"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
The old days are gone. In my callow youth, we had ‘Kai Tak Rules'. Boy’s trips to the Philippines for some R&R, away from the tensions of policing Hong Kong, passed without selfies. No social media record nor GPS tracking our movements. In those days what took place after wheels-up at Kai Tak remained under wraps. It was our ‘What happened in Vegas, stays in Vegas’ pledge.
These days the indiscreet enjoy no such shield. With every citizen a potential broadcaster, armed with the ability to reach the world, not much goes unnoticed. This new zeitgeist all came into sharp focus over the weekend, as I helped at the Hong Kong Rugby 7s.
My small role involved keeping the public safe in the South Stand. Thus, I spent hours observing the various ‘tribes of the terrace' interacting. Ribbing each other, posturing, challenging other groups, but mostly enjoying themselves.
The South Stand has a reputation for hard partying. As the alcohol kicks-in and the day lengthens, some of the behaviour borders on the outrageous. The lack of sleep, jet-lag and heat further impair judgement. 99.9% of the people are laughing, singing, letting off steam with good-humoured banter. Also, in the main, the South Stand polices itself.
But it’s not a rule-free zone. A number of the wayward faced removal in the interests of safety. Unfortunately, a few let down their guard to behave in ways they’ll later regret. Social media feeds that guilt.
The streaker who vaults the fence, runs to the centre of the pitch and drops his trousers, gets a cheer. Then it’s over. What's coming next is not so fun. He’s about to experience Hong Kong’s judicial system. Detained, whisked to a police station, processed through charging, he then appears before a Magistrate. Reality sinks in, as those seconds of euphoria give way to apprehension, regret and remorse. That naked run no longer seems such a smart idea. A fine, a criminal record and your picture in the paper are the start. Social media is about to amplify your antics.
Bad behaviour tends to trend on the Internet. Employers are unlikely to take kindly to their staff appearing nude at a major public event. If your role involves dealing with customers, expect to move on. If you’re lucky, you don’t become a meme or gif. Then the interest may die down. After all, the Internet is a restless place, so the audience clicks-on when a new attraction arises.
In my day evidence of such indiscretions was in a smaller circle as idle talk carried the message. No pictures, no images for Mum, Dad and the relatives to view. Our past remained unseen, as we denied the story or suggested embellishment. No such luck these days.
This material is a bonanza for researchers, due-diligence folks and the intelligence community. One recorded moment of silliness and that job application is looking less promising. With hundreds chasing lucrative work, recruiters are looking for reasons to chop applicants. That 10-seconds of bum on the TV furnished the justification.
I’m not sure this is fair, given that we all make mistakes. Don't forget that people grow from these errors into well-rounded individuals. I know senior police officers, judges and several leading lawyers who are thankful their younger-self remains in the shadows. All these guys, and it's all men, now make a valuable contribution to society. Let's recognise that our social-media drenched world has unhealthy outcomes. And thus we need to balance our judgments of people with a broader view. Why? Because the loss of the old ways means folks often don’t have the space to make mistakes and learn.
Social media is a fantastic tool. It can bring families together, reunite old friends and provides us with fast communication to many. However, it can also be a liability. Just as social media has the power to strengthen a reputation, it also can tear one down. And, when you behave stupidly in public, you have no control of that process. Social media giveth, and social media taketh away.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.