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(Photo: Alyson Aliano)
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.
“When it is more important to be seen than to be talented, it is hardly surprising that the less gifted among us are willing to fart our way into the spotlight,” sneers Lakshmi Chaudhry in the current issue of The Nation. “Without any meaningful standard by which to measure our worth, we turn to the public eye for affirmation.”
Clay Shirky, a 42-year-old professor of new media at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, who has studied these phenomena since 1993, has a theory about that response. “Whenever young people are allowed to indulge in something old people are not allowed to, it makes us bitter. What did we have? The mall and the parking lot of the 7-Eleven? It sucked to grow up when we did! And we’re mad about it now.” People are always eager to believe that their behavior is a matter of morality, not chronology, Shirky argues. “You didn’t behave like that because nobody gave you the option.”
None of this is to suggest that older people aren’t online, of course; they are, in huge numbers. It’s just that it doesn’t come naturally to them. “It is a constant surprise to those of us over a certain age, let’s say 30, that large parts of our life can end up online,” says Shirky. “But that’s not a behavior anyone under 30 has had to unlearn.” Despite his expertise, Shirky himself can feel the gulf growing between himself and his students, even in the past five years. “It used to be that we were all in this together. But now my job is not to demystify, but to get the students to see that it’s strange or unusual at all. Because they’re soaking in it.”
One night at Two Boots pizza, I meet some tourists visiting from Kansas City: Kent Gasaway, his daughter Hannah, and two of her friends. The girls are 15. They have identical shiny hair and Ugg boots, and they answer my questions in a tangle of upspeak. Everyone has a Facebook, they tell me. Everyone used to have a Xanga (“So seventh grade!”). They got computers in third grade. Yes, they post party pictures. Yes, they use “away messages.” When I ask them why they’d like to appear on a reality show, they explain, “It’s the fame and the—well, not the fame, just the whole, ‘Oh, my God, weren’t you on TV?’ ”
After a few minutes of this, I turn to Gasaway and ask if he has a Web page. He seems baffled by the question. “I don’t know why I would,” he says, speaking slowly. “I like my privacy.” He’s never seen Hannah’s Facebook profile. “I haven’t gone on it. I don’t know how to get into it!” I ask him if he takes pictures when he attends parties, and he looks at me like I have three heads. “There are a lot of weirdos out there,” he emphasizes. “There are a lot of strangers out there.”
There is plenty of variation among this younger cohort, including a set of Luddite dissenters: “If I want to contact someone, I’ll write them a letter!” grouses Katherine Gillespie, a student at Hunter College. (Although when I look her up online, I find that she too has a profile.) But these variations blur when you widen your view. One 2006 government study—framed, as such studies are, around the stranger-danger issue—showed that 61 percent of 13-to-17-year-olds have a profile online, half with photos. A recent pew Internet Project study put it at 55 percent of 12-to-17-year-olds. These numbers are rising rapidly.
It’s hard to pinpoint when the change began. Was it 1992, the first season of The Real World? (Or maybe the third season, when cast members began to play to the cameras? Or the seventh, at which point the seven strangers were so media-savvy there was little difference between their being totally self-conscious and utterly unself-conscious?) Or you could peg the true beginning as that primal national drama of the Paris Hilton sex tape, those strange weeks in 2004 when what initially struck me as a genuine and indelible humiliation—the kind of thing that lost former Miss America Vanessa Williams her crown twenty years earlier—transformed, in a matter of days, from a shocker into no big deal, and then into just another piece of publicity, and then into a kind of power.