Facebook and Skeletons

I’m quoted in today’s New York Times, talking about how politicians in this year’s election have had to confront their pasts, as shared through social networks:

“I think all of us know that politicians would have to confront the Facebook skeletons in their closet, but that it would be in 20 years, not in two years,” said Anil Dash, a technology consultant and pioneer of the blogosphere when it was just beginning in the late 1990s. “By the time the next generation comes into power, they’ll just assume this is how it’s always been.”

I feel pretty solid in saying that we all knew this reckoning was coming; I wrote about it myself in 2002 (“We’re all celebrities now, in a sense. Everything that we say or do is on the record. And everything that’s on the record is recorded for posterity, and indexed far better than any file photo or PR bio ever was.”) and lots of other folks got there earlier than that.

But as I was trying to make clear in the Facebook Reckoning two months ago, this is a problem that disproportionately affects those with fewer social privileges. The rich can often hide their misadventures, and Ivy League graduates can innoculate themselves, as we saw George W. Bush do by calling all of his life before he turned 40 off limits, and as Barack Obama has done by writing a book that mentions the worst of his transgressions so that they’d be boring or considered “old news”. Both politicians found great success in having their pasts ignored, if not erased. Frankly, I’m glad for that — I think the tradition of pre-emptive disclosure via analog methods sets a great precedent for others to have their digital pasts ignored as well.

There’s also a real danger, though, in the vulnerability that digitally-savvy political candidates have here, that luddite candidates do not. I think it’s no coincidence that every single pro-net neutrality candidate lost in last week’s elections. There may have been many causes, but if push comes to shove, who’s going to be the candidate with an embarrassing Facebook photo: The candidate who is an extensive user of social networks with a long-time history dating back to their young days of poor judgement? Or the one who knows nothing about technology, mistrusts it, and sees it only as a source of potential vulnerabilities? Simply not being afraid of technology may become a political liability if we continue to allow those who resent and fear technology to set the rules of engagement.

There’s also the interesting, and consistent, media habit of blaming social networks for every unfortunate indirection that is brought to people’s attention, even if social media wasn’t involved at all. Take Blake Farenthold (please!). The Texas Republican was photographed in an unfortunate set of duckie pajamas, as illustrated in this brilliant Joe Coscarelli article and slideshow in the Village Voice, which collects all of the damning episodes outlined in the Times story into one perfect piece of linkbait.

But Farenthold didn’t post the picture on any social network. As far as we know, no one did. It just got linked directly to the press. And, given enough privilege, that image can be suppressed quite effectively from the most prominent media venues around, just as Farenthold’s incriminating picture never appeared in the New York Times. Farenthold won his district by 799 votes.