Paris Brown is just the first…

The recent controversy regarding the dubious comment found of the Twitter feed of Paris Brown, the 17 year old newly appointed Youth Police and Crime Commissioner, has brought us to the cusp of a new point in our technological society. While we’ve all slowly begun to recognise the affects social media has on our professional lives, only now are there people who have grown up with access to online social media joining the workforce. And while she may be one of the first, Ms. Brown will not be the last we hear about.

Paris Brown made the news when she was appointed to the new post of Youth Police and Crime Commissioner in Kent. The post was controversial to many, and under such media scrutiny it was soon revealed that between the ages of 14 and 16 she had posted various homophobic and racist slurs on her Twitter account, along with various references to drug and alcohol use. None of these posts were made since Ms. Brown was appointed, and since then she publicly apologised, deleted the account in question and stood down from the post.

But disregarding all the debate about the validity of the role or her personal suitability for it, what this media storm has highlighted is a new facet that modern social media has added to our lives. One we are soon going to have to face up to in a big way.

The fact is there is an entire generation about to enter the workforce who have grown up on social media, and until now they have never had to worry about what they have said on it.

My generation was the first to have access to modern social media in their youth. Facebook came in around the time I was at university. My peers and I were quick to take up this new tool, but while at first most of us only saw the fun side of it people soon began to recognise all the professional uses and implications of such site. Despite how much fun it was to post ridiculous photos of ourselves and our friends for all to see, we then realised the implications of doing so on a public forum. Family and, more importantly, potential employers had full access to this portrait we painted of ourselves. Stories began to spread of bosses monitoring their employees Facebook pages, and of internet searches becoming a standard part of the vetting process for new jobs. We all quickly learned to ensure that we took control of our digital footprint, and how it represented us.

But now sites like Facebook and Twitter, which have become an integrated part of mainstream life in a way previous incarnations such as MySpace never managed, have been about for long enough that a new generation has had access to them since childhood. Like the rest of us they post what’s on their minds; random thoughts and stupid opinions that mean nothing to anyone five minutes later. And just like the rest of us, they have a following of a couple of dozen people to whom such comments will, in most cases, make very little impact. The occasional social drama or hurt feeling was quickly passed by and forgotten.

But as the case of poor Paris Brown has shown, that generation has now come to the point where people will start to take notice. All those stupid, ridiculous things that they have posted on the internet for all to find are still there. While you can delete them, the very nature of the internet means you can never be sure it hasn’t been saved somewhere. How many guilty secrets and forgotten offenses are hidden in the darker recesses of the ‘net?

And while my generation simply had a year or so to filter through and fix, this new generation has possibly ten years worth. In some cases their entire childhood is documented for everyone to see, with every poor decision and half understood comment.

While you can say that to a certain degree when you’re applying for most jobs your potential employers are not going to search your social media feeds in such fine detail, there are many are out there that will.

It is the media’s job to scrutinise those who reach positions of power and they will go that extra mile. When David Cameron became leader of the Conservative Party, the media was awash with photos of his university days with the Bullingdon Club. You can laugh away a few ridiculous photos, but does anyone imagine that boys in the same positions now aren’t making jokes to each other playing up being the snob and looking down on other people. They may well not mean any of it and be simply joking around with friends, or they might even mean it but realise in a year or to how stupid those opinions are and completely change, but those comments are there potentially forever, waiting for somebody to use out of context.

We are now reaching the stage where the people who will be running for Prime Minister in thirty or forty years are currently pasting comments like “Lol, Karen is such a homo!!1 Gonna beat her good!” and “Driving back from the club. Music dere was for fagz”. Because teenagers write things like that. Because they are stupid. They could mean it, or it could just be attempts at witty irony. In this hypothetical situation the media will not care about the original context, as they will happily create their own. And down goes another political career.

And when this happens it is going to be a hell of a shock for those who have to deal with it. Ann Barnes, the Kent Police and Crime Commissioner who appointed Ms. Brown, highlighted this when she was interviewed by the BBC.

“We went through a perfectly normal recruitment process and we had her vetted by the force. Nobody normally looks through anybody’s Twitter feed – perhaps that’s a lesson for the future. We are living in a different world now.”

In a way, despite various calls from opponents that this scandal shows that the appointment of a Youth Commissioner is a terrible idea, this whole situation actually highlights how including young people in the ‘establishment’ would be beneficial for it. The social media culture is something that folk like Anne Barnes do not understand as it was not something they lived through. Childhood has changed. The police vetting service missed this aspect of Ms. Brown’s past because they did not foresee this sort of thing happening. Political parties are going to be the same.

And while every sensible person knows that you can’t take the comments someone made when they were a teenager seriously when judging their ability as an adult, that won’t stop the media.

I feel sorry for Ms. Brown. She seems to have been first through the breach of this new field of media scrutiny. Unfortunately for her, but unsurprisingly for a 17 year of girl against the might of the media, it has forced her to give up an amazing opportunity. Hopefully she will still be able to make something of all this, but maybe she will simply end up as a example to others as yet one more danger of the irresponsible use of social media.

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