Teens, diaries and mutually-assured embarrassment

Adolescence is as awkward intellectually as it is physically, evidenced by the fact that each successive generation of teenagers has poured their hearts out in letters, diaries, personal essays, and now blogs, MySpace pages and YouTube postings. It is a time of intense passion and discovery and no metaphor seems too trite, no trope too stale and no cliché too hackneyed not to be pressed into the service of explaining the world to oneself and one’s friends.

Mercifully, our adolescent musings tend to evaporate, printed on now-yellowing sheets that are easily tossed into the trash, lost in end-of-year cleanings or buried in forgotten movers boxes hidden in basements and garages. If anyone ever finds them, it is usually the now middle-aged author, who stumbles across their sophomoric scribbles while cleaning out old files. Wincing at the prose and their touching naivetê, the author takes comfort in the privacy of their embarrassment. And if they are smart, they will burn the whole lot, before their children discover just what dopes their parents were when they were teens.

Which is why I pity teens today, for in a few decades their sophomoric musings will deliver a vast embarrassment utterly unknown to earlier generations. It is not that their words are any sillier than earlier generations; rather teens today have had the misfortune of being the first generation to record their thoughts in cyberspace where those thoughts will remain perfectly preserved until some wag drags them out at a school reunion or the author’s children discover the IM affections that passed between mom and dad.

Optimists will point out that it is easy to expunge one’s blog or MySpace page, and besides, even if the material somehow hangs around, everyone in this generation will be in the same boat. The prospect of mutually assured embarrassment will certainly be as powerful a brake on reckless re-publication as Mutually Assured Destruction was on nuclear first strikes during the Cold War. Well, think again. Even if kids are too cool to use Gmail, bits have a funny way of migrating and duplicating and thus there is no way to expunge everything. And despite the fear of embarrassing retaliation, this material will just be too good, too ridiculously entertaining in a few decades for anyone to hesitate a nanosecond before splattering their chum’s adolescent hand-wringing all over the net for all to see. So the biggest favor you can do for a teen today is to remind them of what is ahead and gently suggest that perhaps they should record their thoughts the old-fashioned way — on paper. Buy them a Moleskine, or a ream of high sulfur paper that will decompose quickly.