Anyway, the permanent record was one of those semi-mythical creatures that you publicly dismissed while privately fearing when you were camping in the woods and the fire had burned down. I was a rich kid in that poor town, in public school mostly because of politics related to my father’s job, and most high school discipline rolled right off me. It was a given that I’d graduate at the top of my class and decamp for some fancy college, which, indeed, I did. But I do remember the permanent record thing making me ever so slightly nervous, and if I laughed about it to my friends, then I still privately fretted that some ambitious admissions officer would haul up my file and mark me off with a red X for some past minor infraction. Now, of course, kids really do get a permanent record because schools have followed the general trend of American social hysteria and started calling the cops for the slightest infraction; detention is now a misdemeanor, and so on. That’s a shame, because the permanent record ought to be as laughable now as it ever was. Do you remember yourself when you were sixteen? Many descriptors come to mind, but fully formed isn’t one of them.
As if that weren’t bad enough, that idea that one ought to be branded with one’s own youth like a poorly considered neck tattoo, we now find not only kids, but adults (especially new adults) getting constantly dinged with the dire warning that Social Media Lasts Forever. I think this is probably patently untrue in a purely physical sense; it strikes me as probable that fifty years from now, the whole electronic record of our era will be largely lost in a sea of forgotten passwords, proprietary systems, faulty hardware, and compatibility issues. But it should also be untrue in, dare I say it, the moral sense. Educators and employers are constantly yelling that you young people have an affirmative responsibility not to post anything where a teacher or principal or, worst of all, boss or potential boss might find it, which gets the ethics of the situation precisely backwards. It isn’t your sister’s obligation to hide her diary; it’s yours not to read it. Your boyfriend shouldn’t have to close all his browser windows and hide his cell phone; you ought to refrain from checking his history and reading his texts. But, says the Director of Human Resources and the Career Counselor, social media is public; you’re putting it out there. Yes, well, then I’m sure you won’t mind if I join you guys at happy hour with this flip-cam and a stenographer. Privacy isn’t the responsibility of individuals to squirrel away secrets; it’s the decency of individuals to leave other’s lives alone.