Smile! You’re On The Web
It's 1968, and Andy Warhol has just declared "In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes." Back then, even the forward-thinking Warhol could not fathom how Reality TV and the Internet would fulfill his prediction with such nightmarish efficiency.
It's 2008, and all you have to do to claim your fifteen minutes and then some is post outrageous, attention-getting content on YouTube or MySpace. There, countless Internet celebrities have been born; from the fey, teary-eyed teen who begged us to "Leave Britney Alone" to the brave but intellectually challenged teenage boy who launched a firecracker out of an orifice best left covered and unlit.
But why are Generation Y and their successors so eager to post their innermost, intimate thoughts online - where the whole world can access them until, barring any unforeseen disaster, the end of time? Why haven't those who grew up in the 50s, 60s and 70s followed suit? Edge spoke with some academics and cultural pundits to find out if flooding the net with deeply personal images and video is something just for the kids. . .or something for everybody.
Generational Stereotypes: Generally True?
Old folks shun the web because they’re reluctant to embrace modern technology and gun-shy when it comes to matters of personal disclosure. So goes the popular theory as to why those over 30 aren’t on the web in numbers comparable to those under that age. "That’s a generalization." says Tom Weber, director of community services at SAGE (Service and Advocacy for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Elders. "It’s true that older people in general aren’t as savvy on the computer as younger people. A lot of it has to do with fear of technology. It wasn’t there when they were growing up, so it’s more foreign to them. But there are many older people who, once they start to learn, become very proficient on the computer."
To help facilitate that proficiency, SAGE began offering computer literacy classes earlier this year thorough their Cyber Center program. Seniors learn the basics of how to get online and navigate the web, as well as how to download pictures and videos. The resulting skills have "helped folks open the door to computer and Internet technology and then utilize it in their own lives." Weber says that in addition to surfing the web for information about medical conditions, wellness and shopping, queer seniors are using it to "look at things in the LGBT world; there’s a community component there. As they become more frail and disabled, it’s an outlet for them to forge personal connections to people even if they can’t have a face to face meeting."
But generally true generalizations aren’t just for seniors; there’s plenty of accurate one-size-fits-all analysis that applies to the younger generation - such as their use of the Internet to form, declare and affirm identity. Shortly before social networking sites became the electronic confessional of choice, Reality TV paved the way for the celebritization of everyday people - and the notion that infamy is, if not entirely flattering, still a desirable form of fame.
As noted in a previous Edge feature (http://www.edgenewyork.com/index.php?ch=news&sc=glbt&sc2=features&sc3=&id=73966), John Edward Campbell (author of "Getting It on Online: Cyberspace, Gay Male Sexuality and Embodied Identity") believes "The younger generation seem predisposed to broadcast personal information on the net" in large part because "They have been raised in a culture of Reality TV that carries the message that by opening your life up to the world, you can become a celebrity. Anyone can become a celebrity on the Internet, and it is reinforced by this culture of Reality TV where people are opening themselves up."
More accessible and farther-reaching than a mere TV show, social networking sites fast became the younger generation’s equivalent of the diary. Unlike their parents and grandparents (who would be mortified if a log containing their innermost secrets were discovered), the under twenty-five set adopted social networking as a way to achieve liberation, admiration and peer credibility through full disclosure.
Dr. Larry Rosen, Professor of Psychology at California State University, Domingez Hills and author of "Me, MySpace and I: Parenting the Net Generation," notes how teens and young adults are revealing themselves "in a very specific way, by going onto MySpace or Facebook. They go to where it says sexual orientation and they change it from hetero to homo or bi. It’s an issue of putting their foot in the water; to see what kind of responses they get. Since these kids collect friends, they get a lot of comments."
Posting intimate details about your life, and taking pride in it, is a practice that belongs largely to younger people. Those who grew up before, during and shortly after the Cold War era don’t regard sharing personal information in the same way. "It’s a generational phenomenon; the patterns of personal disclosure that people are comfortable with." says Tom Kamber, Executive Director of OATS (Older Adults Technology Services). "A lot of sensors are baffled as to why a twenty year-old wants to share what they had for dinner last night through their Facebook page. There’s that instinct for disclosure that seems strange to older people."
