Dave Studies Media

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Age of Microcelebrity - Death of Privacy?

Hearkening back to the lecture we had a couple weeks ago about the privacy issues around Facebook, I was immediately reminded of this great article I read in one of my older issues of WIRED magazine. Columnist and blogger Clive Thompson discusses how the mass availability of information, in particular personal data, has created a culture of info-junkies. And the fix is so easy to get. Thanks to our social nature, (the need to gain knowledge about others to help shape ourselves,) we're up to our eyeballs in tools that enable us to check up on one another constantly. And so, we do.

Thompson explains that this concept of "Microcelebrity" comes from the emergence of a class of people who are recognized with the same enthusiasm as Brad and Angelina, but within a much smaller group of people. While everyone who reads this post will know who Tom Hanks is, much fewer will be familiar with names like Dave Hurley or Steve "the Woz" Wozniak. (They are the co-founder of YouTube and the co-founder of Apple, respectively.) These men are mega-stars in the eyes of a sub-culture, and more people like them are emerging every day. At the beginning of his writeup, Thompson gives one such example:

"Whenever Peter Hirshberg is at a party, someone eventually pulls out a camera and takes a snapshot with him in it. Hirshberg — chair of the executive committee at the blog-search company Technorati — performs a quick mental calculation: Does the photographer look like one of those people who will immediately dash home and post all their candids to Flickr? "If I think it's going to end up on the Web, I straighten up more, try to smile the right way," Hirshberg says. "Because if it goes online, people I know will probably see it." (Thompson, "The Age of Microcelebrity". WIRED)

Indeed, the constant coverage of folks like Hirshberg is similar to paparazzi-like obsession.

So, all right, we have a bunch of mini-celebrities running around. The most interesting part for me, though, is what comes next. Thompson points out that young people are already adapting to lifestyles under surveillance and scrutiny, like a generation of micro-microcelebrities, if you will.

"If you really want to see the future, check out teenagers and twentysomethings. When they go to a party, they make sure they're dressed for their close-up — because there will be photos, and those photos will end up online. In managing their Web presence, they understand the impact of logos, images, and fonts. And they're increasingly careful to use pseudonyms or private accounts when they want to wall off the more intimate details of their lives." (Thompson, "The Age of Microcelebrity". WIRED)

I find this statement about my age group to be pretty accurate. While many people may not think of their behaviour at parties as a function in maintaining Web identity, they certainly know that the implications for ignoring or disregarding their own web presence would be severe. Thompson ends with another point I like, observing how this era of hyper-exposure is not such a big stretch from traditional means of broadcasting social messages:

"You could regard this as a sad development — the whole Brand Called You meme brought to its grim apotheosis. But haven't our lives always been a little bit public and stage-managed? Small-town living is a hotbed of bloglike gossip. Every time we get dressed — in power suits, nerdy casual wear, or goth-chick piercings — we're broadcasting a message about ourselves. Microcelebrity simply makes the social engineering we've always done a little more overt — and maybe a little more honest." (Thompson, "The Age of Microcelebrity". WIRED)

One noteworthy aspect of such a trend is that it follows in the footsteps of modern business models. Back in April '07, Scott Brown, also of WIRED, wrote a story about how the fictitious company in The Office practices "Radical Transparency" to beat out its competitors. Similar, real-world approaches to business are commonplace nowadays; (a prominent example being Google, which puts huge emphasis on being attuned to their users, and their users being attuned to them.) While it might seem alarming that individuals are becoming more like corporations, I think it is more accurate to say that corporations are becoming like individuals. More importantly, who's to say all this practice we get at being under surveillance on Facebook won't translate well to those of us going into business, since the two sectors are becoming so alike?

In our class discussion on privacy issues, the concern was brought up that our lifestyle of disclosure could reach a point where our perception of privacy is beaten to a pulp by Facebook and its descendants. That is, we would be so used to disclosing personal information that we'd be selling, or just giving it, left and right, to government, corporations, and more. These notions of privacy-deterioration are further discussed in Jon's post here. The second video is particularly interesting - check it out to see how Facebook is connected to major forces in data mining and high-up US federal departments such as the CIA.

Now, this may be very naïve of me, but I invite you to step in with your own opinions and questions, especially if you disagree. I'm a firm believer in keeping close and strict tabs on your own content. Facebook cannot force you to give it any information, so only give it what you feel is appropriate. As Clive Thompson said, the younger generation is already skilled at moderating and appropriately organizing, (and securing) our own content.

I cannot see the gradual destruction of privacy being such a problematic issue so long as everyone is prudent and mindful. For the same reason, while I understand and respect their motives for doing so, I don't agree with those who decide to delete their Facebook profile, or simply never create one on the grounds that Facebook is some kind of evil.

You decide what you put on the internet.

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