In an age where so many people (mostly young people) have Websites, blogs, Facebook (Nasdaq: FB) accounts, and MySpace pages with all their personal details and innermost thoughts recorded in them -- not to mention Flickr accounts and Facebook albums with photos of them doing virtually anything you can think of (and some things you can't, or don't want to) -- has the concept of personal privacy completely disappeared?
And if so, is that something we should be concerned about, or is it just the inevitable way that society is evolving?
Facebook is at the center of many of these kinds of discussions, if only because it is the social network that everyone likes to talk about, the one with the (theoretical) $15 billion market capitalization, thanks to an investment by Microsoft.
But the same questions apply to Flickr, MySpace, Bebo, and a dozen other social-networking or social-media tools -- not to mention a whole new brand of privacy-obliterating tools, thanks to the "life-casting" experiments of Justin.tv and iJustine.tv, in which the "stars" wear hat-mounted Webcams that film their entire lives and stream the video to Web viewers everywhere.
This latter phenomenon isn't new, of course. University of Toronto professor Steve Mann has been experimenting with wearable video cameras and other technology for almost 20 years now, and there were a number of popular Webcam stars in the early days of the Web, including a site called Jennicam, which featured a university student named Jennifer whose Webcam was on 24/7 and drew tens of thousands of visitors a day to watch her sleeping, eating, getting dressed, having sex, and so on.
That kind of behavior was seen by many -- quite rightly -- as an extreme version of digital exhibitionism. But one of the reasons it was extreme was simply that no one had ever done it before, in part because the technology didn't exist. Now, video cameras are so small and lightweight that it's possible to build them into glasses and wear them without even noticing. And the battery packs and video cartridges that Steve Mann used are no longer necessary.
If you want to leave a video camera on all the time, or stream it to whoever wants to watch, high-speed Internet makes that very easy to do. And the ubiquitous cellphone camera makes it even easier to take photos or videos of people who may or may not know they are being photographed -- such as the Hollywood starlet who jumped on a counter at a fast-food outlet in Toronto not so long ago and found her exploits on YouTube within a matter of hours.
YouTube Inc. is a big part of this equation, of course. Young people now engage in all kinds of dangerous and/or hilarious stunts and pranks, in part because they want to upload their performance to YouTube, which has become the America's Funniest Home Videos of the Internet age. The difference is that, instead of only a few dozen videos making it to the program, YouTube has a virtually unlimited number of channels and viewers.
"Stars" such as Tay Zonday, a young singer with an unusual vocal style who recently filmed a Dr. Pepper commercial, as well as Ysabella Brave and Esmee Denters, have come out of nowhere thanks to YouTube. Comedians who got their start by filming their friends doing goofy stunts are getting TV development deals with major studios.
A woman who goes by the name Tila Tequila got her start by making a lot of MySpace "friends" and now stars in a TV dating show based around the topic of her bisexuality, in which she agrees to choose a date from either sex at the end of the program.
With that kind of incentive, it's not surprising that certain people might be willing to dispense with their personal privacy. But it's not just YouTube, and it's not just people who want to become "stars" in some sense. Although the evidence is still largely anecdotal, there appears to be a noticeable decline of interest in protecting one's personal space or information among young people in the 14-to-25 demographic.
Facebook users happily upload photos of themselves in compromising positions, even when they know that those photos could show up just about anywhere. Young women allow complete strangers to watch them on Webcams, or "friend" them on MySpace. Is this just a short-term lack of sense on the part of young people, one that they will later regret? Or is it a change in the way that people think about living their lives online? I'm not sure anyone knows. But it certainly is fascinating to watch (no pun intended).
In case you think that all hope is lost, take heart: the recent furor over Facebook's "Beacon" feature -- in which the site tracks your behavior through a Web browser cookie file, and then broadcasts things you have bought or sites you have visited to your friends through your Facebook "news feed" -- shows that at least some people aren't prepared to give up all of their privacy just yet.
Of course, most of the people who complained were probably over 25 years old...
— Mathew Ingram, Technology writer for The Globe and Mail in Canada