Perpetual pasts in the age of social media
Social media platforms provide for no independent agency to verify age-related claims. Minors often make up a considerable section of their subscribers, although it is hard to find statistical details. How to limit the perpetual circulation of embarrassing material posted by children online has already emerged as a major public concern for parents, psychologists, and technology and media researchers.
A feature in a leading English daily early this morning highlighted concerns of parents and psychologists over growing incidents of identity faking in social media among teenagers. One of the incidents reported involved a standard ten student who posed as an adult on a social media platform in order to make contact with drug peddlers. The student eventually became a regular customer and an addict. The parents discovered this history only after the student had been admitted to a rehabilitation facility. A psychologist quoted in the feature observed that the internet is ‘all-pervasive and way too close to a child than their parents.’
Let us stay with this student for a while yet, particularly with the fake social media profile created in order to project an adult personality. It must have been an embarrassing experience for the student, and doctors or psychologists will probably advise the student or the family to delete the profile. That is no guarantee though that photos or other material posted by that account will disappear forever. While using that fake profile, the student must have shared material with others. The shared material will continue to survive and circulate or hibernate, without the knowledge of the student or his family. How will this knowledge impact the peace of the family or the prospects of the student?
For the sake of argument, let us presume the best-case scenario, meaning the student responds to treatment and grows up to be a responsible adult. Given that prospective employers and even spouses these days scrutinize social media profiles of various candidates as a matter of course, how is this fake profile going to haunt our cursed student in the future? How is the kid or the family going to respond to the knowledge that even after full recovery and return to normal life, embarrassing evidence of the student’s immaturity will freely continue to circulate in the public domain? How do we grapple with the reality that we are now living in a world where technology has now made it practically impossible to erase any photo or video once it is released or circulated in the social media?
A majority of social media users probably do not worry about this prospect as of yet. Most of them have not yet reckoned with the full implications of releasing intimate details of their lives in the public domain, without the right to regulate their preservation or circulation. The moment one of their updates, whether words or photos, is copied or shared, it becomes the property of the sharer too. As such, it acquires a free right to circulation, independent of the wish of the original author. In a majority of cases, it is considered a positive or desirable prospect. Who does not like his or her words or photos to go viral? In cases involving crime or shame or embarrassment, however, a photo or post going viral and circulating freely on the internet can cause retrospective emotional harm or lifelong loss of reputation. There is as yet no estimate of such losses nor any remedy in India. Europe and America have been considering this menace for a while now and put in place some rudimentary laws about rights of data subjects and their right to the erasure of online material, a point to which we will return.
This concern is particularly urgent in the case of minors, meaning children or teenagers, who remain legally barred from creating social media profiles. This legal bar is often toothless. Social media platforms provide for no independent agency to verify age-related claims. Minors often make up a considerable section of their subscribers, although it is hard to find statistical details. How to limit the perpetual circulation of embarrassing material posted by children online has already emerged as a major public concern for parents, psychologists, and technology and media researchers.
It is the central theme of a new book by Kate Eichhorn, who teaches media history and culture in the prestigious New School in New York. In The End of Forgetting: Growing up in the Age of Social Media (Harvard UP, 2018), Eichhorn argues that perpetual survival and circulation of childhood memories, especially embarrassing memories, which we would prefer to disappear from reckoning, will have a profound impact on the lives of those children who grow up in the age of the internet and have themselves posted hundreds of selfies or other photos of their own childhood lives. She is not certain about the nature of this impact, which she believes could be both positive and negative.
She is confident, however, that this is going to change the idea of childhood as it existed until recently. There are two essential elements of the conventional idea of childhood. The first is that childhood is when individuals are immature and make mistakes. They later grow out of these mistakes and immaturities, which is how they become mature and responsible adults. Childhood is a time at once of making mistakes and learning from them. It is a time of training and apprenticeship when an individual is not fully ready to face the world as a fit professional. What a child does, good or bad, is therefore not to be taken too seriously, since it is not the work of a responsible adult who can enjoy or suffer the consequence of his or her decisions or actions. A child, or a minor, is for that reason not considered a legal subject who can face trials like adults for a crime.
