We're nearly a week into 2019, and I think this is going to be one of the most significant tweets of the year:

On the minuscule chance you're not aware of what this is all about, it's the new Congresswoman's response to the oh-so-very-shocking revelation that she danced in a video while a student. Here's the whole "monstrosity" for you to "endure".

Her political opponents tried to weaponize it, by highlighting it as negative in a tweet:

This was a pretty poor effort — she was a university student, not in high school, and the video was actually part of an active meme from 2010:

The Ocasio-Cortez “Lisztomania” video was inspired by a separate YouTube clip uploaded in March 2009 by a woman named Sarah Newhouse (it has since been deleted; more on that later). Newhouse mixed the song with parts of iconic dancing scenes from 1980s “Brat Pack” movies like The Breakfast Club, which originally featured Karla DeVito’s “We Are Not Alone,” and Pretty in Pink starring Molly Ringwald and Jon Cryer.

Beyond the lack of understanding of the cultural context of the video, the tweet does make you ask: were these people never young?

We all did some questionable things when we were younger. This, for example, is me in the early 90s:

Should decisions made in our experimental youth define who we are today?  

A generation of leaders growing up on social media

The response to Ocasio-Cortez's dancing video, thankfully, has been largely positive for the newly-elected Democrat, which gives me some hope that there might still be some sanity to be found in politics. While the attempt to make her seem politically naive and immature failed, it has highlighted an important truth: our coming generations of politicians will have lived much on their youth on social media. Those social media moments will resurface, because it's become a standard tool of political operators looking to discredit opponents by any means possible. Look how the Twitter accounts of people like Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn and my former gaming co-writer Chuck Wendig have been used against them.

Are we going to demand that our public figure have an unblemished record, having never flirted with anything our of the mainstream? We could do - and this sort of account policing seems to suggest that some people think this is what we should do. There's some fundamental problems with that approach, though. Is it really realistic to have such incurious people as our leaders and creators? Can anyone reading this really say that they did nothing that they are mildly embarrassed about when they were young?

Now, the attack on Ocasio-Cortez was pretty mild, as there really was nothing there that she should be in any way ashamed of. It was far more telling of the people making the attacks than it was of her, and has backfired on them spectacularly. But the wider point remains important: are we going to allow our public figures to have been young once? If we aren't — and can't — then we're leaving only two choices:

  • People are going to have to completely wipe their social media presences before they enter the workplace. This actually happened to a former Interhacktive student of mine some years ago. Her employers in her first job post-graduation demanded that she completely wipe her social media presences before taking on her social media-centric job. This isn't realistic. The internet never forgets, and so people's pasts are still going to be findable if people look hard enough.
  • Only people with unnaturally pure backgrounds will be allowed in public life. This might be feasible - but will leave us with elected officials with such a distance from the average voter as to make our already chaotic politics even worse.

By far the better option would be to allow people to admit to indiscretions in their past, without us being so very censorious of them. We experiment. We make mistakes. We learn. It's part of being a smart, curious human being.

Three years ago, rising Tory politician James Cleverly admitted experimenting with drugs when he was a student. This honesty is a useful defusing of the idea that the typical politician has never done anything experimental in their younger years, and is typical of the social media savvy Cleverly. (He is the only MP I can genuinely say I've had a beer with, back in the pre-historic days of the Lewisham Bloggers meetups). It doesn't seem to hurt his career, even if people occasionally do try to use it against him on Twitter.

Beyond Obama and Trump on social media

People have lauded both Obama and Trump as great users of social media. Obama, because his social media use was so carefully planned, so carefully managed that he was bale to build a great profile. Trump, on the other hand, has a reputation for the exact opposite - but one that still activates his base.

However, the truly social media savvy next generation of politicians may achieve something very different from either.

As Jeff Jarvis put it in an insightful post about Ocasio-Cortez yesterday:

Trump and his allies don’t know how to tweet but Ocasio-Cortez does — and that’s what so disturbs and confounds the GOP about @aoc. They think it should be so simple: just tweet your press releases — your “social media statements,” as their leader recently said — plus your best lines from speeches that get the loudest, hottest applause and rack up the most followers like the highest TV ratings and you will win. No. Twitter, Facebook, et al are not means to make a mass, like TV was. They are means to develop relationships and trust and to gather people around not just a person but also an idea, a cause, a common goal. That’s how Ocasio-Cortez uses them.

Both Obama and Trump use social media as an essentially broadcast tool. Ocasio-Cortez uses it like a human being, talking directly to her followers. This is a fundamental distinction that many in both the media and politics still struggle with.  

Part of the nature of building relationships is exposing our flaws, our eccentricities and the other things that make them human. Obama created an image that was almost too perfect. Trump tries to pump himself up in front of his base ("No-one knows more about x than me…", "Many people are saying…"), while constantly and inadvertently revealing his insecurities to his critics.

The next generation of politicians are going to have to learn how to be real humans on social media. And, in that, I think we're still in the early stages of the use of social media in politics, rather than the established phase. Fun times ahead.