“The End of Serialization As We Know It,” the finale of South Park’s ambitious twentieth season, closes with a speech about wiping the entire Internet clean and offering everyone a chance to start over. Troll Trace, the catalyst for the latest looming global catastrophe to confront this surprisingly consequential Colorado town, had threatened to expose anything and everything that anyone has ever said or done online. The town’s hard fought victory against the website guaranteed that risk of exposure, and the ensuing chaos, wouldn’t come to pass. With the threat extinguished, everyone can have a new start, a renewed chance to go on without all the baggage they’ve accumulated from years of surfing and posting and perhaps even trolling.
That sentiment echoes two articles, both of which are a few years old, but feel even more relevant now than when they were written. The first is a New York Times editorial entitled “The Web Means the End of Forgetting.” It talks about the then-nascent emergence of social media and the way that the rise of what, in the salad days of 2010, was referred to as “Web 2.0” was poised to change things. The emergence of user-generated content as the engine of the Internet meant that more and more of lives was being preserved for the foreseeable future. Everything we posted threatened to become inescapable, destined to follow us and prevent us from living down our worst moments. The second is a satirical video from The Onion that presents the same idea in a much more succinct and amusing fashion, entitled simply: “Report: Every Potential 2040 President Already Unelectable Due To Facebook.”
They, and this episode of South Park, are getting at the same idea — that even though the Internet is an incredible tool that has changed the world, helping to democratize everything from art, to business, and even to politics, there are downsides to the digital lives we lead today. The way that so much of how we consume our media, how we work, and how we interact with the world, is filtered through our digital devices means not only that we’re easier to rile up, but that so much of what we do is captured forever, waiting to rear its ugly head and expose our weaker moments to everyone. That’s the central threat at the core of the show’s season finale.