I was following a car on the tollway in inclement weather when I noticed the license plate: "Mega PMS." Needless to say, I put three or four car lengths between us.
Unfortunately, that put me too far back to get a good photograph of the license plate. I wanted to prove that I saw it, because such a totalizing, charged message as a permanent fixture on a minivan seemed, to me at least, implausible.
How do people decide how they will define themselves for others? You see a similar concern occasionally bubble to the surface on reality television series: the "vamp" or the "jerk" on a living-together show like Survivor or The Real World will complain on screen or after production has closed that the camera edits portrayed only one side of them to the audience, neglecting to fully represent their wholesome, caring personality. Kara DioGuardi, the newest judge on American Idol, laid it out in Entertainment Weekly: "I know who I am, but what are people going to perceive me as? . . . They may think my intensity and my boldness are bitchy. I hope not. I don't think I'm bitchy. Do you think I'm bitchy?"
Al Hsu wrote here about different approaches to updating Facebook statuses--the virtual equivalent, perhaps, of the vanity plate. They're less static, of course: changing a Facebook status is infinitely less bureaucratic than changing a license plate, and in theory at least, the vast majority of people who see a person's Facebook status knows them enough to offer a bit of context to each passing comment, whereas you never know who's reading your license plate.
I wonder if the ambiguity I see associated with Twitter, by both users and nonusers, has something to do with the many unanswered questions surrounding self-expression: Where is the dividing line between sharing yourself and vanity? When is a detail too picayune to waste other people's time with it? When is a statement too foundational to be later supplanted? And how are you defining yourself in the process?
But I have a slightly less introspective question I'd rather submit: What would be the world's wrongest vanity plate? I think the one I saw the other day--"Mega PMS"--might come close, but I'm open to other contenders. Try to keep it clean, please: consider mine one of the outer boundaries of the contest. They don't let you put vulgarities on your license plate anyway.
Oh, and if it's your vanity plate I'm poking fun at, I'm really, really, really sorry.