Thursday, May 15, 2014

On wrote-juvenilia-before-things-went-viral privilege

Someone (who may read WWPD, and if so, should feel extra-encouraged to respond) favorably linked on Facebook to Simon Waxman's plea that major publications leave college op-ed writers alone. Waxman - just like yours truly! - knows what it's like to have published less-than-stellar essays while still a student, for an audience of other students, or at most, profs who know full well that you're still learning how to construct an argument, etc. Back in the day, stuff may have gone online, but there wasn't social media, there wasn't this "viral" capacity. You could write nonsense, that nonsense might even make it to physical print, and Time still wouldn't hear about it.

Anyway. This is something I thought about quite a bit before - and after - deciding to respond to the Tal Fortgang debacle. After all, my objection to parental overshare is in part that a young person shouldn't be forever known for his or her most embarrassing moment. Isn't this sort of the same?

No, I ended up concluding, it's not. There wasn't space to get into all these concerns in my earlier article, so, here goes: A 20-year-old who writes and publishes an essay, and consents to its (and his) further promotion, isn't the same as an 11- or 16-year-old whose ostensibly private remarks are put into a major publication by a publicity-minded writer parent. Nor, for that matter, is this the same as the "Apple store lady" viral video, or the other, similar situations, where a low moment in someone's day, week, month, or even - apologies to that crap 1990s sitcom - year ends up surreptitiously recorded and posted online, so that the whole world can tell this person having an off day what an evil, entitled person they surely are. We're talking about adults, who are choosing to present views that are their own. There has to be a cutoff somewhere, and unless we go the whole 'the brain only fully develops at 40' route, most college-student articles are fair game. At least as much so as small-time blogs written by (presumably) adults of unspecified age and education level, blogs that will periodically find themselves ridiculed on Gawker or whatever. At least a writer for a student publication imagined some audience.

Yet, at the same time, it does kind of suck that this is now a thing. Not so much in Fortgang's case - he seems to have more than consented to the publicity - but that other, less confident, if technically adult students can now end up viral at what could well be their intellectual low points, students who may hardly even have a conception of what it means for their classmates to read their article, let alone the world. So? How to deal with this ambiguous category of text?

This, though, seems more an issue of etiquette than - as with parental overshare or turning private moments viral - ethics. Factors like how big of a platform someone has, or, if an item has been published, if it's a student publication, should play at least somewhat into whether or not something oh-so-outrageous gets a take-down, and if so, what form that takes. It's sort of... bad form, if you're someone with a tremendous platform and endless experience, to react to a piece in a college paper as if it were Kristof's latest. You also don't want to be patronizing and assume a student will think otherwise once older - chances are, the student will think the same but be better-able to articulate these thoughts. But maybe, if you are going to respond to one of these items, especially if you're doing so for a large audience, it helps to make it very clear that what you're responding to is by a student, in a student publication? It can't hurt.

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