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Technology

The Facebook generation:

Changing the meaning of privacy

May 24, 2007

When Nadine Kuehnhold began searching for grade school classmates, her first crush Brent Hewko wasn't yet on Facebook.

Three weeks later he appeared.

"I sent him a message on a Monday telling him how awesome it was to have found him after so many long years," explained Kuehnhold, a young professional in her 30s. "He replied on Friday, and no sooner, because he was on a business trip. We ended up speaking on MSN for eight hours and meeting up the next day at a pub."

The couple that had flirted with love 18 years earlier is now in a relationship.

Kuehnhold said she's fairly open with her private life, and doesn't worry about posting the details of it on her Facebook profile: "Well, I don't have that many issues with it."

She is among a generation of younger people open to expressing themselves online, especially when it comes with such benefits.

This is in contrast to the previous baby boomers, who while young trusted no one over 30. With a picket as an extension of self, they marched in the name of civil liberties, fighting for constitutional rights to be respected. This meant ensuring governments wouldn't abuse their powers by meddling in their private lives.

That generation has grown up to hold credit cards close and mistrust online sales. Their kids, meanwhile, use social networking tools that, in essence, divulge enough info for others to access one's coveted plastic.

Creation of a surveillance society

This notion is troubling to Kathryn Montgomery, a professor in the school of communication at American University.

In her book Generation Digital, published this month, Montgomery takes a look at how new forms of technology affect the lives of children and adolescents.

In times of crisis when civil liberties are often trumped, such as after Sept. 11, access to personal information can be invaluable to governments.

If access to cached files of a teenager's drunken escapades exists, what happens when that teenager grows up and wants to run for office?

"The kind of apparatus that's being put into place by the corporations and the marketers is creating a very, very powerful surveillance society for the future. And I think people may begin to take that for granted," Montgomery explained.

But Montgomery has also found there's a positive side to these tools. Some kids use them to get acquainted with difficult social rituals, like using instant messaging to ask for a date or to break up with someone: "Now it's true that they're not doing it face-to-face, but maybe they wouldn't have gotten up the nerve to be honest about breaking up without it."

A new obsession with image

On Facebook and MySpace, profiles and photos tend to be changed often, sometimes daily or weekly. Pictures posted are self-snapped from above, coyly in the mirror or even while wearing a bikini on the beach.

Pre-Facebook generations posed for photos with high necklines, hands in lap and ankles crossed, while Victorian era photographs show evidence of people not even self-aware enough to look into the camera.

But the current younger generation is self-focused and image-conscious like never before. Growing up already tends to be a narcissistic process; kids go through an identity exploration where they think the world revolves around them.

As with a diary or gossiping on the playground, teenagers are naturally drawn to a tool like Facebook that allows them to vent.

While Facebook is a convenient outlet and even a social conduit, Montgomery explained it should be noted that digital companies create these tools knowing kids will eat them up.

"What I've found from looking into the industry, the way it has developed and the digital content services, is that they're purposely created to tap into these developmental processes. So that in some ways reinforces the self-obsession," Montgomery said.

Facebook has become a place to discuss a recent crush or the teacher getting on your nerves.

A program installed in September 2006 launched an automatic profile ticker of this kind of info. It tracked people's every virtual move — a new favourite band added or even a change in relationship status — and fed it back to their friends.

After complaints about too much info being shared, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg worked with programmers to give control back to the users. By allowing them to set their own privacy levels, they regained control of what information they shared.

Hopefully you were smiling

Still, there are stories of student suspensions and employers declining job applicants after gaining access to Facebook profiles.

American companies have reportedly asked college students to do internet checks of potential employees.

Facebook "friends" can upload photos of you and "tag" them, a process that allows all the people in your network to see them. If a colleague is in your network, suddenly they have new insight into your private life.

A Calgary lawyer in her 20s who didn't want her name published was hesitant about co-worker requests on Facebook. As a professional, she feels more sensitive about disclosing her private life than some of her peers.

"If you're like me, I only accept a certain select few people I have a history with and who are actually friends — people I see on a regular basis. That's why I think it is OK to put some of the pictures up that I have," she said.

Facebook has become the most-used photo-sharing site. In the past eight months, members have jumped from nine million to 23 million worldwide, making it the sixth most-accessed site, with 60 per cent of users logging in every day.

A long way from love-ins and communes. The new generation's culture tends toward self-disclosure, spying, voyeurism — and some noted perks.

"It's weird, to be honest with you," said Kuehnhold of reconnecting with her earliest schoolmates. "I feel closer to them now than I did back in high school or grade school."

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