The scary part of the Alexandra Wallace incident is that her professional suicide was entirely accidental. She had a little too much free time on a Sunday afternoon, and clicked “upload” without thinking through the consequences. Given how easy it is to share on the Internet, it’s inevitable that we’ll see more and more instances of online over-sharing overturning lives.
Just this week, news broke of a Michigan man who got busted for polygamy because he posted photos of his 2nd wedding while still married to his first wife.
To me, though, the fact that an act of youthful carelessness can wreck an entire life is something that I’m not sure we as a society have fully grasped. When I was growing up, our 20s were a time to stretch, explore, and try on our adult selves without having to worry about serious consequences. Outside of our immediate circles, nobody much cared about us or what we thought. That anonymity was sometimes frustrating when we wanted the world to take us seriously, but it also made those years more of a safe haven. When we were ready for the public stage, we could come out more fully baked.
Things are different now. Many of you today, living your lives out on the Internet, are like Hollywood celebrities in that you have lost the luxury of anonymity. Alexandra Wallace learned that the hard way.
An update on Alexandra Wallace, and how to think about her
First, for those of you in China, Alexandra’s YouTube video is now on Youku, so I’ve updated my original blog post so you can see, here, what millions around the world have been talking about.
The fact that an act of youthful carelessness can wreck an entire life is something that I’m not sure we as a society have fully grasped.
After her video went viral, Alexandra received death threats and feared for her safety. She became a symbol for a nation constantly grappling with racism. Civil-rights groups demanded that her expulsion from UCLA. UCLA officials, horrified, watched the school’s reputation dragged through the mud. (I should note that I graduated twice from UCLA and found it to be a great place to be a Chinese student.)
Alexandra since has dropped out of school and is not returning calls from the media. I’d imagine by now that she’s changed her name, changed her hair, and is trying to move on.
Actually I feel sorry for Alexandra Wallace. She’s an average American girl who made a video about a typical contemporary gripe: it’s annoying when people talk too loudly on their cellphones in the library.
By now, she’s learned that it’s bad manners to criticize people for things they can’t control, like their gender or race, or their being victims of the tsunami. Her video was racist and ignorant, but really, it wasn’t THAT bad. She did not harass anyone. She did not call for violence against Asians. There was no need for anyone to advocate violence against her, or for her entire life to be destroyed.
Alexandra Wallace’s problem was that she followed up the making of her video with one colossally stupid mistake: Posting it online.
On the Internet, there is no such thing as “forgive and forget”
As blog reader Josui Lei（雷煜锋） commented:
People regard the Internet as a “private garden” where there are always friends with them. However, as the Internet grows bigger and bigger, it is becoming a virtual-but-real online society, where the rules of our mundane society also work. The Internet is not something as romantic as a private garden, and people who doesn’t understand that will possibly in trouble.
When online, be consistent, be positive, be careful
What this means for you is that you need to have integrity in the image you present for yourself online. Do not assume that you can be one way with your friends, and another way with your employers. Keep your non-professional behavior offline.
When you’re online, be as careful as you would if you were a politician in public.
Behave as if millions could be watching
Each year, the City of Los Angeles spends millions of dollars to purify our tap water. While I was at City Hall, we noticed that many of our immigrant families boiled their water, or spent hard-earned money buying bottled water, because they didn’t know our tap water was safe to drink. So, we mounted a PR campaign for local tap water.
When my friends and I went out to restaurants, they often would order bottled water at the table. I loved my Italian fizzy, but in deference to our PR campaign, I stuck to ordering “L.A. Tap.” I always imagined that the one time I ordered Pelligrino, a pesky photographer from the Los Angeles Times would spring out from behind a plant, snap my photo, and splash it across the next morning’s newspaper.
That’s how vigilant you should be. As if the moment you do something careless online, the newspapers will catch you in the act. This is a lot of responsibility when you’re in your 20s. I actually do not think it’s fair that at your age, the world requires you to consider your next 60 years with your every online move. But this is the world we’re living in now.
I welcome your comments, in Chinese or English, on the Chinese version of this blog post, which is here.