There’s a moment in the “David After Dentist” YouTube video when David, overwhelmed, stares blankly forward and asks, “Is this real life?” and then “Is this going to be forever?”
When it comes to the Internet, the answer is: probably, yes.
I mention this because of Pax Dickinson, who just got fired from Business Insider for being, well, what sounds like a terrible person on the Internet. With sunglasses primed and finger tired, he tweeted his way out of everyone’s hearts.
Writing about his firing, Slate’s Amanda Hess noted, “The Internet is … the workplace.”
This is the sort of sentence that makes me want to fling my phone into a fountain, give it all up and fly back home to my understanding chef boyfriend, except that I am not Anne Hathaway in “The Devil Wears Prada,” so this option is not available to me. Hess’ sentence is so troubling not because it’s false but because it’s true.
This was what all those people at Career Days used to warn you about. “Don’t post pictures online that show poor judgment,” they would say. And you would scoff, a little. But then it became “Don’t show poor judgment online.” And that was harder.
It used to be that there were other places you could go and be an ill-informed, rude twerp. But now the Internet is where you live. It’s where you watch videos and listen to music and where you go after a long day’s work to swap insults with your friends. It’s certainly where I talk to mine.
And for the most part, this is not a bad thing.
How should you not be on the Internet?
This seems like that would be a simple question. Don’t be a terrible person, just the same way you wouldn’t be in real life. Don’t be sexist. Don’t be racist. Don’t threaten people. Don’t impersonate a nubile 17-year-old houri when in fact you are someone with the approximate dimensions of Jabba the Hutt, dwelling in your parents’ basement. (And don’t be fat-phobic.)
Except that it sometimes isn’t so easy. Our lives online and off are not neatly compartmentalized; we’re ourselves on Twitter and Facebook, for the world to see. Our Internet friends often are our real friends. The price for the constant connection? We exist in public.
Not long ago you would be surprised and disappointed to discover that someone whose work you admired was a terrible person. This would be years later, when the biography came out and revealed that he liked to fling lit cigarettes at cats or would habitually show up at his children’s schools to shout that he did not love them. But it was afterward. Before that, you only knew him as The Guy Who Wrote Your Favorite Book or The Pretty Competent Governor of Delaware.
But now it’s all out there the instant you click “Follow.”
These days you can get hired from your social media presence. You can get fired that way, too. It’s a dimension in which your personality has to exist. Not having Facebook is like saying, “I’ve chosen to be made of cardboard.”
In general, when the hammer comes down against the Pax Dickinsons of this world for tweeting obnoxious things, people think this is a Good Thing. But what if he’d just said those things to his real-life friends in the privacy of his real-life home? Is it even possible to be a person separate from your persona?
The Internet is where you live.
And sometimes I wish you could turn the dang thing off. I wish you could get away from it for a second without feeling that everyone was hanging out without you. But that is the essence of life online. Everyone is there hanging out without you, always.
It is where you live*. And it’s real life. And it’s forever.
*Except LinkedIn. There are no real people there.
Alexandra Petri is a writer for The Washington Post.