I am fascinated by the graffiti I encounter on a daily basis.
The chalk advertisement for dance tryouts — don’t miss the date, come out September 19! –– has been a staple of my morning walk to Williams since my first day of classes. The cut-out stone windows lining Quad staircases are a treasure trove of unruly thoughts: “Love is the answer,” “Milk is good for the body.” The underside of a rock I pass near the Schuylkill proclaims, “C’est la vie!” The steady barrage of messages from strangers seems unavoidable. We leave no stone unturned, no surface unwritten.
I’m not huge on graffiti, but I understand the urge. In some ways, a large part of writing columns seems like scribbling on the side of the road. They’re messages for people to see, ones that some will just walk by and others will notice. They’re meant to be read. Sometimes they make some grand pronouncement about life or the universe — “KNOW YOURSELF” I read on the underside of a bridge — and sometimes they’re just flickers of expression. So-and-so was here. Person X loves person Y.
And there’s something sweet in that, the writing of a message for anyone to read, with a desperate attempt at permanence. We draw symbols in cement so the sidewalk will bear them for years. We scrawl on the underside of bridges so that the rain won’t wash our creations away. In my hometown’s main park, neighborhood kids had a tradition of climbing one of the tallest, most gnarled trees and signing their names — not with any real intention of getting something out of the experience, but so that, in theory, our names would still be there after we’d grown up and gone away. We thought there was some higher purpose in adding our signatures to the mounds of others. By the time it was my turn to sign (I was 11), the branches were covered in ink.
Now, eight years later, we live in a time of constant connectivity. When it comes down to it, much of our technology seems to trap our words where they are. I’m held accountable to what I say, not just in that my name is tethered to my ideas, but that my future self could be held accountable for anything I say in these 700-word packages. That’s a pretty terrifying thought. It’s also not an uncommon situation. I don’t like to think of my columns as permanent. I don’t consider their staying power. But they’re there, immortalized on the Internet, the first link that comes up when I’m Googled: the largest part of my Internet identity. Yet now, much of our technology capitalizes on the ephemeral — that Snapchat will disappear after five seconds. That photo will stay your profile picture for a few months, tops, before it becomes too old to stay acceptable. The modern tech landscape seems to ease the population into forgetting that our communication stays online virtually forever. For a student body this concerned about the job market, though, we’re not easily deceived.
At Penn, we’re conditioned to be cautious about what we say, what will be recorded next to our names. Otherwise, the all-mighty Employers might catch us saying something stupid. Nearly every student I’ve quoted in a column this year has asked to be anonymous — “Wait, will this come up when people Google me?” is a common question. During a club info session at the beginning of the semester, members urged us to contribute to a blog because our by-lines would “come up when companies search for you.” We place an emphasis on crafting an Internet self-image. News flash: Penn is preprofessional; we add each other on LinkedIn and hope to live up to our sanitized summaries. We inherently worry about the consequences of speech. Uninhibited verbal expression is almost impossible.
There are upsides to being held accountable, but we lose something when we self-censor. We miss the goofy sentiments, the random toss-out of ideas to the universe, the fragility of paint splattered against a river bank. Too often we lose sight of what we want to say in fear we’ll say something wrong.
It’s time we recapture our words, if only to watch them wash away.
DANI BLUM is a College freshman from Ridgefield, Conn. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “The Danalyst” usually appears every Thursday.Comments powered by Disqus
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