‘You Will No Longer Be Called…’ | Facebook, Identity and Rebirth

In a fascinating interview in the Wall Street Journal, Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt has admitted that young people will have to change their identities in the future to protect themselves from all the embarrassing photos and information that will be available about them from their ‘misspent youths.’

‘Every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood.’

I think this is more interesting than he might have meant it to be, and touches on issues of identity, conversion and ‘rebirth’ into adulthood. Many societies still have initiation rituals which mark a move away from childhood and into full adult membership of a community. They become a new person. The old has gone, the new has come.

With this move, however, the community needs to present a sort of amnesia – the child that you were is ‘forgotten’. In the digital age, this is becoming more and more impossible:

“I don’t believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time.”

To ‘available, knowable and recorded’ I’d add ‘remembered.’ And this could be a problem. Why? Because it will never allow people to move on from the idiocy of their youth, and let’s face it, most of us were idiots at least some of the time.

But perhaps there’s a deeper problem here. The reason why people may be forced into taking new identities is because society, while never being able to allow us to forget, has it self forgotten that we were all young once. In other words, we have become unforgiving. An interviewer who looks up a prospective candidate’s Facebook profile and decides that their drunken photos and stupid utterances exclude them from consideration has forgotten that they probably did the very same things. It’s just that they were unrecorded.

The move into adulthood then may involve a ritual of rebirth, of digital deletion or reassessment, even a conscious attempt to turn over a new leaf and become ‘someone else’, but this must be paralleled with a decision by all of us that we will also be forgiving.

This appears to me to be the dual-role of baptism. The person who disappears under the water leaves behind their old self, and rises a new being. But the community that watches them disappear, and then reappear, has a responsibility to forgive – and this means ‘pretending to forget too.’ When Jesus says ‘you will no longer be called Simon’ he becomes Simon/Peter – a dual identity, with his Simon-self ‘forgotten.’

We might all need these digital baptisms from time to time. Periods when we need to delete, and then pretend that things are forgotten. The infamous university photo of Tony Blair (back row, third from right) is a good case in point. It’s embarrassing, but it’s surely crass to use it to judge him now?


4 responses to “‘You Will No Longer Be Called…’ | Facebook, Identity and Rebirth”

  1. It’s a good point on the switch from childhood to adulthood, because that’s when we say (arbitrarily, it seems to me) we have become responsible for the identity we inhabit.

    But speaking as someone who regularly uses two names, I wouldn’t want to say that having two (or myriad) identities was a bad thing, at least not insofar as one needs forgiving and leaving behind.

    Equally, we don’t get a blank slate when we turn 18. Take that equivalent picture of David Cameron. He didn’t ask to be born into such wealth or privilege, and it would probably have been difficult to resist the boorish company it put him in. But is it something he could ever escape? Can we reasonably say that he now has an identity that he’s chosen? That who he is is his *fault*?

    It’s a pleasant thought, that we might be self-created entities. But it’s a kind lie we tell ourselves, isn’t it?

  2. I think that as time goes on this will become a non-issue. There is currently a fascination around this because being able to so freely delve in to peoples past is a new thing by way of the Internet and social networking.

    After a time it’s going to become boring and it will be no news at all that someone ‘has a past’ that they’d rather forget. My hope is that society will grow up on this, although it may be a way off yet. I don’t envisage that people will be ‘forced to change their identity’ on account of issues like this.

  3. I honestly don’t think it will be Gav. Quite simply because we have no idea who we are going to become, and thus don’t act according to the possible future we might have. So it will always be ‘interesting’ that Bill Clinton smoked dope while at Oxford, that Blair was a bit of a knob in the same place.

    The point is that we remain very human and very obsessed with sleaze. And with the rise of digital footprints, it is simply becoming easier to dig this stuff up.

    As for multiple identities, I’d agree that it’s no bad thing. But we have to be both responsible for the adult identities we create, and forgiving of those we inherit, and of those around us?

  4. acetate monkey

    How does identity tie in to the idea of ‘journey’? Watching Big Brother it was interesting to see the concepts of journey and learning being the overarching moral narrative. Only one person (Marco) seemed to regret going in to the house due to the subsequent ‘closing of doors’ he experienced. Is it just the current baby-boomer generation (and those who came before them) who would like candidates to pitch up close to the finished product with no misdemeaners? Would future decision makers (i.e the BB audience later in life) be more tolerant of ‘history’ if some sort of growth/moral could be demonstrated from it? Not necessarily a damascene event, but still Paul’s audience were won over from the violent Saul by a story of an eventful journey. (Although admittedly he did change his name). Or once we gain position and therefore a habitus of professionalism would we forget where we came from? Paul’s sleaze was dug up by himself in his letters. Would we need to constantly refer back to skeletons throughout our subsequent life, purposefully being transparent so that no-one else could expose our history. Again, coming back to BB it’s interesting that the awareness of the public record and demonstration of his life meant that Brian Dowling came out to his parents just before going in the first time.