Friday, September 16, 2011

The Internet lacks walls. Conversations spread and contexts collapse. Technical solutions
are unlikely to provide reprieve from this because every digital wall built has been
destroyed by new technologies. The inherent replicability of bits and the power of search make most walls temporary at best. This is why most participants in networked publics
live by 'security through obscurity' where they assume that as long as no one cares about
them, no one will come knocking. While this works for most, this puts all oppressed and
controlled populations (including teenagers) at risk because it just takes one motivated
explorer to track down even the most obscure networked public presence.

Teenagers are facing these complications head-on and their approaches vary. Some try
to resumé-ify their profiles, putting on a public face intended for those who hold power
over them. While this is typically the adult-approved approach, this is unrealistic for most
teens who prioritise socialisation over adult acceptance. Some teens work to hide their
profiles by providing false names, age, and location. This too is encouraged by adults,
typically without any reflection on what it means to suggest lying to solve social woes. Yet,
because of the network structure, it's not that hard for motivated searchers to find an
individual through their friends.
Another common approach is to demand adults understand that these sites are '*my*
space'. In other words, why expect teens to act like they're in school when they're not?
This dilemma introduces another complication of how public life has changed. Just
because it's possible to get access to information, is it always OK to do so? The jury is out
on this one. Many parents claim that if it's public, they have the right to see it. Of course,
these same parents would not demand that their children record every conversation on
the school bus for review later… yet. Because mediated publics are easier to access, they
afford less privacy than unmediated publics. So, what does it mean that we're creating a
surveillance society based on our norms?
While I can argue that 'just because we can, doesn't mean we should', it is foolish to
assume that society will quietly take up conscientious restraint. College admissions
officers and employers will continue to try to get a portrait of the 'real candidate'. Smitten
admirers will continue to try to uncover any juice on their crush. And the press will
continue to treat any digital data as fair game when publicly destroying someone's
When asked, all youth know that anyone could access their profiles online. Yet, the most
common response I receive is "…but why would they?" Of course, the same teens who
believe that no one is interested in them are pseudo-stalking the 'hottie' they have an eye
on. Educators are not the only ones playing ostrich for mental sanity.
In response to this surveillance, some youth are starting to play tricks on their invisible
audiences. At George Washington University in the United States (US), college students
played a prank on the watchful campus police. They advertised a massive beer blast, but
when campus police arrived to bust them, all they found was cake and cookies decorated
with the word 'beer' (Hass 2006). Activist youth are taking advantage of distributed
messaging features on mainstream social network sites (bulletins, news feeds) to rally
their fellow students to protest, vote (usually campus elections and American Idol), and
voice their opinion. An example of this occurred when thousands of American teens used
MySpace to organise protests against US immigration policies (Melber 2006).

Youth are also working through the implications of the comments system. For example,
teens often break up with their significant other through MySpace comments (typically
boys breaking up with girls). The reason for this is simple: a vocalised breakup is visible to
all Friends, making it difficult to play the 'he said/she said' game or to control the breakup narrative by modifying the Instant Messaging (IM) conversation.

While most of this is taking place through text right now, video is increasing daily. Video is
not currently searchable, but technology will advance, making it possible to determine
who was in what footage. These systems will also go mobile the moment someone
figures out how to break through the mobile carrier roadblock. When things go mobile,
location based information will add a new dimension to the hyperpublic infrastructure.

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