The reluctance of older people to fully embrace posting revelatory photos and videos on the web is certainly due in part to the fact that they’ve lived longer and had more experiences in which information, over time, can come back to haunt them. Rosen points out that the under twenty-five set hasn’t yet been burned in such matters and, as a result, doesn’t fully consider the long-term consequences of posting unflattering content on the web: "When you ask the kids about this, they dismiss it lightly by saying ’It’s just MySpace or Facebook’ as if it has no further ramifications beyond that medium. The other thing I hear a lot is they really believe on some level that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. It’s the idea that you can do what you want and it will have no further ramifications. They believe that what’s on MySpace stays there." As more and more employers and college admissions departments begin to cruise the web to help evaluate the character of an applicant, more and more young people will certainly come to regret that beer bong photo of them taken at last weekend’s party and posted on a site that they have no editorial control over.
On the other hand, Rosen says that full disclosure on the net can be an act of empowerment; especially for isolated LGBT teens: "Psychologists have talked for decades about the fact that the teenage and early adult years are a search for yourself; a search for identity. The age that kids come out is much earlier and it’s primarily because they are coming out online. Today, the coming out age is just over 13, compared to the 90s when teens came out between 14 and 16; and certainly younger than decades before, when teens did not dare reveal their homosexuality until they were adults."
Photo: As seen on Myspace.
Mighty Morphing Technology
As seniors surf the web and reap its benefits, they have the younger generation to thank for how we’ve come to use web technology as a means of socializing. "The younger generation is always going to be the one that jumps on new technology, uses it and morphs it in ways that we might not even anticipate," says Rosen. As a prime example, he reminds us that today’s most popular social networking sites started out with different purposes, but changed once young people began to realize the potential for communicating with friends, expressing their creativity and declaring identity: "MySpace began as a place for independent musicians to showcase their music. Nobody had any idea it was going to explode into a way for young kids to converse. When Facebook started out, as a way for college students to get together virtually to form e-groups or swap ideas about homework, you had to have an email address with ’edu.’ It wasn’t until MySpace became so popular that Facebook decided to open up to other people."
This happens, says Rosen, time and time again as "the younger generation takes a new technology and molds it to their own needs, desires and purposes. In psychology, they call it unintended consequences; you develop something, and it gets used for another purpose.
Icons and Images: The Words of Tomorrow, Today?
Among young people, "Social communication online is becoming more iconic and less verbal." That’s the assessment, reached through research, from Adriana Manago, (a graduate student researcher at Children’s Digital Media Center, UCLA/CSULA). "They’re exchanging symbols and sharing common subjectivities through images; using those images to elaborate verbal ways of thinking about social relationships and self. Rather than running to friends to tell them something, this generation is increasingly likely to post a video from YouTube on their friend’s MySpace or Facebook wall." They’re also more likely to "borrow an image from another website and put it on their profile to represent a style or an ideology they want to associate with."
So what does that mean in terms of how they form and share opinions as well as process information? Manago believes that the use of such visual shorthand "leads to a different way to think about the self and social relationships. Through the constant use of images, you begin to think in quick mental iconic representations that encapsulate a whole community." As an example, Manago cites instances where a person will put up a photo of themselves and a romantic partner as a way to "publicly display a level of intimacy."
She also notes this is done through the use of borrowed or recycled images to represent emotions or opinions - such as one couple who "used an image of a Jolly Rancher candy, saying this is as sweet as you." These same thoughts are also being expressed through the use of video, Manago says: "The way they exchange values and common ideologies is often through a clip of The Simpsons. Rather than directly verbalizing things, it’s coming through visual images."
Technology Bridges the Great Divide
What do younger and older users of computer technology have in common? Acronyms. The previously mentioned organizations SAGE and OATS have collaborated with YES (Youth Empowerment Services Center). At the SAGE Cyber Center, LGBT youth help older LGBTs to become Internet-savvy. Kamber says it’s one way for "the younger generation to connect with the older generation; through the shared experience of technology. I think that’s really having positive effects upon helping seniors become more engaged. It also helps younger people overcome some of the prejudices they’ve had about aging in America."
Through such intergenerational training, Kamber sees increasing numbers of seniors "actively using the Internet, with many comfortable using digital imaging, digital video, and interactive web technology. Those tools are in very wide use by seniors who are online." In the past month alone, he’s seen "digital photos by seniors who are traveling, using them for their headshots, and as a means of creative expression." Although shooting and posting video is a bit more complex, Kamber has also seen a considerable number of seniors posting video - although "It’s substantially more common among young folks. Not a lot of seniors are posting video as a hobby."
Another way that web technology is brining younger and older folks together? Dating sites. Weber notes that online matchmaking "happens quite a bit with our guys. There are websites devoted to older men making connections with each other, or those who like them. SilverDaddies is huge. Some of our folks use it for meting people and dating." The libido may be the ultimate motivator in helping seniors learn how to post that photo or video. "Once they feel comfortable with the technology, they use it in that way as much as anybody else."