For anyone over 30, this may be pretty hard to take. Perhaps you smell brimstone in the air, the sense of a devil’s bargain: Is this what happens when we are all, eternally, onstage? It’s not as if those fifties squares griping about Elvis were wrong, after all. As Clay Shirky points out, “All that stuff the elders said about rock and roll? They pretty much nailed it. Miscegenation, teenagers running wild, the end of marriage!”
Because the truth is, we’re living in frontier country right now. We can take guesses at the future, but it’s hard to gauge the effects of a drug while you’re still taking it. What happens when a person who has archived her teens grows up? Will she regret her earlier decisions, or will she love the sturdy bridge she’s built to her younger self—not to mention the access to the past lives of friends, enemies, romantic partners? On a more pragmatic level, what does this do when you apply for a job or meet the person you’re going to marry? Will employers simply accept that everyone has a few videos of themselves trying to read the Bible while stoned? Will your kids watch those stoner Bible videos when they’re 16? Is there a point in the aging process when a person will want to pull back that curtain—or will the MySpace crowd maintain these flexible, cheerfully thick-skinned personae all the way into the nursing home?
And when you talk to the true believers, it’s hard not to be swayed. Jakob Lodwick seems like he shouldn’t be that kind of idealist. He’s Caitlin Oppermann’s friend, the co-founder of Vimeo and a co-creator of the raunchy CollegeHumor.com. Lodwick originated a popular feature in which college girls post topless photos; one of his first online memories was finding Susie’s videos and thinking she seemed like the ideal girlfriend. But at 25, Lodwick has become rather sweetly enamored of the uses of video for things other than sex. His first viral breakthrough was a special-effects clip in which he runs into the street and appears to lie down in front of a moving bus—a convincing enough stunt that MSNBC, with classic older-generation cluelessness, used it to illustrate a segment about kids doing dangerous things on the Internet.
But that was just an ordinary film, he says: no different from a TV segment. What he’s really compelled by these days is the potential for self-documentation to deepen the intimacy of daily life. Back in college, Lodwick experimented with a Website on which he planned to post a profile of every person he knew. Suddenly he had fans, not just of his work, but of him. “There was a clear return on investment when I put myself out there: I get attention in return. And it felt good.” He began making “vidblogs,” aiming his camera at himself, then turning it around to capture “what I’d see. I’d try to edit as little as possible so I could catch, say, a one-second glimpse of conversation. And that was what resonated with people. It was like they were having a dream that only I could have had, by watching this four or five minutes. Like they were remembering my memories. It didn’t tell them what it was like to hang out with me. It showed them what it was like to be me.”
This is Jakob’s vision: a place where topless photos are no big deal—but also where everyone can be known, simply by making him- or herself a bit vulnerable. Still, even for someone like me who is struggling to embrace the online world, Lodwick’s vision can seem so utopian it tilts into the impossible. “I think we’re gradually moving away from the age of investing in something negative,” he muses about the crueler side of online culture. “For me, a fundamental principle is that if you like something, you should show your love for it; if you don’t like it, ignore it, don’t waste your time.” Before that great transition, some Susies will get crushed in the gears of change. But soon, he predicts, online worlds will become more like real life: Reputation will be the rule of law. People will be ashamed if they act badly, because they’ll be doing so in front of all 3,000 of their friends. “If it works in real life, why wouldn’t it work online?”
If this seems too good to be true, it’s comforting to remember that technology always has aftershocks. Surely, when telephones took off, there was a mourning period for that lost, glorious golden age of eye contact.
Right now the big question for anyone of my generation seems to be, endlessly, “Why would anyone do that?” This is not a meaningful question for a 16-year-old. The benefits are obvious: The public life is fun. It’s creative. It’s where their friends are. It’s theater, but it’s also community: In this linked, logged world, you have a place to think out loud and be listened to, to meet strangers and go deeper with friends. And, yes, there are all sorts of crappy side effects: the passive-aggressive drama (“you know who you are!”), the shaming outbursts, the chill a person can feel in cyberspace on a particularly bad day. There are lousy side effects of most social changes (see feminism, democracy, the creation of the interstate highway system). But the real question is, as with any revolution, which side are you on?