The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Taylor Swift’s awkward middle-school class video proves you can never escape your teenage self

A still from “Paco’s Paradise Smoothies.” Swift is at the far left. (YouTube)

Before there was “Blank Space” or “Shake It Off,” or any number of YouTube-topping music vids, Taylor Swift starred in a little-known short called “Paco’s Paradise Smoothies” — lost to time, until today.

The two-minute video is a fake advertisement Swift and five classmates reportedly filmed for an eighth grade class in 2004, two years before Swift released her first record and one year before the birth of YouTube.

In another, pre-digital age, such a project would have died with the VHS it was recorded on. But Edward Carlson, Swift’s former classmate — and now, per his Web site, a professional camera operator — uploaded the video to YouTube in 2008 and shared it with a few friends. Those friends allegedly shared it with their college friends. And Sunday, after years of relative quiet, one of those college friends shared it on Reddit, where it quickly sailed to the No. 1 spot on the forum r/DeepIntoYouTube and earned posts on Buzzfeed, MTV, People and Refinery29.

“Kind of weird to think this was just a regular middle school project she did,” one Redditor wrote. Kind of weird, indeed.

See, the immediate takeaway from all this, of course, is that — lol, omg, 13-year-old T. Swift was unquestionably adorable, with her terrible faux-Caribbean (?) accent and self-conscious on-camera preening. (Skip forward to 0:55 — Taylor’s hair flip presages her recent ascent to divahood more than her highly hyped move to New York ever did.)

But on further consideration, there’s something even more prophetic and bizarre going on here. Taylor Swift came of age at a time when children were just beginning to leave casual, unstudied digital trails of their own. Since then, the practice of uploading school assignments to the Internet — and photos, and videos, and deeply personal rants/missives — has only become more widespread. When today’s “regular middle-schoolers” grow up and embark on their adult lives, whether as private citizens or highly scrutinized politicians or international music stars, they’ll carry the full and constant weight of their digital histories with them.

Consider that, according to Pew, 92 percent of minors ages 12 to 17 use social media under their real name. Almost as many — 91 percent — have posted a photo of themselves online, while 24 percent have shared a video. We’re not even getting into the confessional Tumblrs, class blogs, Instagram selfies, YouTube pranks … or the digital material parents have posted about their children, even before children have the opportunity to post material about themselves.

“Children today won’t have [the] luxury” of determining their own online identities, the researcher Priya Kumar wrote, just this morning, at Slate. Instead, Kumar says, they’ll inherit their digital footprints from their parents, the same way they inherit genes.

The problem with digital footprints, unlike genes, is that they’re highly visible to other people: This in an age when more than half of job recruiters reconsider candidates after seeing their social profiles, and college admissions officers openly admit to Googling students.

Taylor Swift is lucky, in that she was just on the cusp of this generation. I’m the same age as Swift, more or less, and feel faintly lucky, too. Many of the online services I used as a young teenager, c. ages 11-14, have gone offline. (Alleluia.) On a number of others, I had the unusual good sense to not use my real name. (That may have been my mom’s idea.)

But I know I, like virtually everyone my age, still left breadcrumbs in the digital ether, perhaps ones I don’t remember, myself. There are always early Facebook uploads, forgotten social accounts, abandoned blogs and diaries. For lolz, try looking up the earliest Facebook photos of your most impressive Facebook friend. With any luck, they’ll be from 2005 or 2006 — and abjectly terrible. Harmless, perhaps, like “Paco’s Paradise Smoothies.” But mortifying, nonetheless!

Given all this, it’s no wonder that anonymous apps and services have become so popular among teens. Shedding one’s real name isn’t just an opportunity to say/do whatever you like; it’s a rare chance to go “off the record,” to not anchor yourself eternally to whatever you’re feeling or seeing or filming at one particular moment in time. In fact, per an early 2014 report by the Intelligence Group, a market research firm, 55 percent of teenagers said they don’t like “things that last forever online.”

Things that last forever can’t simply be shaken off.