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Will Social Media End Family Secrets?

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(L–R) Robert Beitzel, Will Tranfo, and Melora Hardin in "Appropriate" at the Mark Taper Forum.

Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Every family has secrets. Every person has a skeleton or two in the closet. In Appropriate, which plays at the Mark Taper Forum through November 1, 2015, relics of the past—hidden away in boxes of junk, a photo album, a spare room—trigger a family crisis as the Lafayette children reconsider their relationships to one another, and to their dead father.

In this digital age, however, can the past still stay hidden for years, or decades? Are we going to be able to keep our skeletons closeted? Or will our children, and their children, be just a Google search, or a Twitter history, or a Facebook profile away from knowing all our secrets? We talked with Jim Halloran, Twitter’s global content manager, and Aishwarya Iyer, Whisper’s director of communications, to get their take on secrets, rumors, and the future of social media.

There’s been less of a shift in how we share information than we think, said Halloran. “One of the things I hear is, ‘Everybody knows all your business, and they know everything you’re doing, and it lives forever,’” he said. “There’s this false sense that it wasn’t happening before. Now, it’s just much more visible that it’s actually happening.” When we lived in small towns and villages, people always knew their neighbors’ business, and family history has long been dominated by rumors and gossip, said Halloran. The difference now is that “digital is fairly black and white”—we know what happened, and when. Even if that information doesn’t come out until weeks or years later (like, say, Hillary Clinton’s emails), the digital past can’t be disputed.

Iyer agreed that social media generally reflects the past rather than breaks from it, pointing out that Whisper—which allows users to post their thoughts and feelings and stories anonymously—has a lot in common with confessional booths, which go back hundreds of years. “It’s not a new concept,” she said, but it is filling a particular need in our digital age. “Social networks like Facebook and Instagram,” she said, “just have your highlight reel of your life—the exciting, the sexy.” What about the thoughts, feeling, and experiences that can’t be curated and neatly packaged to get likes and favorites from friends? “There’s no place to really share that,” said Iyer.

But Halloran said that curation isn’t new, either: “People have always wanted to edit their brand, or felt that things in the past don’t reflect their brand,” he said. “We’ve now created technology that allows us easier access to these things.” People have also always curated, or filtered, their legacies. But Halloran actually sees technology changing that. “We’re going to have direct access to the pipeline to the legacy,” he said, offering the @POTUS and @Pontifex handles (for the U.S. president and the Pope) as examples. These handles will get passed on with the office, so rather than relying on biographers or historians, we’re going to have “mini-biographies stitched together” on Twitter that will create digital legacies “bigger than any individual who’s holding that office, said Halloran.

But does having such a record make reinvention impossible? “I think you have different pieces of yourself on different platforms,” said Iyer. “So I guess you can kind of pick and choose what you want to show” the world.

The anonymity offered by social media may also make people more comfortable with their identities and less burdened by their secrets. “I think, frankly, everybody’s looking for more empathy and understanding and connectedness,” said Iyer. “What we see the most is people saying that they’re just happy to know that other people feel the same way that they do.”