Christmas 2010

A Day in the Life of Generation Y


7.45am: Wake up. Check Facebook. See that Pat and Mary from high school are getting engaged, my colleague Gemma is angry about the Tories’ plan to increase tuition fees, and Aparna – who I met at a conference in Michigan – is travelling in Thailand (jealous!)

In 1943, the Russian-American author, Ayn Rand, wrote: Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.” If this is true, we are becoming an increasingly savage species. I disagree, as I will argue that the new communications are good for us as individuals, and good for society.

If Rand were alive today, what would she say about our online public lives? Of social networks, blogs, and picture and video exchange? The reach of the internet globally has increased by almost 400% in the last decade, to almost two billion users. Equally significantly, there has been a structural change in the nature of its content. What was once a vault of facts and words, is now a realm where people are prioritised; people are sharing information about themselves, information is presented as opinions of individuals rather than as an encyclopaedia, and you don’t need to be an esteemed academic or technical wizard to get your thoughts heard.

This morning in my internet world, Pat, Mary, Gemma and Rajiv are the headlines. They are the news stories I am thinking of — I am happy for Pat and Mary, and goddam jealous of Aparna. I hear their news through Facebook, a social networking site which has already amassed more than 300 million active users worldwide. Facebook provides a forum where people can share information about themselves — photos, news, thoughts — as well as communicate with other friends’ they are connected to. Facebook is the largest single institution of the new communications, but these social networks – which include Twitter, Myspace, and LinkedIn amongst others – represent just the icing on the cake of an information sharing system which includes literally millions of blogs, online forums, and video and picture sharing websites such as Youtube.

This is the face of the internet today. And this is the face of society. According to UK Online Measurement company (UKOM), British people currently spend 22.7% of their time online on social networking sites and blogs. This compares to just 7.2% on email, and 2.8% on news pages. We watch more than two billion videos on Youtube every day, each of which was uploaded by other users just like us. This is what Generation Y likes doing: sharing information with others.

8.10am: Log into my LinkedIn professional networking account. Cath, the competitive girl from human resources has got a promotion and is moving upstairs (Damn her!)

Why do we do it? Each piece of information we share is one less that we have for ourselves. In addition, each piece of information is inviting comment and criticism from up to two billion other internet users. Why do we so voluntary expose ourselves to the same inconveniences of public critique, snooping and potential stress which are normally reserved for celebrities? Ayn Rand would not be happy.

Is this just the age of narcissism, when we all see ourselves as important enough to be celebrities? In part, yes. At the least, we all want to be someone.

Susan Boyle, the awkward middle-aged misfit from West Lothian in Scotland became a household name worldwide, after a video of her performance on the Ukversion of her X‑Factor went viral. 54 million Youtube views later, and her debut album has sold more than four million copies in the US alone. Similarly, amateur Uruguayan filmmaker, Fede Alvarez, was offered a $30 million Hollywood deal, after his four minute short film, Ataque de Panico!,’ was uploaded onto the video sharing site. Normal people can become famous through these new communications. And while most will not become famous, they will at least be recognised by someone; mass communication is possible for all.

8.47am: Sitting on bus. Running late for work. My iPhone buzzes. My colleague Ishdeep has tweeted that he is running late for work too (phew!)

The new communications are not just a zero-to-hero game. The modern world of online social networks and forums for communication provide a new method for people to communicate on scale with the outside world. This method has one major difference with the traditional mass communication technologies of newspapers, radio, and television: it is direct. There is no interviewer analysing what I say. I don’t have to talk about a certain topic, because that is theme of the TV or radio show I am participating in. I also don’t need to be famous enough to be deemed worthy of an interview. Rather, I can say exactly what I want, when I want to say it, and most importantly, it will be heard by the people I want to hear it.

While someone else may fail to clearly express my point when discussing it with someone else, and a newspaper could always misquote me, the new communications give me an opportunity to set the record straight. Stephen Fry, a British comedian with almost two million followers on the micro-blogging site, Twitter, gave us a good example of this with his tweet’ at 5.13am on 31 October 2010: So some f——— paper misquotes a humorous interview I gave, which itself misquoted me, and now I’m the antichrist. I give up.” While traditional media may misrepresent me, as it did Stephen Fry, I know that the new communications can get things directly from me to the people I want to hear: no misquotations, no waiting.

These new communications are used by a range of people in order to present information the way they want to present it. In the wake of the Republican’s success in the recent mid-term elections in the US, Sarah Palin rode the wave of the Tea Party movement by releasing a 69 second advert’ onto a series of blogs and video sharing websites. The video, featuring Palin, the Statue of Liberty, Palin, Mount Rushmore, Palin, the American Flag and a grizzly bear, amongst others, was not really advertising anything’, but provided a mechanism for Palin to get a message across directly, in a way she would probably not be comfortable doing in an interview. What was this message? As one BBC commentator put it, These [people in the video], Sarah Palin seems to be saying, are my people.” A hard message to get across in an interview, but easily said through the new communications.

8.55am: Cruising the net on my mobile phone to take my mind off being late. My friend Kash has set up a blog to explain his loads of emotions’ of his volunteering trip to an orphanage in Kenya (ugh … self-important tripe!)

The modern communications give people an opportunity to present themselves the way they want to be presented. Politicians show their soft sides by tweeting football commentaries during the World Cup, and footballers tweet their heartfelt commitment to their clubs after months of transfer speculation.

