I had not read the term ‘fauxtroversy’ before now, but I think Dorian Lynskey uses it perfectly in his New Statesman article about the Kent Youth Commissioner Paris Brown. 17 year-old Paris has been forced to resign from her appointment, following ‘exposure’ of inappropriate tweets… Some written years ago. The views expressed would be surprising coming from the feed of, ooh, let us say, a thirty-something blogger and campaigner for PEN. But not from a young teenager. Outbursts, inarticulacy, immature, ill-thought-out and prejudiced views are as much a part of adolescence as spots, puberty, resentment of your parents, and fancying inappropriate, unattainable people.
The great thing about voicing ridiculous and ill-considered political views, is that people challenge them. There is nothing like being scrutinised on a stupid, unsophisticated political position to realise that life and politics are nuanced and complex.
I know I said many hideous things that would be described as far-left and far-right (yes, it is possible that, as a teenager, I was doubly-dick-headed), but I was challenged and hazed, and revised my stupid opinions accordingly (some of us actually enjoy this rinsing, and blogging is one way of extending the experience beyond early adulthood).
However, voicing a political opinion is not the same as publishing a political opinion. And although she may not have realised it, Paris Brown was publishing her thoughts when she tweeted. And once something is published, the author loses some control over when, where, and who reads it. In fact, the idea of something becoming public is inherent to the word and concept of publishing.
In traditional literature, authors know this loss of control all too well. Whether it is fiction or non-fiction, the characters, events and insights are twisted by reviewers and readers alike, and the author feels helpless as they and their thoughts are abused and mangled in public. It is an occupational hazard.
An interesting point about Paris Brown is that her first foray into publishing surrendered so much control. She had no say in how her words were designed or presented on Twitter. The company that facilitated her publishing did not even give her easy access to her old tweets, lulling her into a false sense of security that they had fallen into obscurity or withered away.
If a child were to type up the intimate thoughts of their diaries, and then immediately sent off copies to publishers, or if they pasted printed extracts to the local lamp-posts, their parents would notice and (probably) seek to curb that behaviour… Or at least monitor their child’s output. Yet in 2013, how many parents routinely monitor their children’s publishing ‘careers’ online? Very few, I would bet. To do so feels a bit stalky.
But rather than consider this as draconian surveillance, parents could take a more positive approach. If children are ‘authors’ who are ‘publishing’ then parents must fill the role of ‘editors’ and ‘literary agents’, who read and comment on drafts and advise the author on how their œvre will be perceived.
Indeed, a very good way to teach children the public nature of their tweeting… is to follow them on Twitter! I imagine that nothing will teach kids the public nature of the medium, than having their Mum or Dad engaging in their timeline! (And ‘blocking’ will not work, as parents can simply set up a new account).
Kids need to learn that sometimes, the button that causes a piece of writing to be published is not always labelled as such. But above all, children need to be taught that when one publishes, one loses control of one’s words – who sees them, and how they are interpreted.
None of this should be seen as an argument for self-censorship. Choosing, on reflection and after advice, not to publish words that do not reflect your thoughts and personality, is different from refraining from publishing what you do think because of legal or social pressures. I refer the honourable reader to the brilliant xkcd cartoon ‘Dreams‘ which brilliantly argues against such shackling of self-expression.