I distinctly remember the “oh crap” moment I had back in 2002 the first time someone posted an embarrassing picture of me on Friendster. It used to be that you could safely go on vacation, do stupid things, and be relatively sure that your grandmother wouldn’t be watching a live broadcast of your stupidity via Facebook live update. The idea that one drunken indiscretion could have repercussions lasting a lifetime put a serious damper on everyone’s fun, and I can’t help but notice that younger generations have adopted a much more sober approach to public fun. They seem far more responsible, or at least guarded, than my or my parent’s generation was.
My hypothesis is that there is a distinct shift in attitudes toward internet privacy that is driven largely by age. I think that people who went through school prior to the invention of the social network are frustrated and feel that their privacy ought to be respected, but is not, while those who went through school after social networks caught on simply expect their exploits to be broadcast to the universe. To this younger cohort a world with privacy is like a world without nuclear weapons–sounds nice, but the very idea seems quaint.
What got me thinking about all this is that I recently broke up with my long-time girlfriend, and while I have de-friended quite a few people from my online social networks, for the first time I had to de-girlfriend someone. Throughout history, a marriage ceremony was essentially just a public statement that “this person is now off-limits!” In modern times, Facebook’s relationship status seems to serve pretty much the same purpose. With a simple click, we inform the universe that someone is now off-limits. It turns out that when you un-check that box, Facebook pops up a very odd bit of text, which is “your relationship will be canceled.” In comparison, “divorce” seems less serious. My relationship is…canceled? Yikes. I hit Save, and efficiently, effectively, immediately, the world is informed of my decision. I hate this fact.
Older generations brush off my discomfort and say that if I hate broadcasting this news I shouldn’t have added the relationship to my Facebook page in the first place. Try, however, explaining that to a 20-something girlfriend and her expectant circle of friends. In much the same way that my grandparent’s generation might say that someone isn’t really off the market until they have a ring on their finger, this younger generation seems to think nothing is really real until it’s on Facebook. I think the underlying assumption is that if you keep something private, you must be hiding something. Only those that live their lives in public are perceived to be honest.
Many people my age (mid-30ish) are breaking up with Facebook itself. A growing number of acquaintances have simply cut the cord in favor of getting back to cultivating “real” relationships. They no longer want to spend all their time creating a virtual version of themselves that somehow appears to have far more fun than they do in real life. While I understand the motivation, I’m not sure it’s a response that will serve them well in coming years. It’s probable that today’s college student will be my boss in a decade or two. No one expects to find themselves old, antiquated, and too stubborn to change, but eventually it’s probably going to happen.
This younger generation values a cultivated honesty in their digital personae, and as they come into power, there will come a time when the values of this generation will matter to us all. In 2025, when the next “market correction” hits and my 25-year-old manager scrolls through the pages of my Facebook Resume (in 3D holograph mode, of course), what do I want in there? Is it better to objectively, dispassionately record my real life? Should I spend all my time tweaking my Facebook updates with high-power-phrase-indexing SEO keywords and hide my flaws? Aside from the fact that I should probably date women closer to my own age, what do you think?