George W. Bush once said, “When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.” And that worked pretty well for his generation. After all, youthful excesses didn’t stop W from becoming president.
However, the world has changed, and these changes stand to have real ramifications for “Generation Facebook/Reddit/Spokeo/Twitter (FRST)” -- or GenFirst.
When W was young, the history of youthful indiscretions was fairly limited to the lore within a person’s immediate circle. Stories were contained and of limited distribution. They could be fairly easily shoved under the carpet, conveniently forgotten, moved on from.
However, a large number of today’s young people live their lives on constant digital display. They, or their friends, post pictures of themselves pulling off “pranks,” in drunken stupors, and in various states of undress. They Twitter and blog about their exploits. They Digg their likes and wants. They expose more about their lives during turbulent and exploratory years than any generation before them ever has -- they are GenFirst, the first to live their lives on digital display.
It is easy to say, “If you are stupid enough to post a compromising picture or a story about yourself, then you’ve made your bed...” However, it is no longer so simple.
With new social networking sites, like Spokeo, you don’t need to be foolish or exhibitionistic to be compromised or embarrassed. Consider the young person who feels depressed and posts a comment looking for a book about suicide prevention on Amazon. Spokeo captures that information and puts it out there for any inquiring mind armed with a little bit of data to see.
We are entering a new realm with serious ramifications. Privacy concerns surrounding the flow and use of personal information on the Internet have been thoughtfully discussed in a range of forums. And, others have offered sound advice to young people and parents.
But what are the larger societal ramifications for a generation living its exuberant years so publicly on display?
Let’s start with: Who will be left to lead? Applying today’s social norms, if Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Lyndon Johnson, or George W. Bush were growing up now, not one of them could be elected president. Imagine the Spokeo results if Kennedy’s or W’s youthful indiscretions were happening today -- “Shwasted w/Kiddy after cheerleading.”
It is one thing for a political candidate to overcome rumors and chatter, it is another thing altogether to confront a digital record -- photos, blogs, Tweets, Amazon purchases, and all. With so many young people having digital records -- self-inflicted virtual rap sheets -- the number of young people who will be in the position to run for public office will shrink dramatically, and we will lose many of our most charismatic, larger-than-life, natural leaders in that cut.
This dynamic applies not just to political office, but also to future corporate leadership. With companies increasingly vetting job candidates using online tools, the ranks of potential CEOs will shrink, especially for publicly traded companies in the more traditional verticals. (It is one thing for a tech startup to be run by a leader with a colorful past, another thing altogether for a financial institution to do so.)
Most importantly, the risk is that the ranks will be thinned at the entry-level stage, before these young people have a chance to show that the value of their leadership and business acumen outweigh their prior indulgences.
— Robert Housman is Acting Executive Director and Chairman of the Board of the Cyber Secure Institute.