The hardest moment of my high school graduation ceremony to sit through was the dull and plodding speech by a local dignitary, lecturing us on the perils of social-networking sites. Were we aware that a single status update could come back to haunt us? Did we know that one “incriminating” photo could destroy our professional lives? Had we been able to get beyond the speaker’s glaring use of the already-archaic Myspace as the example to use in his warning, we’d probably respond, yes, in fact, we did. Call us naïve, but I think it speaks well of our generation, and poorly of the previous, that our minds didn’t jump to using Facebook as a method of exclusion and oppression in the working world.
Well, allow me to propose that, for the very same reasons it’s such a social danger now, Facebook will open up American politics in the long run.
Take a walk with me into the inevitable future: Members of this generation (Generation Y, if you insist) have “grown up” and are either voters or running for public office. Unless the Gen Y politician in question had designs to run for office from the very beginning and thus avoided Facebook like the plague, it’s probable that he or she had a profile in his or her youth, when the off-color comment or status or less than flattering photo was posted.
It’s certain that this scenario will happen; a good many who used Facebook as teenagers will eventually find themselves on one campaign trail or another. What’s a little less certain is what will go down at first; the most likely thing that will happen is that, for a few election cycles, political parties will nominate old folk, those who didn’t have a Facebook profile during their callow days, people who don’t have pictorial evidence of past inebriated or otherwise altered states.
But eventually, the pickings for elderly politicians will shrink, and the pool of older, Facebook-less voters will dry up. In cruder terms, they’ll die off. When that happens, everyone will have had a Facebook, and politics will at last be liberated.
The key feature of American politics is opposition research, and using what you learned to attack your opponent. People criticize politicians for mud-slinging, but politics by its very nature is about mud-slinging. Slick and sleazy investigators are hired by the barrel every campaign season just to find worm-knotted dirt to tarnish a given opponent.
What if, though, politicians (more realistically, their campaign staff) didn’t have to hire those people. After all, Candidate X has a Facebook photo floating around on the Internet that anybody could see, showing him as a college student holding a 40 oz. bottle of Colt 45 in one hand, and presenting his middle finger with the other. His career is over! Write his political obituary! Not so fast. There’s a just-as-accessible picture of Candidate Y (with a thicker head of hair) on the Internet: he’s enjoying himself at a party, and, well what do you know, he’s holding a joint. Candidates X and Y could bring up these details, but what would be the point? In the post-Facebook political culture, we’ll have candidates with nothing to hide because they couldn’t hide anything. Smear campaigns and personal attacks will become obsolete, thus we’ll be able to get down to the real issues.
When this time finally arrives, every candidate will be an open Facebook.