In general, I think the internet has a lot to offer. So much so, that many of its downsides go unperceived by its users. Along with its stereotypical criticisms, such as the abundance of spam, pornography, and hackers, I’ve already addressed an unfortunate cultural downside of the internet. Not to become the Debbie Downer of the internet, I’ve got another bone to pick with our Skynet overlord.
I was born in 1989 to a hardware engineer father and a videogame testing mother, and as such, our family was always on the cusp of technology. My brothers and I had the privilege of utilizing every OS as they were released. Our young minds were filled with DOS directories that became something like passwords to our favorite 8-bit games. We were even playing LAN games over our house’s network before “multiplayer” was even a standard game type. Okay, so we were a little young for Usenet and the Atari, but for the most part, we matured right alongside the computer.
This parallel becomes exceptionally relevant in the early 2000s. The internet became a commonplace fixture only a few years previous, and was in a period of commercialization. One of the ways devised to make money on the internet is what we would now call “social networks,” though at the time were known simply as “blogs”. To say that my middle school years were dominated by online interaction would be an understatement. To the children of Silicon Valley families, the internet replaced many of the downsides of awkward middle school interactions. Popularity was determined by how many comments received on angsty blog posts, and “going out” referred less to dates and more to the amount of time spent chatting on AIM.
But one of the fears of the internet was the fabled and hyperbolized online predator, so everyone took care to use handles only revealed to friends. As such, AIM screen names and blog titles became an opportunity to invent cool, new identities, and the amount of others’ online identities you knew was an indicator of how many inner circles you were a member of. Pseudonyms became phone numbers, so to speak, and the internet became social.
Along came blogging sites like LiveJournal, Xanga, and MySpace, which all aimed to be the global network of these online presences. Blogging became a little more personalized with these early predecessors of the Facebook profile, where photos encouraged identity, and online connections became more public. Most users happily moved on from the juvenile secret handshakes of old, to these new “improvements” on the internet popularity contest.
I remember the fateful day of my sophomore year that Facebook invited high school students into the coveted social network. It was instantly cool for several carefully crafted reasons: as a high school student, nothing is more important than yearbooks, and nothing is cooler than college students. Facebook was sold as both. Needless to say, the website snowballed out of control, and you know the rest.
My generation became obsessed with social networking at the same time the internet did. We were exploring socially with AIM, we were angsty with LiveJournal, we were gawky with MySpace, and we made our own yearbooks with Facebook. Each platform represented a phase we went though, and as the social internet experience matured, so did we. We were the target market AND the beta-testers for the concept.
I tell you this belabored story to make a point. We didn’t always have a place on the internet with our name, our birthday, and a current picture. In fact, pre-Facebook, people would think you were crazy, practically asking the Internet Boogeyman to take out credit cards in your name. Sure, internet security and safety has also become more commonplace, but the norm has switched from private to public.
Children of today don’t have the luxury of obsolete social media platforms. Instead of anonymous relics of past angst and awkwardness like my generation, the youth of today are pilling it all on Facebook. This poses a problem that I can only figure is unique to this day and age: What will happen to them when their childhood mistakes are attached to their identity?
Essentially, a Facebook profile will have the potential to become the most thorough background check ever devised. Will she still get the job, despite the fact that she called her 7th grade English teacher horrible names over a grade she deserved? Will he still get a date even though he looked disastrous through puberty and has a couple years of photos online to prove it? We’re facing Minority Report levels of dystopian databases behind a disguise of FarmVille and photo tagging.
My argument is that children aren’t mature enough to comprehend the ramifications of their persistent identity. (Sure, you technically have to be 18 to do anything on the internet, but an improbable amount of people born on January 1st would like to explain something to you.) Plenty has been made of the benefits of anonymity on the internet, but there are a lack of alternatives to Facebook and Facebook Connect, because frankly, it’s loads more profitable to know who it is you’re engaging with. There needs to be an anonymous analog to every internet platform that is equally profitable to its counterpart. That way, there can be room for things that shouldn’t be permanently attached to an identity.
There are plenty of reasons why Facebook is hugely beneficial to society, but with its financial and cultural success, the commercial internet is essentially forced to engage in a transparent policy. Facebook isn’t a monopoly, but it has turned to tide from antiquated anonymity to persistent identity, and the very concept of public and private will change as entire lives become documented on the internet.
As if Mark Zuckerberg himself read this post, Facebook has announced “Timeline,” a service that embraces this sort of lifelong persistent identity. While privacy isn’t necessarily improved, it is interesting to see an acknowledgement of the culture of this digitally-mature generation.
- aseroff posted this