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Internet age and honesty

Andrew Nesi | Wednesday, November 14, 2007

I drank before I was 21.

I have not inhaled – and neither has Bill Clinton.

I have viewed Internet pornography.

I have discussed all of the above online with friends.

I have made jokes I now regret about nearly every inappropriate topic.

I once wrote a column that started with, “I have never been solicited for gay sex in a men’s room.”

I have never been solicited for gay sex in a men’s room.

I have never done cocaine.

But Barack Obama has.

Obama’s first book, “Dreams from My Father,” includes the following passage: “Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it. Not smack, though.” Of course, when Obama wrote the book, he likely wasn’t considering its implications on a future presidential campaign (this may not be entirely true – Obama’s brother-in-law has said that Obama considered the possibility of the presidency as early as 1992). But Obama would have had to admit to his past at some point – the same way Bill Clinton admitted (- ish) to marijuana use in 1992. The rise of the Internet, and the accompanying flood of used-to-be-personal information, requires it.

Earlier this year, the New York Times published portions of letters Hillary Clinton had written as an undergraduate. Imagine what it will be like for our generations: newspapers (or, equally likely, Matt Drudge) will publish old e-mails, saved somewhere in the bowels of the Google empire, old AIM conversations, which you know at least one creepy friend is saving (note to my friends: I’m that creep), and old Facebook wall posts.

Imagine the 2036 presidential elections. Both candidates, in all likelihood, will have had Facebook profiles. (If you’re reading this in 2036 and the candidate didn’t have a Facebook profile, you should not vote for her/him. He/she lacked a social life or was so concerned about being president in their college years that they’ll likely make an awful president.) Of course, that means that each candidate will have pictures to look at, which will likely reveal all sorts of foolish college-y activities that they wouldn’t want their mother (or the rest of the voting public) knowing about. Who knows, they might even have written an offensive joke or two on a wall that they’ll promptly disown as “a regrettable decision made when I was young and thought I knew everything.”

It won’t just be political candidates, though. You’ll be able to pull up a plethora of information on your co-workers. Google the guy at the desk next to you and you’ll learn something about his/her teenage years, which (despite his self-fashioned image) he probably spent as a high school debater who probably didn’t talk to girls.

This sort of thing is already happening – our Career Center is telling us to check out our Facebook profiles and make sure they are “clean,” so that potential employers think that all we do on weekends is play Scatagories or Catchphrase and make funny faces while we volunteer at centers for underprivileged youth. But the Career Center – and any employer who would actually make a hiring decision because of a picture of you doing a keg stand at a football party last Friday night – doesn’t get it. They don’t understand what the Internet means today and it will mean in the future.

Starting with our generation, all sorts of information our parents understood as private will become public. There will be embarrassing pictures, stories, and e-mails about nearly everybody. And it will have an important effect: It will force us to be more honest about what we’ve done in our past. It will force us to present ourselves as real human beings, not carefully constructed images of human beings, in all aspects of our lives. The Internet behaves like a giant polygraph test. The threat (or, in the case of the Internet, the increasing certainty) that the truth will emerge means that people are more likely to tell the truth on their own terms.

Any employer who doesn’t hire someone because they have seen a picture of a candidate on that night when they played Vodka pong after taking three straight beer bongs will be at a competitive disadvantage. They will lose some of the best candidates – in fact, they’ll lose most candidates. Most people did foolish things when they were young – it’s just that before, we got to turn our heads the other way. The Internet will force us to recognize people as people, not just the saint-like constructs they can try to be today.

It means that we’ll be able to talk more frankly about our experiences and their social implications. Judgments – political and personal – will be informed by an acknowledgment of the reality of peoples’ behaviors, not by denying their existence.

Traditionally, maturing has meant information control. “Maturity” has been about carefully shaping an image of yourself, sharing only certain information and protecting other information from the public eye. Maturity has meant denying a part of yourself and your past.

Now, though, growing up will be different. The private will become the public – and we’re better for it.

Andrew Nesi is a junior American Studies major from Fairfield, Conn. He is starting to regret this column already, but owes credit to junior Joe Stranix for his moderating effect on the language used herein. He can be reached at anesi@nd.edu

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.