Has new technology made us all into public figures?
‘There’s your generation gap, right there,’ he said, following it quickly with a slightly nervously laugh, probably aware that he’d sounded slightly bullish and defensive. These were the words of an affable man, probably in his mid-sixties, who spoke to me a little cautiously about the upcoming TEDxBrighton conference and the generation gap. Specifically, he was referring to the fact that he had just declined an offer to appear on video for the event. Having never heard of TED before, he was happy to discuss it, find out what was going to be happening, and give me his opinion on the generation gap. But when it came to appearing on camera, he politely declined.
Now, this wasn’t unusual. No matter what the age group, only a handful of people of any age group were happy to appear on camera to give their opinions. It was easier to persuade younger people, no doubt. But what really stood out for me was the fact that this man perceived willingness to be on camera as a generational issue.
It probably is. Smartphones are becoming more and more common among younger people, with two thirds of 16-24-year-olds now owning one, according to Ofcom. Their inbuilt cameras are making it easy to shoot film footage on the go, and the picture quality is only getting better. New technology and quickening broadband and mobile internet speeds, accessible by more of our population now than ever before (around 80% of households), mean that anyone who owns a smartphone, laptop or tablet can watch videos almost anywhere.
But the impacts of technology on the younger generation is more widespread than just being more comfortable with video content. We’re generally more comfortable with having a public image, with sharing a lot of previously relatively private things, like our photos of friends and family (see here for statistics on Facebook user demographics from 2011: http://socialmediatoday.com/kenburbary/276356/facebook-demographics-revisited-2011-statistics). Not only that, but many of us are used to managing our online image to suit a certain public identity. After all, the fact that you need to look out for your own privacy online is so well known that it’s become a modern platitude, stories about invasive employers using social profiles to weed out job candidates now abound and – let’s face it – most of us aren’t really ‘friends’ with half the people who are given that moniker on social networks, even when we keep our profiles closed and private (I’m looking at you here, Facebook). I’m sure anyone who has spent any amount of time on Facebook has been in the situation where they have ended up chatting or arguing with a complete stranger in the comment thread of a friend’s status or photo.
We are also used to things we choose to say remaining in the public domain after we’ve said them (and potentially remaining there for the rest of our lives). For older generations, if a large chunk of your conversations were on record, you were probably being wiretapped. Either that, or you were a public figure.
Of course, conversations and the way we present ourselves have never been private. We are social animals, after all. But chatting on social networks isn’t like hanging out with friends. If you say or do something wrong in your house, or in the pub, it probably won’t be put on recorded. I say ‘probably’ because there’s now the possibility that you could be filmed or photographed on a phone. But for most people, social convention dictates that you avoid doing this to your friends (when they’re sober, at least). Online, we’re far more used to the things we say being accessible to our friends afterwards (or to anyone, on public profiles).
For me, this is a key generational difference. We are used to our thoughts, statements, images and allegiances being much more public, in an anonymised space, a body-language free and almost contextless environment, on long-term record, available for criticism and policing by strangers and acquaintances, as well as friends.
So, what do you think? Do you think these are new developments that change the way we relate to one another, or are they the continuation of a much longer term trend? If they are unique, is it good or bad that we are subjected to more personal scrutiny? Is this really a generation gap, or does it only have a major impact on a small, media savvy group of people within our generation?
(I have my opinions on these subjects, but I’d like to hear what everyone else has to say before spouting out a lot of nonsense.)