Young And Naked On The Internet

<i>New York</I> magazine has an <a href="">outstanding feature on teenagers and 20-somethings living lives on the Internet.</a> This is a generation that takes it as normal to document its innermost thoughts, mood swings, romantic relationships, and even sex lives on the Internet. Privacy? They've heard of it -- it's something their parents talk about. </p>

Mitch Wagner, California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

March 9, 2007

9 Min Read

New York magazine has an outstanding feature on teenagers and 20-somethings living lives on the Internet. This is a generation that takes it as normal to document its innermost thoughts, mood swings, romantic relationships, and even sex lives on the Internet. Privacy? They've heard of it -- it's something their parents talk about.

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 [Ostapowicz, a 26-year-old bartender in New York's Greenwich Village] 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.

I've been living much of my life on the Internet, and on earlier online services, since 1989, when many of the young adults interviewed in this article were toddlers. When my wife and I moved to San Francisco in 1992, I already had friends there, people I met on Usenet and on the Science Fiction RoundTable on GEnie. I posted some incredibly personal things on Usenet. But, still, I find some of the attitudes expressed by the young people in this article to be alien.

Emily Nussbaum, the author of the article, writes:

When I was in high school, you'd have to be a megalomaniac or the most popular kid around to think of yourself as having a fan base. But people 25 and under are just being realistic when they think of themselves that way, says media researcher Danah Boyd, who calls the phenomenon "invisible audiences." Since their early adolescence, they've learned to modulate their voice to address a set of listeners that may shrink or expand at any time: talking to one friend via instant message (who could cut-and-paste the transcript), addressing an e-mail distribution list (archived and accessible years later), arguing with someone on a posting board (anonymous, semi-anonymous, then linked to by a snarky blog). It's a form of communication that requires a person to be constantly aware that anything you say can and will be used against you, but somehow not to mind.

This is an entirely new set of negotiations for an adolescent. But it does also have strong psychological similarities to two particular demographics: celebrities and politicians, people who have always had to learn to parse each sentence they form, unsure whether it will be ignored or redound into sudden notoriety (Macaca!). In essence, every young person in America has become, in the literal sense, a public figure. And so they have adopted the skills that celebrities learn in order not to go crazy: enjoying the attention instead of fighting it -- and doing their own publicity before somebody does it for them....

At 17, [Caitlin] Oppermann is conversant with the conventional wisdom about the online world -- that it's a sketchy bus station packed with pedophiles. (In fact, that's pretty much the standard response I've gotten when I've spoken about this piece with anyone over 39: "But what about the perverts?" For teenagers, who have grown up laughing at porn pop-ups and the occasional instant message from a skeezy stranger, this is about as logical as the question "How can you move to New York? You'll get mugged!")

I never saw pornography until I was 18 years old, and I was nearly 40 when it started to become commonplace. People under 30 grew up in a porn-saturated world; that has to have had some impact. But what? The two conventional answers: It liberates them, by exposing them to alternate sexuality. Or it has turned them into a generation of nymphomaniacs and perverts, a re-creation of Sodom and Gomorrah. Both of these viewpoints seem naive to me: On the one hand, you can search your spam folder all day, every day, for years and never find a depiction of sex as an expression of love between adults. On the other hand, well, I lived in San Francisco for four years; I'm not shocked by the notion that we don't live in a '50s sitcom anymore, where sex only occurs between married men and women who sleep in separate beds.

[Opperman] argues that when it comes to online relationships, "you're getting what you're being." All last summer, as she bopped around downtown Manhattan, Oppermann met dozens of people she already knew, or who knew her, from online. All of which means that her memories of her time in New York are stored both in her memory, where they will decay, and on her site, where they will not, giving her (and me) an unsettlingly crystalline record of her seventeenth summer.

Oppermann is not the only one squirreling away an archive of her adolescence, accidentally or on purpose. "I have a logger program that can show me drafts of a paper I wrote three years ago," explains Melissa Mooneyham, a graduate of Hunter College. "And if someone says something in instant message, then later on, if you have an argument, you can say, 'No, wait: You said this on this day at this time.' "

I've seen a bit of that myself. One of the advantages of instant messaging and e-mail over voice conversation is that electronic communications leave an archive. What was the URL of that site that guy recommended to you? What time was that meeting supposed to be? What was the name of that guy who dropped in on the chatroom? All of this information is available with a simple search of your hard drive.

As cameras and microphones get cheaper and better and the price of storage continues to plummet, we'll start keeping 24/7 video records of our entire lives. I expect this will happen by the time the young people profiled in the New York article hit middle age. What will happen to privacy then?

The biggest issue of living in public, of course, is simply that when people see you, they judge you. It's no wonder Paris Hilton has become a peculiarly contemporary role model, blurring as she does the distinction between exposing oneself and being exposed, mortifying details spilling from her at regular intervals like hard candy from a piñata. She may not be likable, but she offers a perverse blueprint for surviving scandal: Just keep walking through those flames until you find a way to take them as a compliment.

This does not mean, as many an apocalyptic op-ed has suggested, that young people have no sense of shame. There's a difference between being able to absorb embarrassment and not feeling it. But we live in a time in which humiliation and fame are not such easily distinguished quantities. And this generation seems to have a high tolerance for what used to be personal information splashed in the public square.

The writer talks about "Susie," a young woman who sent her boyfriend a pornographic video back in the Internet Stone Age in 2000, and saw it plastered all over the Internet. She chose to retreat from the Net after that, staying away from Facebook and MySpace and not Googling her own name.

She had another option, she knows: She could have embraced her notoriety. "I had everyone calling my mom: Dr. Phil, Jerry Springer, Playboy. I could have been like Paris Hilton, but that's not me. That thing is so unlike my personality; it's not the person I am. I guess I didn't think it was real." As these experiences become commonplace, she tells me, "it's not going to be such a big deal for people. Because now it's happened to a million people."

And it's true that in the years since Susie's tapes went public, the leaked sex tape has become a perverse, established social convention; it happens at every high school and to every B-list celebrity. At Hunter College last year, a student named Elvin Chaung allegedly used Facebook accounts to blackmail female students into sending him nude photos. In movies like Road Trip, "oops porn" has become a comic convention, and the online stuff regularly includes a moment when the participant turns to the camera and says, "You're not going to put this online, are you?"

This is the part where we're supposed to belittle the concerns expressed by people older than 40, who worry about declining morality in a shameless generation. Unfortunately, the people over 40 are probably right:

It's not as if those fifties squares griping about Elvis were wrong, after all. As [researcher] Clay Shirky points out, "All that stuff the elders said about rock and roll? They pretty much nailed it. Miscegenation, teenagers running wild, the end of marriage!"

I am reminded of an excellent book called "When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication In The Late Nineteenth Century,". The book describes the social changes brought about by telephones and the electric light, starting more than 125 years ago. It was published in 1990 and eerily foreshadowed the changes about to start because of the Internet.

Late-19th century popular culture was filled with scare stories about how the telephone would destroy the family and corrupt young girls by allowing suitors to contact daughters without the supervision of their fathers. A staple of pop humor in the late 19th century was the phonograph, hidden under a bed or in a cupboard, recording conversations on behalf of a nosy father.

I discussed this with some friends -- on the Internet, of course -- and we all had a good laugh about those silly Victorians and their fears about destroying the family and debauching young women. Until one of us said: You know, those Victorians, they were right. The telephone (and the automobile and electric lights and other advances) did destroy the Victorian family. And we grew up in that world -- it looks normal to us.

About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

California Bureau Chief, Light Reading

Mitch Wagner is California bureau chief for Light Reading.

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