One person can even show a range of personas in different social networking arenas. My LinkedIn social network presents me to my colleagues and employers as an impressive young professional, while my Myspace profile presents me as a musical mastermind, and my Facebook profile used mainly with my friends shows me as someone who goes on holiday a lot, and whose interests include drinking and scrabble, but not necessarily in that order’.

10.17: At work. I need access to a statistics website for a report I’m writing. I update my Facebook status to ask if anyone has this access. 10.34: Geoff, one of my 743 friends on Facebook, and a former colleague now based in Manchester, sees my status. He has access to the website, and gets me the information I need (I love Facebook!)

If it sounds like the modern communications just represent a one-way stream of information from a group of self-interested individuals to the poor casual internet user, the truth is far from it. Interaction and interface is at the centre of these new communications, and is ultimately why they are so heavily used.

The new communications give a sense of being plugged into society. What I share will immediately be read or seen by others, and can immediately receive appraisal, feedback, and crucially for all social networkers: a sense of support or approval.

Take Stephen Fry’s outburst on twitter quoted above. It received 2,926 replies. In other words, almost three thousand people directly responded to Fry, most with public words of encouragement. One such follower, using the screen name @TheScibby, wrote don’t give up mr Fry.” It is nice to feel you have a support network of almost two million followers prepared with pick-me-ups, when others are against you.

11.36am: Along with the statistics from the website, Geoff sent me a link to a blog article criticising the validity of the data source (I’m going to have to do some more research, it seems)

In the final mention of Stephen Fry’s tweet, it is worth highlighting that this same emotional eruption was retweeted’ by another 952 twitter users, reaching another 387,735 of their followers. Information made available through these means of communication are not lost once they have been transmitted, or thrown into the rubbish bin. They persist. This gives the thoughts greater reach, the information greater longetivity, and holds the authors more accountable for their comments.

If I have something to say which I feel needs to be heard, I add it to my blog. After developing a bad reputation as online diaries of self-interested narcissists wanting to tell the world what they had for dinner, blogs now are one of the major ways in which we hear the news. This is not the news as an independent collection of facts, but an ongoing opinion piece where the news is openly shaped by the author. This may be an aid worker debating field realities of international aid, a leading nanotechnologist writing up her investigations, or a teenager reviewing the best new gadgets from their bedroom. There are 200 million blogs on the internet, spanning an incredible range of specialist themes, each written by a person or group of people who feel that they have something important to say. In many cases, they do. In 2006, Time Magazine named you’ their Person of the Year, for bloggers’ and others’ contributions to user-generated content.

2.15pm: A friend sends me a link to a blog article written a year ago by my local MP about his plans to build Heathrow’s new runway across my living room (I need to do something about this!)

I expect information to be accessible. Everything is available on cyberspace, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

In a country like Iran, there are few opportunities to safely share information deemed contrary to the régime. When Neda Agha-Soltan, a young student protesting political disruption in elections, was famously shot down by her own government in June 2009, the information was shared through a video of the event on Youtube. In 2007, in heavily censored Burma, tens of thousands of monks protested in the streets of Yangon in what was the most significant display of sustained dissent in decades. The whole world literally watched. How? Despite the government managing to block most news-carrying websites, photos and stories reached the outside world through a series of blogs and online user forums. While the number of casualties is still unknown, one can only assume that the figure would have been significantly higher if the military junta had not feared photos being distributed through these new communications.

Likewise, the misdeeds of American military operations in Afghanistan reach the surface through the open-access user-contributed website, WikiLeaks. I am confident in the ability of today’s mass communication tools to tell me the information I want and need to be told. These new communications provide a new set of checks and balances, as no-one has full control of the internet. Could Watergate happen again today? No way — @DeepThroat would be tweeting us the leaks as and when they arose!

3.20pm: Still unsure about the reliability of this statistics website, I sign in to a researchers’ forum, and start a debate. I am pointed in the direction of a discredited statistics site run by the same author (I won’t be using these figures, then!)

Today, what you see is what you get. And you see a lot. Any generation Y‑er knows that their entire histories can ultimately be backdated on the web by their digital footprint’. This may include what they reviewed on Ama​zon​.com, what blog topics they wrote about when at high school, which local newspapers they appeared in for sporting achievements, and also probably what they look like drunk dressed as a pirate. With every individuals’ history open to critique, we’re going to have a generation of more transparent leaders and politicians, as no-one’s digital footprint can be entirely erased.

If you can’t censor the information available about you, you may as well distribute the information on your own terms. The new communications allow me to do just this. What I say and do online will be criticised by some, and will be appreciated by others, but at least my perspective is as accurately represented as possible in the first place. What’s the point of secrets, if you can have the truth told as you want it to be heard? Before the media even knows about it, Liverpool FC footballer Ryan Babel tweets the outcome of his transfer saga (‘I’m going nowhere… LFC all The Way… ynwa !!!’) and a certain Barack Obama lets the world know his thoughts on his successful election before even meeting the media (‘We just made history. All of this happened because you gave your time, talent and passion. All of this happened because of you. Thanks’). We tell the rest of the world all of our secrets through these new communications, because we like what we can say about ourselves, and because we are happy to deal with the consequences.

Margaret Cho, an American stand-up comedian and enthusiastic social networker, wrote on her blog that, Privacy and security are those things you give up when you show the world what makes you extraordinary.” Are we becoming savages by voluntarily giving up our privacy, as Ayn Rand would suggest? Most certainly not; we’re just showing the world how extraordinary we are!

@Scottish spuddy is the personal avatar of a development worker based in Asia who stays in close touch with developments on five continents through new media.