Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Digital Nudity: Discarding Privacy for Discoverablity

I've been thinking about the slow, but steady mind-shift that I've been going though as an inhabitant of the digital world. There is a growing generation of people, typically around my age or younger (sub 35) that is unwittingly trading off (or "trading in") privacy for the potential rewards of "discoverablity."

In order to create some context with this article, I should disclose a few things...

I was born in the late 70s. I am a geek, that grew up Toronto, Canada. I had a PC relatively early in my life - got a 2400 baud modem in my early teens, and actively participated in local BBSes, posted and chatted on many fidonet and usenet gateways, discovered the "real" internet and Linux in my mid-teens (mid 90s), was the first in my jr high school to drop some hard earned coin for the Newton and one of the earliest to get a cell phone in school, when they were still relatively rare.

The point is, I am a regular early adopter in most cases. Young enough to be foolish, yet old enough to be on the outside. This is the stance I am taking for the following...

I have always found it difficult to comprehend or participate in the highly distributed and (what I've found to be) exhibitionist like activity to blog one's thoughts. However, I found it valuable to post personal information to Friendster, when it was all the rage (circa 2003). It provided me with a sense of discoverability, such that my friends and former classmates could find and reconnect with me. Likewise, disclosing my work life on LinkedIn in a structured format made sense to me as it furthered my ability to be more discoverable/referencable to people that I might be able to do business with. As I was pushed into the Blogging world for the purposes of establishing a presence for myself and on the behalf of BubbleShare, I found the process to take much more effort, but it provided me with a way to again, become more discoverable. In this case, the discoverability related more to my thoughts than to my identity.

Part of the hope is that the thoughts are archived, indexed, and made searchable (forever) -- in the hopes that it will connect with others in some way that might add value to their lives and mine. Perhaps even spark a conversation, or something that might lead to a connection or business opportunity.

So in the end, all this desire of discoverability has always been consciously or unconsciously weighted and tamed against my deep desire to have a sense of privacy (and inertia/laziness of not wanting to "produce" and just lay in consumption mode).

In contrast, the generation that grew up in a world that has always had a cell phone as the de-facto communication device, broadband internet being a standard fixture in the home, IM being the default way of communicating and email being a secondary communication application, socializing on friendster/myspace/facebook being a part of everyday life growing up in their teens -- with their twitter and facebook status pages being updated every 30 minutes, 12 hours a day. It is easy to see how this generation that is currently 8 to 21 years old would choose discoverability over privacy, or even care about what public information they post to the world to be granted the ability to further their personal life-casting life-style.

The goal, it seems is no longer the protection of privacy but the amplification of one's discoverability and creation of one's digital status. No longer is it about keeping strangers away and at bay, but rather how quickly one can amass MySpace friends, or how much activity one has on their facebook profile. Cool factor is just as much represented by what one wears or does, places they frequent, people they hang with, in real life, as much as it is how one is represented in their social time line that is broadcasted from their status updates, or their twitter/facebook-status messages.

The common theme however, amongst all of these tools that have gained and maintained traction amongst these digital tools is their simplicity and low barriers to digital self-expression. Friendster and MySpace gave easy and structured ways to fill in the blanks for one's favorite TV shows, music, and friends. They made it easy to add photos and music tracks. Twitter and Facebook gave its users an easy alternative to blogging with micro-rapid content creation around status updates. IM and SMS is used in favor of email for its instant real time feedback and instant gratification of getting a response in (practically) real-time.

Relinquishing privacy for this generation is no longer a trade-off to enable and amplify one's discoverabilty. For many of them, privacy is a mostly irrelevant inadvertent casualty in everyday digital play and communications.


  1. Hi Albert:

    I wonder whether the notions of privacy and private information are changing -- particularly for young people.

    You probably saw the light-hearted comment a couple of days ago from Google CEO Eric Schmidt that "by age 21, it should be acceptable to change your name and essentially start over". Thus young people could wipe the slate clean after too much sharing via social media.

    Sepideh Saremi had an interesting re-interpretation of this: "I would argue that rather than needing an 'antidote', the MySpace/Facebook generation is shifting the paradigms of acceptable behavior; perhaps the transparency created by Internet media is making everyone (including future employers, etc.) inured to photos of people playing beer pong."

    I also wonder whether a young person who is continuously communiciating via IM, SMS, Twitter and social networking websites will be able to keep it up when they have a career, family and other responsiblities.

    Perhaps they will because, as you say, the tools are now simple to use. They provide a relatively quick and easy way to manage relationships.

    Neil Sanderson

  2. Neil,

    Thanks for the comment and pointer to Eric's quote. I didn't actually catch that, and I can see how many 21 year olds wish they could press the reset button on a few things online. ;)

    Perhaps that will be a premium google service -- wiping out all records and references with your name attached. ;)