Remember when Twitter was fun? A place on the internet full of interesting discussion, witty dialogue and pictures of cats? Those days are long gone: the Twittersphere is becoming a thoroughly unpleasant place to be.
In the last month, countless feminists have been abused, various newspaper columnists have received death threats, and in the early hours of last week, one of the most distasteful trends in the site’s brief history, '#SlaneGirl', was the second highest trending topic worldwide.
This trend, and the hateful misogynists and slut-shamers who adopted it, are examples of our inability to remember that like the proverbial elephant, the internet never forgets. For the majority of students it seems entirely natural to tweet a mildly incriminating picture of a friend – being sick in a toilet, stealing a traffic cone, giving or receiving fellatio in public. Most wouldn’t bat an eyelid before venting their anger to Twitter. The internet has become a diary in which we record our every moment, the thoroughness of which puts even Samuel Pepys to shame. And like Pepys, these diaries will not be forgotten: embarrassing photographs, abusive tweets, and every other shade of our online persona are the indelible records of our youthful hubris.
Inevitably, these social media shadows will catch up with us. Already those in public office are becoming embroiled in scandals because of their past internet use. Guido Fawkes has delighted in persistently trashing Chuka Umunna for allegedly doctoring his Wikipedia entry - dubbing himself the ‘British Obama’ - and for describing London West End nightclubs as ‘full of trash and class-C wannabes’ on an exclusive social network. More recently, the abortive vanity project of ‘Youth Police Commissioners’ ended in tears after the Daily Mail trawled through Paris Brown’s Twitter feed to reveal her apparent bigotry – damning her with her tweets posted years before. And now, Conservative Central Office panels have begun asking potential candidates: “What’s the most embarrassing thing we would find if we Googled you?”
They are right to do so. The unfortunate Mr Umunna and the hapless Ms Brown are just the tip of the iceberg. Whilst the majority of people’s online history won’t contain anything nearly as compromising as ‘SlaneGirl’ and ‘SlaneBoy’ – or their misogynist trolls - everyone will have something. Unless you’ve been reading Bagehot and Machiavelli from birth and have spent the following years training for public office, by the time you graduate you will already have shot yourself in the foot on social media. No one vaguely normal is immune to the career-ending cancer that is an online footprint; I know politically-minded students whose high ambitions I could easily fell with just a cursory glance at their Twitter or Facebook page.
And whilst ex-Bullingdon Club members David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson have proved that even a pre-internet past can come back to haunt you, the digitisation of our every thought has given our youthful misdemeanours a permanence we cannot avoid. Our teenage actions may have little bearing on our adult selves, but no one has told the online media this, and they will muckrake for years to find something incriminating on those in power. The internet just makes it easier.
For those of us whose days in higher education are numbered, this is a worrying prospect, and one which has sent many into the arms of the professional networking website, LinkedIn, in a vain attempt at salvation. There, we hope to be digi-cleansed and sanitised, ready for employment and perhaps public office. Indeed, student LinkedIn profiles - full of wilfully evasive and exaggerated paragraphs about modest work placements - are often simply attempts to nullify a rocky history on social media. It provides a forum in which we can present our sterile, well behaved selves to the world. But a well constructed LinkedIn profile is no safety net – it is not disconnected from the rest of the internet, and the rest of the internet is damning.
The only way to counter the blight of internet history is self-censorship and a thorough online clean-up. Delete your Bebo, delete your Myspace, update the privacy settings of your Facebook, and privatise your Twitter. Then look to companies like Socialsafe, SimpleWash, Tweet Eraser and Qnary to tie off any loose ends. But even this won’t be enough. Just two months ago, the EU’s ‘right to be forgotten’ proposal was vetoed, so, just like criminal records, our online indiscretions will never disappear entirely. As a result, self-censorship is the only way to avoid the fate of the Umannas and Browns of this world. Although it may feel disingenuous to cut out our digital tongues, for the ambitious, it’s necessary.