Social media is a wonderful thing. Not a day goes by that I don’t get a pitch from some eager startup trying to squeeze a little more juice out of the social Web, talking about how they can do it better — more connected, more open, more social, and on and on.
Sadly, all that sharing has its price. We’re familiar with the stories about employers digging through an applicant’s MySpace and Facebook pages looking for the kind of character reference that you can’t find on a resume. But what if the job you’re in line for is the director of White House speechwriting?
Then it would probably be impolitic for you to be seen taking liberties with a life-size cardboard cutout of Hillary Clinton, the president-elect’s chief rival throughout the campaign whom he has now tapped as Secretary of State.
Such is the plight of Jon Favreau.
Favreau, 27, served as Obama’s chief speechwriter throughout the campaign. So you can attribute to him much of the credit for the soaring oratory, supplying the words that Obama delivered so successfully in his rock-star campaign rallies.
But remember — he’s 27, and a great many people in Washington have done a great many worse things at a much older age. (For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, here’s Favreau getting cozy with cardboard Clinton at a party with one of his buddies.)
So the infraction is a twenty-something having a few beers at a party with some of his pals and indulging in a little sophomoric humor that was intended to stay behind closed doors.
In the pre-Facebook, pre-MySpace, pre-YouTube, pre-cell-phone-camera era, that might have been a reasonable expectation. But no longer.
The plain truth today is that regardless of whether you partake in the great social media experiment, odds are you’re surrounded by people who do. And that means that anonymity, as we used to understand it, is gone. Some things aren’t meant to be broadcast, but that’s yesterday’s thinking. Today, the paparazzi aren’t just for the famous. No matter who you are, the best advice might be to live your life with the constant assumption that you’re being filmed, fun be damned.
A recent study from the Pew Internet Project looked ahead to 2020, surveying Internet experts about what the future will bring and asking, among other things, whether the 360 view of a life lived in the digital era would blunt our indignation when things like the Favreau pictures surface. Essentially, are we heading toward what Jeff Jarvis called the “era of mutually assured humiliation”? Everyone’s got secrets, and everyone knows they could be outed at any moment by some digital mishap, so think twice before you start throwing stones.
The survey respondents were split on that question.
Judging by the reaction to the Favreau incident, we’re not there yet. When the “scandal” hit, a torrent of cries came down calling for Obama to cut the young man loose. Shrill, indignant, and completely off base. And yet, perhaps an unavoidable symptom of life in the age of user-generated media.
My guess is it will be a gradual acclimation. As these flare-ups become more commonplace, their shock value will diminish. It seems inevitable. But in the meantime, it’s easy to imagine that many other prominents will get raked through the news cycle for more or less innocuous behavior because cameras are everywhere and the Web has made global distribution a trivial thing.
Remember George Allen in 2006? His bid for the Senate wasn’t so much torpedoed by doing silly things on Facebook, but by repeating what many took to be a racial epithet at a campaign rally, which quickly became a viral hit on YouTube.
Favreau’s antics, much more benign, don’t seem to have sapped his career. He’s still on the team, the Obama machine has said he apologized, and a Clinton staffer told the Post that “Senator Clinton is pleased to learn of Jon’s obvious interest in the State Department, and is currently reviewing his application.”
At least someone still has a sense of humor.