Among this gallery, one photo stands out: a window-view shot of Xiyin walking down below in the street, as if she’d been snapped by a spy camera. It’s part of a series of “stalker photos” a friend has been taking, she informs me: He snaps surreptitious, paparazzi-like photos of his friends and then uploads them and “tags” the images with their names, so they’ll come across them later. “Here’s one where he caught his friend Hannah talking on the phone.”
Xiyin knows there’s a scare factor in having such a big online viewership—you could get stalked for real, or your employer could bust you for partying. But her actual experience has been that if someone is watching, it’s probably a good thing. If you see a hot guy at a party, you can look up his photo and get in touch. When she worked at American Apparel, management posted encouraging remarks on employee MySpace pages. A friend was offered an internship by a magazine’s editor-in-chief after he read her profile. All sorts of opportunities—romantic, professional, creative—seem to Xiyin to be directly linked to her willingness to reveal herself a little.
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.
CHANGE 2: THEY HAVE ARCHIVED THEIR ADOLESCENCE
I remember very little from junior-high school and high school, and I’ve always believed that was probably a good thing. Caitlin Oppermann, 17, has spent her adolescence making sure this doesn’t happen to her. At 12, she was blogging; at 14, she was snapping digital photos; at 15, she edited a documentary about her school marching band. But right now the high-school senior is most excited about her first “serious project,” caitlinoppermann.com. On it, she lists her e-mail and AIM accounts, complains about the school’s Web censors, and links to photos and videos. There’s nothing racy, but it’s the type of information overload that tends to terrify parents. Oppermann’s are supportive: “They know me and they know I’m not careless with the power I have on the Internet.”
As we talk, I peer into Oppermann’s bedroom. I’m at a café in the West Village, and Oppermann is in Kansas City—just like those Ugg girls, who might, for all I know, be linked to her somehow. And as we talk via iChat, her face floats in the corner of my screen, blonde and deadpan. By swiveling her Webcam, she gives me a tour: her walls, each painted a different color of pink; storage lockers; a subway map from last summer, when she came to Manhattan for a Parsons design fellowship. On one wall, I recognize a peace banner I’ve seen in one of her videos.
I ask her about that Xanga, the blog she kept when she was 12. Did she delete it?
“It’s still out there!” she says. “Xanga, a Blogger, a Facebook, my Flickr account, my Vimeo account. Basically, what I do is sign up for everything. I kind of weed out what I like.” I ask if she has a MySpace page, and she laughs and gives me an amused, pixellated grimace. “Unfortunately I do! I was so against MySpace, but I wanted to look at people’s pictures. I just really don’t like MySpace. ’Cause I think it’s just so … I don’t know if superficial is the right word. But plastic. These profiles of people just parading themselves. I kind of have it in for them.”