Generation exposure

At centre stage on the Net: everything and nothing

If I were 27 today, my life would be an open blog. I’d turn myself into a live feed or post naked pictures of myself on the Internet standing in stilettos in a snowdrift, or artistic pictures of myself on a website where I’d invite strangers to rate me. I’d also keep a virtual diary on and record every flickering neuron traversing my brain. I’d talk about my heartbreaks and ambitions, maybe even post a close-up of the bruise beside my butterfly tattoo.

If I branded myself well, one day I’d be quoted in “Say Everything,” a New York magazine story by Emily Nussbaum about how kids today are exposing themselves on the Internet, and she’d interview me about why I put myself out there the way I do, and I’d say what everyone my age thinks, which is, Hey, look at all the cool things that can happen to you when you do, like for instance how I got to be a bartender in the East Village. (I met someone in a chat room who told me about his website, which linked to his friends, and one was a photographer and I posed for some pictures for him and then I followed him to New York since I pretty much just wanted a change.) I’d tell her that’s why, but she probably wouldn’t get it because she’s too old. Anyway, the best part is that New York would run this totally awesome picture of me in a red bustier and I’d develop a fan base, and things would really start happening for me.

For the record, the girl I’m pretending to be is a real person. Her name is Kitty Ostapowicz and she’s the subject of a real New York story. As Nussbaum points out, in Internet terms, she’s already an old lady: “She left her teens several years before the revolution began in earnest … the MySpace pages blinking pink neon revelations, Xanga and Sconex and YouTube and … and Facebook and and … especially, the ordinary, endless stream of daily documentation that is built into the life of anyone growing up today.”

The names Nussbaum rattles off represent the explosion of social networking sites where members post their pics and specs and troll an interactive candy store of friends, blogs, photos, music and message groups. According to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 55 per cent of young people between ages 12 and 17 on the Internet have profiles posted online. And you’d better believe that even as we speak another kid is taking to the stage in search of a pixel spotlight.

This paradigm shift has me wondering about the consequences for us all when self is an obsession, fame an end game and privacy a quaint notion. I’m trying to keep an open mind about this and I know we’re not in Kansas anymore and I realize I’m watching this quake from across a generational divide. Still, it’s hard not to feel unnerved.

It’s not just the oft-voiced concerns about safety, the perils of unmediated self-exposure and the brain damage wrought by years spent wandering aimlessly in the black hole of virtual reality. (I worry more about the neurological legacy of all that bad poetry.) It’s not even the blog wankers, who wouldn’t recognize a thought if it bit them on the ass. It’s what happens when a generation grows up believing that what you say is less important than saying anything, and that seeing (we once called it insight, remember?) is less important than being seen.

At the risk of oversimplyfing a hugely complex subject, for now I’ll just say this: Of all the observations made by the kids in Nussbaum’s story, none was more disturbing and illuminating than these words spoken by the Columbia University student Xiyin Tang: “To me, or to a lot of people, it’s like, why go to a party if you’re not going to get your picture taken?”

But what’s the attraction of scrawling your diary across a Facebook “wall”? When being seen trumps having talent, it’s “hardly surprising that the less gifted among us are willing to fart our way into the spotlight,” writes Lakshmi Chaudhry in The Nation. She has a point. But so does my 16-year-old niece, whose take on the phenom is a tad more sanguine: “It’s just a huge popularity contest,” she says. “It’s all about who has more friends and pictures of themselves drinking and smoking. It’s about seeing and being seen, checking people out, getting attention, being cool. It’s totally superficial and shallow. It’s kind of stupid in a way.”

Or typically adolescent. I find her words strangely comforting.

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