Public Service, Public Image

Americans have long held their public servants to a higher standard of behavior (at least rhetorically) than citizens in other countries.

But the nature of the expectation — and its enforcement mechanisms — is rapidly changing.

Once, there were tacit bounds on what could and should be brought to light. That system had obvious flaws: if opponents (and journalists) basically agreed on the rules of the game and how fouls were to be called, similar indiscretions could remain out of the public eye.

Now, everything is documented for everyone, forever. As more Gen Xers and Millennials enter public life, it’s never going to be about deciphering some handwritten calendar from high school again. And, as we review people’s online permanent records, it will be really hard to simply stop at a certain age, or to agree on which parts of a timeline count and which do not.

So what are we going to do — or let others do — with all this information?

One option is to make (or accept) the “if you’re a star, they let you do it” argument. In that scenario, we give in to the ultimate cynicism of the digital age: the more likes you get (usually for being outrageous), the more outrageous you can be.

At the other extreme, we might see people begin preparing for public (political) life by ruthlessly curating their public (Internet) life from a young age. Whether or not it is possible to craft a perfectly clean digital storyline anymore, it’s worth wondering what sort of character this process might produce.

We’ve always conflated private and public morality, always looked at decisions over a long timeline, and (especially in recent decades) demanded that no one change their views, ever. But that’s clearly unsustainable, and so we’re stuck with a question: will we give in to cynicism, or try to impose the old rules on the new world at the risk of distorting reality even further?

Or will we will accept the invitation of radical digital transparency to create new, more realistic and participatory expectations for the kinds of behavior, discretion, and consistency we demand from our public figures?