wonderful world. We encourage people to try new things and make mistakes, because making mistakes is a great way to learn. This is great. It’s downright wonderful because now, with pursuits like blogging and platforms like Youtube, people are able to put themselves out there in a way that can reach millions of people. Some of those people invariably won’t like it or won’t approve, but that makes it no different from any other creative pursuit. We can’t tell people to fear mediocrity and to fear greatness with equal strength.
Where Foolishness meets Folly
There’s a difference between doing something silly and doing something harmful though. It is occasionally cool to put on makeup without a mirror or invent a game that involves repeatedly punching your friends in the dick. It’s never okay to be a racist on the internet. Or misogynist. Or transphobic, or even to just wish people harm. Encouraging people’s expression isn’t the same thing as entreating them to be the intrepid explorers of vast new shores of assholery. Not only is it generally intolerable, all of the arguments that people tend to erroneously make against silliness, mistakes and tomfoolery actually apply. Silliness is explainable. You can own your mistakes. Again, soon everyone will have done something dumb on the internet. I don’t imagine a lot of people want to own their racism and, even if they do it isn’t to any constructive end. Everyone has silliness. Everyone makes mistakes. Not everyone is a racist, implicit bias tests aside.
Loss of Control
I think this is the sticking point. When someone remarks that putting things on the internet means remembering that 20 years from now your employer might see it, what they’re really trying to get at is that if you put something on the internet, you give up control of your silliness. It’s okay to be strange when you’re relaxing with your friends, or even when you’re at a party. It doesn’t go farther than that. To the world of work you’re still an average person. Your bosses see what you want them to see and nothing more. We don’t live in that world anymore and if you couldn’t tell already I think that’s awesome. I want to see people faffing about and playing videogames and eating burritos. I want to hear about people’s days and their random thought sand watch them complain because that’s how I get to see the real person. The reason your LinkedIn newsfeed (yes, there’s a newsfeed) is such a wasteland of reposts most of the time is because everyone is thinking about what their employer might think of their posts.
I’ve been creating content for just over two years, which isn’t a long time. I’ve written four hundred or so blog posts, made a hundred videos, and posted more than 8000 tweets all with my real name attached. Who I am is a Google search away. I wrote a song about cardboard boxes. I played a Bob Marley cover while wearing a viking hat and juggling duckies. I’ve talked about feelings and been a nerd in public. I started blogging because I needed to get past my fear and wound up awakening all this weird creativity. And I’ve made mistakes, and I’ve been silly, and everyone who cares to can know it. I’m not saying it’s for everybody, just that we ought to worry less about people who do it in no small part because we’re all participating in this neat new world.