Paris Brown is a teenage girl from the Isle of Sheppey in Kent who is going to go down in Internet history. She has become the first really notable case of someone’s online past catching up with them in the present day. All day yesterday in the UK her tearful face was headline news across TV channels and this morning she is looking up at you from the morning newspapers.
Three years ago when she was just 14 she posted some rather stupid Tweets. One, for instance, said “I really wanna make a batch of hash brownies”. On its own that might seem she is condoning the use of illegal drugs. It was, though, a teenage girl referring to “Scoobie Snacks”, the biscuits given to the cartoon dog, Scoobie Doo – widely thought by cartoon analysts to be cannabis soaked chocolate cakes.
For a teenage girl giving a nine-word comment on a cartoon movie of the time this was an innocent giggle; the kind of thing teenagers say to each other all the time without any real meaning.
The problem for Paris Brown now, three years on, is that she has just been appointed the Children’s Police Commissioner for Kent, on a salary of £15,000 paid for from the public purse.
Had she said the sometimes nasty, admittedly stupid, things to her friends they would have been forgotten and had no impact on her new job. However, online those teenage, childish comments have a permanent life. What she said three years ago in teenage angst is now part of her present day because unlike real world conversations those comments live on through the Internet.
Think back three years yourself. Back in the year 2010, two years before the Olympics came to London, did you say anything daft to the people around you? Did you make some comment after watching a movie, for instance, which taken as a single line could be interpreted as just plain stupid or worse? The chances are, you cannot remember and neither can your friends. You were down the pub, commenting on some daft politician in the news and said a line which was potentially offensive but which your friends, in the context of a chat down the pub, took as a joke. The conversation moved on, you had another drink and here we are three years on and no-one remembers it.
Similarly, is there anything you said to people back in 2010 which you regret? Is there something you wish you had not said? Like most people, there are probably comments you made which still live inside your head, but which other people have actually forgotten.
No-one is immune from saying daft things or comments they regret – we all do it.
For “real world” conversations, though, these things are forgotten. They disappear almost as quickly as they were said, never to return.
But make the same comments on Twitter or Facebook and they are there forever; a permanent reminder of your stupidity or lack of thinking.
It means that the daft comment you made on Twitter about some comedy programme you were watching could well be seen by a future client of your business in 10 years from now. In isolation, that comment may make them think again about whether or not they should hire you. They won’t be aware of the context. All they will see is something negative. Your seemingly fun comment on Twitter could well be the reason why you lose business in a decade’s time.
Let Paris Brown be a warning to you – your past is your present online.
Graham Jones is an Internet Psychologist who studies the way people use the online world, in particular how people engage with businesses. He uses this knowledge to help companies improve their online connections to their customers and potential customers and offers consultancy, workshops, masterclasses and webinars. He also speaks regularly at conferences and business events. Graham is an award-winning writer and the author of 32 books, several of which are about various aspects of the Internet. For more information connect with me on Google+