Sunday, February 18, 2007

Kids, the Internet, and the End of Privacy: The Greatest Generation Gap Since Rock and Roll

Last night, I went to a party for a colleague celebrating her 36th birthday. The theme was pretty clever: to celebrate the tewentieth anniversary of her sweet sixteen. Guests were encouraged to wear their best '80s outfits. A number did and the outfits were classic. With MC Hammer blaring in the bar, there was some reminiscing about the teen years, twenty years ago.

My generation is very different from those currently going through their teen years. I have to go down to the basement and open a trunk to find all the pictures that I took during those years. Many current teens just need to log into Myspace, Friendster, Flickr or pull up their blogs to find the full, detailed chronicle of their adolescence.

I'm a different person from who I was twenty years ago. I don't think I'd want to have that time of huge changes and wholesale weirdness on the 'net for all to see. (At the time I might have thought it was cool, but in retrospect .... not so much.)

Last week's New York magazine has a very interesting, feature length article on current teens and how their experiences are chronicled in great detail on the internet. Much of it deals with ADHD type attention spans and attention whoring, but the perception of privacy is very interesting.

Kids, the Internet, and the End of Privacy: The Greatest Generation Gap Since Rock and Roll -- New York Magazine

Kids today. They have no sense of shame. They have no sense of privacy. They are show-offs, fame whores, pornographic little loons who post their diaries, their phone numbers, their stupid poetry—for God’s sake, their dirty photos!—online. They have virtual friends instead of real ones. They talk in illiterate instant messages. They are interested only in attention—and yet they have zero attention span, flitting like hummingbirds from one virtual stage to another.

But maybe it’s a cheap shot to talk about reality television and Paris Hilton. Because what we’re discussing is something more radical if only because it is more ordinary: the fact that we are in the sticky center of a vast psychological experiment, one that’s only just begun to show results. More young people are putting more personal information out in public than any older person ever would—and yet they seem mysteriously healthy and normal, save for an entirely different definition of privacy. From their perspective, it’s the extreme caution of the earlier generation that’s the narcissistic thing. Or, as Kitty put it to me, “Why not? What’s the worst that’s going to happen? Twenty years down the road, someone’s gonna find your picture? Just make sure it’s a great picture.”

And after all, there is another way to look at this shift. Younger people, one could point out, are the only ones for whom it seems to have sunk in that the idea of a truly private life is already an illusion. Every street in New York has a surveillance camera. Each time you swipe your debit card at Duane Reade or use your MetroCard, that transaction is tracked. Your employer owns your e-mails. The NSA owns your phone calls. Your life is being lived in public whether you choose to acknowledge it or not.

So it may be time to consider the possibility that young people who behave as if privacy doesn’t exist are actually the sane people, not the insane ones. For someone like me, who grew up sealing my diary with a literal lock, this may be tough to accept. But under current circumstances, a defiant belief in holding things close to your chest might not be high-minded. It might be an artifact—quaint and na├»ve, like a determined faith that virginity keeps ladies pure. Or at least that might be true for someone who has grown up “putting themselves out there” and found that the benefits of being transparent make the risks worth it.

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