Monday, November 12, 2007

Patrick Deneen on the Open Book, or Facebook, generation

John Savage brings attention to a post by Georgetown professor Patrick Deneen, who laments how Yers are becoming the Open Book generation:
That classic sentiment of a mid-twentieth century liberal is now almost quaint given where we have now arrived. In the age of the internet, the strict separation between a public and private world is increasingly untenable.

A case in point: a report today on NPR's "Morning Edition" noted that the wildly popular youth "networking" website, "Facebook," will be opening up its pages to advertisers who are hungrily licking their lips to get at the treasure trove of information about students on the site. Students post a wealth of information about
themselves on the site - including, at times, some rather compromising information that has hurt them when they have applied for jobs! - such as favorite music, sexual orientation, political orientation, links to all their "friends" - and all this information is going to save advertisers immense amounts of research, effort and money in providing a whole range of advertising profiles. ...

A student once asked me what kind of social life we could possibly have had in college before the advent of Facebook (hell, he was surprised that I'm old enough to remember the days before the internet and even the personal computer - and I'm not that old...). I replied that we would hang out in dorm rooms shooting the breeze until odd hours of the morning. Perhaps our communication was less efficient - we had fewer "friends," as the word is promiscuously used in the Facebook networking world (in which making friends with someone consists of sending an electronic invitation) - but our conversations were meandering, leisurely, and ongoing.

Facebook has enabled users to get at personal information volunteered by its users since its inception in early 2004. That the company will now be facilitating advertisers in doing so is more the continuation of an expected progression than something surprisingly scandalous. Admonitions against treating the most public of publicly accessible places as though they were the pages in a personal diary are hardly novel. Social networking sites amplify public exposure, but they do not create it.

Facebook easily allows users to hide their information--even the knowledge of their very existences--from those they do not specifically 'grant the right' of viewership to. There is no betrayal of privacy, as users must consciously allow for marketers to have access to the information they put on their profiles. Filling out sweepstakes entries or responding to snail mail and e-mail surveys are more surreptitious ways of obtaining the information these marketers are after. Allowing publicly-volunteered marketing data to be effortlessly obtained allows for more efficiency and possibly even less intrusion into the lives of those who are especially protective of their corporate anonymity.

As a caveat, I should say that this praise for such effortless privacy is a contemporary one. The staggering success of Mark Zuckerberg's company is accompanied by its seeming directionlessness.

I first used the service after spending an hour going through an elementary school yearbook from when I'd lived in the Northwest. Pining for contact, I remembered hearing it mentioned by an accounting professor in class (that's how out of the social loop I am, apparently) a few days before. At that time, it boasted that, unlike MySpace, it maintained authenticity by only allowing people with college or university email accounts to join and provided a genuine local feel by restricting 'group' memberships to people from the college or university from which the group's creator originated.

Those conditions have now all disappeared. If I wanted to, say, create separate profiles for all of my favorite RPG characters, I could... well, if I really started slipping, having run completely out of ideas for posts and life more generally.

Instead of cheapening friendship, the service (potentially) enhances it. Personally, it has allowed past friendships I'd thought lost to time to be resurrected, and has allowed for the creation of bonds that otherwise would never have been forged.

Rather than drowning in frivolous friendships, it has caused pangs of regret in having not gotten to know many of the people from high school who I keep in contact with today but whom I was scarcely aware of then (I primarily hung with the sports crowd). The pool of people with whom I can share a conversation in a summer evening's gloam has expanded, and consequently so has the quality of person I end up conversing with.

Additionally, the message forum provided is like email without having to keep an address book or worry about delivery failures. It facilitates meandering textual conversations by keeping a log of the dialogue that has taken place.

The legions of youngsters who are intent on living their lives as open books are going to be made even easier pickings for marketers than ever before. But in a free society, protecting the careless from themselves is an impossible undertaking.

More unsettling than the providing of information about willing parties to other willing parties is the narcissism social networking sites engender. Never has it been easier to look at yourself from a thousand angles, or to witness how others look at you from ten thousand angles. Fortunately for me, the site has become so cluttered with applications, 'information' streams, and action trackers that I now use it exclusively as email 2.0 and occasionally to hunt for people I once knew.

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