The second essential part of the conventional idea of childhood involves control and protection by adults. Historically, the idea of childhood is not very old. While children have been around since the dawn of creation, the idea that they are immature and essentially inferior in intelligence, wisdom and maturity from adults crystallized around the 18th century, when book publishers and sellers increasingly encouraged children’s books as an entirely separate genre. Eichhorn shows that children and adults wore similar clothes and read the same books before the 18th century. The idea of children or minors is a somewhat modern idea, created and developed by print, and later industrial capital. As a matter of fact, children as a special category of labour needing protection and schooling emerged in Britain only in the late eighteenth century. During the early phase of the industrial revolution, children were employed by factory owners as a matter of course. Still earlier, children were regular members of the domestic unit of production. The idea of children as a group of physically and mentally vulnerable individuals who require extra care, protection, and immunities from the state and the society too became widely popular largely by the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There are many accounts of the diverse range of concerns about the well being of children as a distinct group of subjects. These were thought up largely by educated middle-class men during the nineteenth century. The idea of what the children should be and do, or how to distinguish their world from that of the adults, was a product of the imagination entirely of adults.
Children themselves had no role in thinking about their own lives or futures, for the very point of being a child was to be unfit and protected. Books or comics or cartoons or animations, or practically each and every means with which to amuse or instruct children was wholly and solely conceived, designed, produced, delivered, and controlled by adults. Adults owned the presses, for instance, which published children’s books and they wrote and illustrated them too. Similarly, adults thought up and designed toys or games which children were expected to and did enjoy.
Photography and videography to an extent broke down the monopoly of adults in designing the world of children. Internet and smartphones, however, has subsequently disrupted it like never before. Children and minors all over now take and post online selfies and videos of practically any and every experience of their lives, including potentially embarrassing ones.
This fundamental change, whereby parents and adults have practically lost control over how children are designing their worlds, is partly caused by the nature of internet technology. Internet access through smartphones, in particular, is cheap and requires no technical proficiency from its subscribers. It has made it exceedingly easy for children to access the internet and social media. Since skills to master the internet or social media does not grow with age, parents themselves often fail to keep up with children in tracking the latest technology in the online world which makes it even easier to take or post photos. Parents find it harder by the day to control or monitor what their wards do in the online world, partly on account of their own inadequate exposure to it.
This brings us back to the problem with which we began. Eichhorn speaks of forgetting as a useful means through which children grow into responsible adults. In working out her arguments she briefly refers to Freud who had made a useful distinction between repetition and remembering. Some unhappy memories lie hidden in our subconscious, Freud wrote, and make us behave improperly. For instance, when individuals cannot remember why they avoid something or someone, they will keep repeating that act until the therapist helps them find out the cause. The memory of an unpleasant event which might have ushered in that action requires to be brought up to the region of conscious recall in order for an individual to finally face it. Here repetition and memory are two polar opposites; repetition happens because there is no memory. Memory, on the other hand, is a cure against repetition. For repetition to happen, there has to be an absence of memory. Eichhorn wonders what will happen to a world where children have already learned to preserve almost every moment of their lives. She believes forgetting serves a therapeutic function too, by assisting in erasing from memory traces of unpleasant or embarrassing experiences. For instance, many victims of assault and displacement during partition did not talk about their tragedies for many years, even decades. What would happen if photos of such terrible tragedies were to circulate freely after many years? How would they have influenced the process of relief and rehabilitation for survivors?
Eichhorn does not claim that children who obsessively take and post selfies today will all feel terrible about some of those photos being available online. She is more concerned about protocols of circulation, as in the loss of total control of the authors of those photographs over how they circulate and where and when they pop up. How will a child who kicks a dog, for instance, in a playful mood, feel if fifteen years later a prospective employer consider it a mark of his essentially ruthless nature and deny him a job? In other words, these photos might make it impossible for today’s children to craft a future in which they forget, and get others to forget, traces of their immature or embarrassing pasts.
This is part of a larger set of questions, such as the right of individuals to their data. Several legislations have already been enacted in Europe and America, to address precisely these concerns. Eichhorn mentions them but her work is concerned largely with what she calls the looming threat of the impossibility of forgetting. If every major detail of our lives is freely circulating or visible to everyone, what does that to do our ideas of who we are? Some contemporary writers have addressed these very experiences. Jia Tolentino, for instance, addresses the experience of living a life of constant online exposure or participating in a reality show, in her sparkling new collection of essays called Trick Mirror.
I propose to take up the overlaps between Eichhorn and Talentino’s works separately. Let me conclude by nudging your memory to another unfortunate tragedy in India. Some years ago, a principal of a reputed school was publicly lynched by outraged parents. She was suspected of luring students into prostitution. The courts later cleared her of all charges. I do not know if the courts ruled on the circulation of photos and videos of the lynching, which were shared widely at the time. In all probability, random images of that lynching are freely available online. Imagine if this were to happen to someone in your family.