Into the Abyss or the Same-but-Different?
There’s an attraction, among older folks, to validating what the kids are doing. Nobody wants to become the modern version of that fuddy-duddy whom they mocked as children, but there’s a risk of overlooking important considerations as one rushes to be cool about the modern-day Walkman, the latest music, or newfangled manifestations of the recklessness of youth. The case in point is Jason Fry, in his Wall Street Journal Real Time column on the “New Generation’s Public Disclosures” (note that “After Net kids” is a generational coinage, not a group of specific young’n’s):
What do you do when you realize how public your online life is? You could retreat into anonymity and try to ensure you leave no trace online — but increasingly there’s something odd about a person who seems to leave no Google trace. You could try to scrub your online image, getting rid of the things you’d rather not have people see and/or taking steps to elevate what you do want people to see in search results. But that generally doesn’t work.
Or you could say “So what?” and accept that every aspect of your online life is out there for people to find and judge as they will. (Note I’m not talking about personal information like Social Security numbers — that’s a whole nother column.) You could decide that if some people then judge you poorly based on one aspect of that online life, that’s their problem — a decision that will help you develop the thicker skin we all need in a changing world.
That’s the strategy the After Net kids have pursued — not consciously, but because it’s the only world they’ve ever known. Will it cost some of them jobs? Undoubtedly — but not for much longer. Because it’s their worldview that will win the day as they assume the positions of authority vacated by people my age. The ones who’ll struggle? Here’s betting it’ll be Before Netters like me, with our weirdly sterile Google lives that begin in middle age and our old-fashioned skittishness about online embarrassment and criticism.
I wouldn’t say that this is a trend that requires those who are concerned about it to do something, but to declare that we oughtn’t warn the After Netters about the dangers of their public personae is to lead them away from a sober assessment of the world in which they live. Perhaps there is nothing that can be done to stop the technological advances in question — even if there were reasons to make the attempt — but it is odd that a man who” ould argue such a thing doesn’t seem to realize that human nature and diversity of behavior will persist, as well.
One can easily sketch a mental image of the rebellious youth who lets it all hang out — prudent public image be damned. One can also easily sketch the overly primped and primed youth whose public image is so clearly concocted that one suspects an underlying truth that he or she feels a need to hide. But most kids will fall between these extremes. In other words, integral to his conclusion that “Before Net guy running HR” (turning away applicants associated with beer bong photos) will one day be replaced by “an After Netter with an old MySpace page of her own” (ensuring that reckless use of the Internet will cost kids jobs “not for much longer”) is the flawed assumption that the former’s lack of MySpace translates into a lack of sympathy and that the latter will not only have her own MySpace page, but one broadcasting keg stands or the like.
I rather expect middle-of-the-spectrum kids to grow into adults who use reasonable judgment in categorizing applicants, who will continue to be judged in keeping with the quality of their own apparent judgment. Therefore, kids in proximity to digital video cameras ought to be prepared to ensure that their behavior is such that they are confident in saying “so what” to those who might point it out in the future.
That all said, I’m more concerned about a possibility that Fry misses altogether. The article that he cites reports that one “fourth of human resources decision makers said they had rejected candidates based on personal information found online,” but MySpace drunkenness is only an example. Although it isn’t mentioned, another example of online personal information could be opinions on political, cultural, or religious issues. One HR respondent admitted to rejecting an applicant based on activities that “did not fit ethically” with the company. Who knows to what that refers, in this instance, but it could just as easily be participating in pro-life marches as biting the heads off squirrels. In other words, judgment could be passed based not on what you did, but on what you believe.
Over years of office evolution, random ideological challenges at the water cooler could become a thing of the past. Opportunities could diminish to meet people who have different cultural personae through related employment personae. The Internet’s primary function is to accelerate our access to information, and that includes qualities of personality as well as facts and figures. Whether or not fretting over the consequences makes me a fuddy-duddy, I worry that we haven’t reached a sufficient level of general respect and capacity for intellectual distance in order to avoid self-stratification as the collection of personal information outpaces the development of personal empathy.
I humbly suggest that encouraging everybody to post multimedia clips of their youthful indiscretions as Internet-speed first impressions would be a foolish way to remedy discrepancies between the pacing of relationship formation and the aggregation of biographical data.