The First of Your Name

Why You Must Consider the Arc of History in the Social Media Age

Daily, we each write our autobiography. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat: These are the places we gather to communicate our tastes and opinions and record our lives to share with our friends and family or the world. It is fascinating (and sometimes appalling), wandering in and out of these personal museums and exploring the versions of themselves people choose to present to the world. Curation of the self has become a necessary skill. What often gets lost in the noise and crush of information is that each social media account is a primary historical and anthropological source.

Many readers of a certain age have family photos going back only a generation or two. Perhaps they also have a few letters and heirlooms. By contrast, when most of us depart this earth, we will have left behind an immense, readily accessible and searchable archive of personal information. These documents will form the foundation of our families’ histories.

We are each the first of our name.

Fifty years from now when your descendants have to do school projects on their family history, what will they find when they look at your social media history? Will they be proud? Will they be embarrassed? Will it affect how their friends and acquaintances see them?

The addition of Facebook commenting to many topical websites over the past several years has disabused us of the notion that obnoxious internet commenters were all anonymously trolling. People are posting horrifying, abusive material under their real names. Others make less egregious errors that perhaps deserve chastisement, but, instead of receiving a telling-off, the offenders end up being crushed by mobs of “do-gooders” bent on their destruction. Jon Ronson’s book, So I’ve Been Publicly Shamed, discusses the fallout from these mob attacks: people’s relationships, careers and mental health have been severely damaged. All the righteous indignation feels good in the moment, but it often looks different in hindsight.

That the internet is part of society (not some virtual Wild West) still seems not to have sunk in for many of us. The micro-moments in which we now live and communicate mask the arc of history, but it is even more imperative now than ever that we understand how the world changes and stays the same. We must truly consider what is the right thing to do and muster the courage to take that path (or at least get out of the way of those who take up the mantle), because in the near future there will be no more hiding. Each of us will be judged by history.

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The photos above show Kathrine Switzer being accosted by race official, Jock Semple, while running the Boston Marathon in 1967. Semple shouted, “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!” at Switzer while trying to tear her number off her back because a marathon was no place for a woman. It all seems preposterous now, but Semple’s views were well within the norm for his time. By way of context, women weren’t allowed to participate in the marathon at the Olympic level until 1984. Even so, the world had already changed enough to make Semple the villain (assaulter of women who liked long runs) when he thought he was playing the hero (protector of the hallowed institution of the Boston Marathon). How do you think Semple’s family felt when those images were splashed across newspapers all over the world? How do they feel when they see them today? Those pictures don’t define him, but they are part of his legacy whether he wanted them to be or not. Don’t you think if he had an inkling of how history would remember him, he would have taken a different path? He didn’t consider the arc of history.

There are plenty of Jock Semple’s running around in internet comments who think they are valiant heroes protecting territory they don’t realize they’ve already lost to movements seeking equality. It’s a bad look now, and it will be a horrendous look twenty years from now. We’re not going back there with them, and the internet won’t forget their attempt to turn back history.

I stayed off social media for many years because when you’re in it, it seems like you’re lobbing a ball back and forth in a game of catch, but you’re playing with a live grenade and the pin is loose. Like every powerful tool, social media is also a potent weapon, and not enough of us respect it. I have come to realize, however, that social media only amplifies a person’s personality. The benefits outweigh the costs, and while I may lose in the short-term, trying to live a good life will pay dividends in the long game we are all playing.

This article was originally published under my pen name Harrison Kitteridge on June 2, 2016. It has been edited lightly for style and content.

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*squinting in Nanny of the Maroons* | Read my essay collection, DISPOSABLE PEOPLE, DISPOSABLE PLANET: | IG: kitanyaharrison

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