Anthony Weiner, Vanessa Hudgens, a Chicago school principal. What do these people have in common? They’ve all gotten flak for having naked pictures on the Internet.
Stories of people digitally compromising their dignity are everywhere. Whether or not we heed the warnings about appropriate online conduct, we’ve all heard them. But online image problems aren’t always about averting crises. The stakes aren’t always so high. Often, the desire for more control over one’s digital identity comes from a more subtle place. Every day, we become slightly different people. The changes are so small and gradual that we often don’t notice them, but they accumulate. Have you found yourself looking at photos from high school and wondering what you could have possibly been thinking? I have. Changes tend to be especially meaningful during our first few decades. Three years might not mean much to a 50-year-old, but if you’re 18, three years make up almost 17 percent of your life. Before the Internet, it was easy to keep the nature and extent of these changes private. People expressed themselves in media that couldn’t be easily reproduced. It was understood that the scraps of one’s former self — old journals, drawings and notes — could be pushed aside neatly, away from prying eyes. Nowadays, people tend to express themselves online. It’s incredibly easy. Why buy a book and pull out a glue stick when you can make a scrapbook on Tumblr? This shift has made our former selves blatantly public. All the creative material we generate online stays there. It’s true you can put up passwords or remove content altogether. Unfortunately, though, you can’t always predict what you’ll find embarrassing later — and by that point, it could be too late. Anything digital has the potential to go viral. A friend recently posted a funny image on Facebook. The picture showed a girl who had photoshopped herself with Robert Pattinson and a baby; she added in phrases like, “You are … my religion,” to drive home her devotion. I laughed, but then I wondered how the girl would feel about the picture in a year. She wouldn’t be able to delete it. It’s simply out of her hands. This conundrum is a much milder version of what famous actors, musicians and writers have been experiencing for years. Anyone who makes it big has to live down his or her sillier endeavors. The public at large doesn’t care about the rest of us quite as much, but still: Are you okay with your college friends reading poetry from your 14-year-old self? It’s true some people make careers out of posting about their personal lives online. One notable example is the website ThoughtCatalog.com, a place where writers — usually young, and usually urban — chronicle their likes, dislikes, opinions and lives. The operator of the site doesn’t see it as a side project. It’s his job. Talking about his weekend exploits allows him to pay his bills. But what if he were to decide to switch careers? He could take the site down, but his material has already been Facebooked, blogged and tweeted to thousands of people. The Internet is a great place to experiment with new identities, but it’s wise to do so with caution. You might think you’ll be the same person next year, but you can never predict what life will bring. Consider adopting an alias. Maya Itah is a senior majoring in communication. Her column “From Behind the Screen” ran Thursdays.