Oppermann prefers sites like Noah K Everyday, where a sad-eyed, 26-year-old Brooklyn man has posted a single photo of himself each day since he was 19, a low-tech piece of art that is oddly moving—capturing the way each day brings some small change. Her favorite site is Vimeo, a kind of hipster YouTube. (She’s become friends with the site’s creator, Jakob Lodwick, and when she visited New York, they went to the Williamsburg short-film festival.) The videos she’s posted there are mostly charming slices of life: a “typical day at a school,” hula-hooping in Washington Square Park, conversations set to music. Like Oppermann herself, they seem revelatory without being revealing, operating in a space midway between behavior and performance.
At 17, Oppermann is conversant with the conventional wisdom about the online world—that it’s a sketchy bus station packed with pedophiles. (In fact, that’s pretty much the standard response I’ve gotten when I’ve spoken about this piece with anyone over 39: “But what about the perverts?” For teenagers, who have grown up laughing at porn pop-ups and the occasional instant message from a skeezy stranger, this is about as logical as the question “How can you move to New York? You’ll get mugged!”) She argues that when it comes to online relationships, “you’re getting what you’re being.” All last summer, as she bopped around downtown Manhattan, Oppermann met dozens of people she already knew, or who knew her, from online. All of which means that her memories of her time in New York are stored both in her memory, where they will decay, and on her site, where they will not, giving her (and me) an unsettlingly crystalline record of her seventeenth summer.
Oppermann is not the only one squirreling away an archive of her adolescence, accidentally or on purpose. “I have a logger program that can show me drafts of a paper I wrote three years ago,” explains Melissa Mooneyham, a graduate of Hunter College. “And if someone says something in instant message, then later on, if you have an argument, you can say, ‘No, wait: You said this on this day at this time.’ ”
As for that defunct Xanga, Oppermann read it not long ago. “It was interesting. I just look at my junior-high self, kind of ignorant of what the future holds. And I thought, You know, I don’t think I gave myself enough credit: I’m really witty!” She pauses and considers. “If I don’t delete it, I’m still gonna be there. My generation is going to have all this history; we can document anything so easily. I’m a very sentimental person; I’m sure that has something to do with it.”
CHANGE 3: THEIR SKIN IS THICKER THAN YOURS
The biggest issue of living in public, of course, is simply that when people see you, they judge you. It’s no wonder Paris Hilton has become a peculiarly contemporary role model, blurring as she does the distinction between exposing oneself and being exposed, mortifying details spilling from her at regular intervals like hard candy from a piñata. She may not be likable, but she offers a perverse blueprint for surviving scandal: Just keep walking through those flames until you find a way to take them as a compliment.
This does not mean, as many an apocalyptic op-ed has suggested, that young people have no sense of shame. There’s a difference between being able to absorb embarrassment and not feeling it. But we live in a time in which humiliation and fame are not such easily distinguished quantities. And this generation seems to have a high tolerance for what used to be personal information splashed in the public square.
Consider Casey Serin. On Iamfacingforeclosure.com, the 24-year-old émigré from Uzbekistan has blogged a truly disastrous financial saga: He purchased eight houses in eight months, looking to “fix ’n’ flip,” only to end up in massive debt. The details, which include scans of his financial documents, are raw enough that people have accused him of being a hoax, à la YouTube’s Lonelygirl15. (“ForeclosureBoy24,” he jokes.) He’s real, he insists. Serin simply decided that airing his bad investments could win him helpful feedback—someone might even buy his properties. “A lot of people wonder, ‘Aren’t you embarrassed?’ Maybe it’s naïve, but I’m not going to run from responsibility.” Flaming commenters don’t bug him. And ironically, the impetus for the site came when Serin was denied a loan after a lender discovered an earlier, friends-only site. Rather than delete it, he swung the doors open. “Once you put something online, you really cannot take it back,” he points out. “You’ve got to be careful what you say—but once you say it, you’ve got to stand by it. And the only way to repair it is to continue to talk, to explain myself, to see it through. If I shut down, I’m at the mercy of what other people say.”