Yesterday, Labour MP for Sheffield Hallam, Jared O'Mara, resigned from the Women and Equalities Committee after a series highly suspect comments he had made online surfaced, thanks to Westminster blog Guido Fawkes.
The posts included O'Mara "advising" members of Girls Aloud to "come and have an orgy" with him, and a rant about 2003 Pop Idol winner Michelle McManus only winning "because she was fat". On another message-board, Fawkes found comments from O'Mara describing Jamie Cullum as a "conceited cunt", saying it would be "no great loss to the music world if he was sodomised with his own piano and subsequently died of a sore arse". Elsewhere, on a Morrissey fan forum, he described homosexuals as "fudge-packers" who liked to drive "up the marmite motorway".
Which is obviously: a bad look.
Before we go any further, it's a good idea to agree that Jared O'Mara has a lot to answer for. What, yesterday, could have maybe been couched in terms of ancient shit-posting has now been compounded by far more recent allegations of misogyny and abuse against a woman in Sheffield this year. No amount of retrospective moral gymnastics can excuse or contextualise that. It's not siding with Guido Fawkes to see O'Mara's behaviour is clearly unacceptable.
Yet, the circumstances of his downfall provoke some interesting questions about accountability – in particular the shaky position uniquely held by anyone who first used the internet as a teenager or young adult, ten to 15 years ago.
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There is an entire generation now in their twenties and thirties who came to the internet when it was little more than a few forums, MSN Messenger and Yahoo News. The online world they met was small and unobserved: a place their parents and teachers couldn't see and didn't understand. For the forum generation – who would get home from school, pour a massive glass of squash, fire up MSN and listen to the modem creak and purr – the internet felt local and conspiratorial. It was a place to communicate with your three best mates, a couple of people you fancied and maybe the weird bloke with a South Park avatar who you'd met on the Empire magazine forum. Crucially, it was not a public universe in the way it is now; it was instead a network of dark and secret alleyways, grainy webcams and in-jokes.
The teenagers of the mid-2000s weren't just unaware of the pitfalls of saying stupid shit online: they thought it was the perfect crime. Online was the one place nobody was watching.
Times have changed, yet the ghosts of our pubescent opinions haunt us – Facebook's "On This Day" feature keeping track of every bad thought and Kings of Leon video we shared in sincerity. Badly-judged insults and ill-informed tweets directed at celebrities fester in our browsing history like unexploded bombs, waiting to detonate and take our personal and professional reputations down with them. Obviously, most of us will never be famous, reviled or envied enough for this to be a problem – and likely haven't said anything that stupid – but that doesn't stop it being concerning. Any job interview, professional opportunity or personality clash could prove the catalyst for that one rogue use of that one bad word from 2004 to come bubbling to the surface like a bloated corpse.
It takes cases like Jared O'Mara's to remind us that it's only been quite recently that progressive values have rightly become a prerequisite for public life. Online self-censorship is in fact a relatively new phenomenon.
Nowadays, any vaguely informed teenager operating online knows not to say dumb shit – or at least to cover their trail properly if they are going to. We have a far more developed understanding of the negotiation between the real and online world. What, perhaps, 12 years ago was treated as a gamified, ephemeral version of real life, we now treat as a valid extension of it. Online you is as much you as offline you. It doesn't make any difference if your picture is of Bojack Horseman, or if you only meant it as a joke. Gen Z have grown up with "cyber-bullying" and "trolling" in their vocabularies. They understand that, however stupid, their online words will be held against them.
This has had its impact on the real world. Plenty of young people now cite online accountability as the main reason they don't get fucked up in the way the generation before them would have done – terrified that any house party spent gurning incomprehensibly will make it to seven different Instagram stories, thanks to the swarm of amateur-paps lining the walls of every room. Teenagers now are practically branding experts, tweaking their profiles for maximum visibility and likability. It's a foresight not afforded to the generation before them, who filmed themselves on webcams rapping in oversized sunglasses during science lessons and stuck it on YouTube to show their friends.
What this comes down to is the "right to be forgotten" – legislation introduced this year that allows UK citizens to force social media companies to delete old personal information, including old social media posts. Much of this conversation was hooked around exactly the fate that has fallen O'Mara: whether or not people should be held accountable for the shit-posting of their youth. We wouldn't expect someone to hold a lifelong criminal record for a petty offence aged 16, so the logic follows they shouldn't be fired for something stupid they said when they were the same age.
Of course, we should be careful not to use this as an excuse. Racism, homophobia and misogyny are just as damaging whether they take place in the playground, the workplace or the back-reaches of a Morrissey fan-forum. We shouldn't romanticise the internet of old in the way club-circuit comics wax lyrical about the 1970s – "it was a different time then, people knew how to take a joke" etc. The generational shift certainly doesn't excuse O'Mara. Even though he made the comments 15 years ago, he was still in his early-twenties – older than Mhairi Black is now. As an adult in the 21st century, he had every reason to know exactly what he was doing.
Yet the fact he said those things at all tells us a lot about what the internet used to mean, versus what it is now. Being prejudiced is nothing new – bigots and dickheads existed pre and post-broadband – but the efficiency of the scrutiny is different. Anyone now in their twenties has to contend with a recorded history of their adolescent mistakes, and no idea when or where they could resurface. Hopefully not many people have said things as egregious as O'Mara, but for those who used the internet as a sounding board during the most immature and opinionated years of their life, the fear is real.
Pity the generation who were dicks before anyone was watching, but forgot to clear up their mess.