I've Seen Your Future and It's Been Edited

My friends were the first two people kicked off of an extremely popular reality show. And I couldn’t have been happier for them.

When the show was being shot, they were disappointed with their performance in the competition. But by the time they saw how their characters had been edited to fit certain roles on the show, they were more than relieved that their stint was short.

The show’s producers had edited down hundreds of hours footage and deftly employed some time-shifted cutaways and voice-overs to turn my friends into the characters the show supposedly needed. If you’ve watched any reality TV, you’ve seen these personas before. She was the needy, unsupportive complainer who demanded constant hand-holding, and he was the non-committal boyfriend whose general ambivalence was interrupted only by memorable outbursts of uncontrolled anger.

Neither of the characters on the screen had anything in common with the people I know. And that’s not much of a shock. Reality television is not all that close to reality. The producers of these shows need to move the stories forward and, with enough bits of content, they can turn you into whatever they need you to be. While some folks are surprised at the skill with which their realities are re-created, no one who signs up for a reality show is surprised that producers use these creative editing tactics.

Will you be surprised by the story the internet tells about you?

For years, millions of us have been voluntarily leaving little bits and pieces on ourselves on the web. A blog post, a funny photo, a few thousand status updates, a joke that fell flat, reactions to the news of the day, favorited media, heated comments; what narrative will all of this data create?

Like with reality TV, the answer to that question depends on who’s doing the editing.

If you Google my name, you might end up meeting a creative thinker who provides contrarian viewpoints on issues related to the intersection of technology and society. Or you might find a peanut-butter fetishist who has an unholy obsession with Beyonce and melon puns. Which is the real me? I’m sure my terrestrial friends could have a long and spirited debate on that topic. But it’s not up to them. It all depends on what comes up first when someone performs a search. My legacy will come down to my ability to make sure the good stuff about me is better optimized for search engines than the bad stuff.

The truth is, I have no idea where my trail of data crumbs will lead. And if someone decided to vacuum up and rearrange all the bits and pieces I’ve shared online, they could easily tell almost any story. I could spend an online lifetime trying to mold myself in the image of da Vinci, Lincoln and Springsteen and — after a few selective cuts and creative pastes — I could still come out looking like Snooki doing a keg stand.

What we’ve understood as identity is becoming deeply and permanently destabilized online. The gradual creation of new, online versions of ourselves is not necessarily a bad thing. But it’s important that we think about the future use or misuse of our content before we decide to hit the publish button. Anyone who goes on a reality show has to sign an extremely detailed contract that explicitly gives producers the right to do as they wish with the content. When it comes to the internet, there is no written contract, but the rules are the same.

My friends who were kicked off of that reality show are getting married this Fall (family wedding, no video cameras). Their counterparts who did better in the televised competition aren’t so lucky. Several of the other couples who lasted a lot longer on the show have since broken up. It turns out that letting someone else take over your narrative can have a big impact on the way your story ends.

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