The Young and the Feckless: Publification and Our Comparison Compulsion
I feel as if my more navel gazing commentaries should come with some sort of disclaimer stating that they're not meant to be extrapolated upon, taken as universally representative of the readership's experience, etc. To that end...
I confess that I've watched the recent brouhaha over Facebook's privacy changes with some measure of baffled amusement, especially when those complaints come from my peers. Gen Yers aren't exactly known for our reticence and while I understand that there's a qualitative difference between voluntarily revealing details of your personal life and Facebook letting third parties poke around in your browsing history, the somewhat arbitrary distinctions between "good" transparency and "bad" gives me a chuckle.
Photo by Brandon Milner
It's no secret that many of us in this cohort have grown up alongside the technology (cell phones, the internet, social networking) that now permeates every facet of our lives. Even if we aren't direct users, we can't escape the ways in which it reshapes social interactions and assumptions (i.e., that everyone is findable/traceable) and erodes the line between the (formerly clearly delineated) public and private spheres.
Hand-wringing over the consequences of the growing publicification (it's my party and I'll coin words if I want to) of our private lives is well-documented, but tends to focus on the future regrets we'll have over plastering permanent evidence of a misspent youth all over the internet and the ways in which this information could come back to haunt us in future contexts (and I'm not particularly convinced that this is the case and that a new baseline in which "indiscretions" are the norm won't emerge instead). Frankly, I'm more concerned with the here and now and the way in which we've let the connectivity of technology and the impetus to share combine into a force that compels us to compare ourselves to and judge ourselves against peers to a degree that wasn't possible even 10 or 15 years ago. Back in those bygone days (and earlier) you could legitimately fall out of touch with people. You'd graduate. They'd move. Maybe you'd hear an update from a mutual friend or when you ran into your old HS prom date's mother in line at Walgreens, but these folks were more or less out of your life. Now, there is no break, no drift. Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, blogging, you can now compare yourself life milestone by milestone. And this accessibility makes it so easy to get stuck in the rut of youthful competition and anxiety. But now, instead of who's getting As, or playing first string varsity basketball or ruling the halls with popular posse in tow, it's who's finishing a PhD, getting married, backpacking through Thailand. It's all there for us to fret over, with pictures.
And it's not simply enough to have accumulated money and status. That's so very gauche in an 80s kinda way, isn't it? The people we most envy are the ones who are doing, achieving, living up to their potential and carving out a space for themselves. Publicification allows us to see how our peers are finding their way in the world and to compare our own journey. And even if you don't want accomplishment X, well, it's still sometimes difficult not to envy someone else for having conquered it, isn't it?
It's not as if previous generations didn't face the same anxiety about contributing meaningfully to society and making the very most of out their lots; they absolutely did. However, the ability to compare themselves to a global cross-section of fellow young adults at the click of a button wasn't there. You had your parents, your immediate in-person peers and far-flung folks on the tv or in the papers. You had to seek out this information. Now, you have to actively seek to avoid it.
It can be avoided, of course. No one is holding a gun to your head and forcing you to click through pictures of your boyfriend's cousin's climb to Everest's base camp. And nothing says you have to wade into the masturbatory cesspool of self-aggrandizing and clique-ish hype that typifies a medium such as Twitter. But that requires no small measure of self control and a pretty robust and well-developed sense of identity. And of all of things (tongue-in-cheek and otherwise) Gen Y is known for, impulse control and disinterest in validation rarely make the list, alas.
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