Find Xiyin Tang on Livejournal, Facebook.
(Photo: Alyson Aliano)
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 naïve, 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.
Shirky describes this generational shift in terms of pidgin versus Creole. “Do you know that distinction? Pidgin is what gets spoken when people patch things together from different languages, so it serves well enough to communicate. But Creole is what the children speak, the children of pidgin speakers. They impose rules and structure, which makes the Creole language completely coherent and expressive, on par with any language. What we are witnessing is the Creolization of media.”
That’s a cool metaphor, I respond. “I actually don’t think it’s a metaphor,” he says. “I think there may actually be real neurological changes involved.”
CHANGE 1: THEY THINK OF THEMSELVES AS HAVING AN AUDIENCE
I’m crouched awkwardly on the floor of Xiyin Tang’s Columbia dorm room, peering up at her laptop as she shows me her first blog entries, a 13-year-old Xiyin’s musings on Good Charlotte and the perfidy of her friends. A Warhol Marilyn print gazes over our shoulders. “I always find myself more motivated to write things,” Xiyin, now 19, explains, “when I know that somebody, somewhere, might be reading it.”
From the age of 8, Xiyin, who grew up in Maryland, kept a private journal on her computer. But in fifth grade, she decided to go public and created two online periodicals: a fashion ’zine and a newsletter for “stories and novellas and whatnot.” In sixth grade, she began distributing her journal to 200 readers. Even so, she still thought of this writing as personal.
“When I first started out with my Livejournal, I was very honest,” she remembers. “I basically wrote as if there was no one reading it. And if people wanted to read it, then great.” But as more people linked to her, she became correspondingly self-aware. By tenth grade, she was part of a group of about 100 mostly older kids who knew one another through “this web of MySpacing or Livejournal or music shows.” They called themselves “The Family” and centered their attentions around a local band called Spoont. When a Family member commented on Xiyin’s entries, it was a compliment; when someone “Friended” her, it was a bigger compliment. “So I would try to write things that would not put them off,” she remembers. “Things that were not silly. I tried to make my posts highly stylized and short, about things I would imagine people would want to read or comment on.”
Since she’s gone to college, she’s kept in touch with friends through her journal. Her romances have a strong online component. But lately she’s compelled by a new aspect of her public life, what she calls, with a certain hilarious spokeswoman-for-the-cause affect, the “party-photo phenomenon.” Xiyin clicks to her Facebook profile, which features 88 photos. Some are snapshots. Some are modeling poses she took for a friend’s portfolio. And then there are her MisShapes shots: images from a popular party in Tribeca, where photographers shoot attendees against a backdrop. In these photos, Xiyin wears eighties fashions—a thick belt and an asymmetrical top that give me my own high-school flashback—and strikes a world-weary pose. “To me, or to a lot of people, it’s like, why go to a party if you’re not going to get your picture taken?”