Young people who constantly swap and share personal information through networks today are likely to value sharing over privacy even as they age, technology watchers predict.
Two-thirds of 895 technology experts and stakeholders surveyed about the future of the internet believe the millennial generation, born mainly in the 1980s and 1990s, will make online sharing a lifelong habit, suggests a Pew Research Center and Elon University study released Friday.
Some Canadian respondents' perspectives
Stephen Downes, senior research officer at the National Research Council of Canada, predicted that by 2020 people will realize that protection of personal data creates a false sense of security rather than actually making people safer.
"Sharing will be widely seen as a defence against the sort of world that existed in the past, where only the rich and multinationals had access to personal data on a widespread scale, and used it exclusively to serve their own interests," he wrote, citing use of such information in marketing, selling insurance and wage offers.
"It will become clear that security cannot depend on secrecy, but rather that laws will need to be in force to prevent the misuse of data."
People will also come to understand that everyone has skeletons in the closet such as nude photos and infidelities that surface on the internet, Downes said.
"And it will be seen as absurd to make morality judgments based on these."
Still, some believe online sharing may decline among millennials in the future, but not for the reasons one might expect.
"Their enthusiasm may wane more from work and family pressures rather than concerns about privacy," suggested Bill St. Arnaud, chief research officer at CANARIE, Inc., which manages a Canadian ultra high-speed research network.
David Ellis, director of communications studies at York University, thinks that as millennials' time is taken up by adult responsibilities, they will trade real-time communication such as texting and instant messaging for more "store-and-forward" options such as email.
Peter Rawsthorne of WikiEducator and the Continuing Legal Education Society of British Columbia, said that if restrictions on the internet, such as those that favour some applications over others, reduce economic opportunities online, that could also curb incentives to share and participate online.
"There were voices saying privacy is going to appear quaint, it's completely changed, maybe privacy doesn't exist anymore," said Janna Anderson, an associate professor at Elon University School of Communications who led the study. At least one respondent wrote that publicness is becoming a public good. "And keeping information to yourself is going to be seen as antisocial.… There were a lot of people saying sharing is the new normal."
Young people enjoy the feeling of being connected and feel sharing benefits their personal lives, Anderson added. "They understand that there are negatives, but they believe that the upside is dominant."
The study was part of the Pew Center's Internet & American Life Project, which is exploring the impact of the internet on family, community, education, health care and politics. It used a web-based survey to tap the opinions of 895 technology experts around the world.
New social norms
Many of those surveyed said new social norms are emerging that reward disclosure among young people, said Lee Rainie, director of the Internet & American Life Project, in a statement.
"Some experts also expressed hope that society will be more forgiving of those whose youthful mistakes are on display in social media such as Facebook picture albums or YouTube videos," he added.
Although 67 per cent of those surveyed online agreed that by 2020, millennials will continue to disclose a great deal of information in order to stay connected, 29 per cent thought they will they will "grow out" of much of their use of social networks, multiplayer online gaming, and other online social tools.
Anderson said the actual numbers aren't the most interesting part of the survey, as it wasn't a scientific survey. It's not surprising that people closely involved in technology believe current trends in its use will continue, she added.
The comments and predictions provided by survey participants are the most valuable result of the study, Anderson said.
"Getting people to think today about what might happen tomorrow gives us the opportunity to illuminate issues and perhaps inform policy to make a better tomorrow."