How The Pew Poll Gets It Wrong On Gen Y Privacy
This week, a hue and cry went up in the circles of folks who actually care about these things to smugly proclaim that Gen Y was going to put the final nail in the coffin of digital privacy. The fodder for this bold assertion? The latest report in the Pew’s Millennial series indicates that 69% of the “technology stakeholders and critics” surveyed agreed that, by 2020, Generation Y would continue to disclose a “great deal” of personal information and that their enthusiasm for widespread info sharing would remain undimmed even as they segued into a more mature life phase.
Pardon me if I don’t take the talking points of a collection of bloggers, futurists (what I wouldn’t give to see that on a business card) and the guy who started Craigslist as the definitive word on the perceived longevity of social networking and the continuing popularity of digital disclosure . Hand-picked sample (okay, there were a few academics in there, too) aside, the report is flawed in several ways.
Not everyone is currently on the sharing bandwagon
Again, to harp on the fatal flaw of the Pew’s Millennial research in general, there’s a lack of inclusivity when it comes to the experience of Gen Y members outside of the middle-class raised, college-educated, upwardly mobile cohort. This study (ditto, previous ones) assumes that a passion for online info sharing is an across-the-board characteristic that defines the generation as a whole and that this passion is what drives an interest in social networking, as opposed to assumed necessity, peer pressure, a need to access info not available via other channels or a host of other influential factors.
A hell of a lot can happen before (and after) 2020
If you had asked a gaggle of transportation and air safety experts their views on the future of air travel on September 10, 2001, you would have gotten a radically different answer than what’s played out in the last almost-decade. Even futurists can’t accurately predict game-changing events that might occur between now and 2020 to once again redefine our understanding of the public and the private spheres, not to mention account for evolutions and shifts within the technology and the platforms currently used by Gen Y to share the minutiae of their/our lives.
It doesn’t reflect the potential for value shifts
Transparency is arguably king today, but that doesn’t mean that it will still be de rigueur in a decade. For example, critics are already identifying a shift toward more conservative attitudes among young adults re: sexual behavior of their peers ( hence the whole Generation Scold moniker coined by Jessica Grose in Slate). If attitudes around political and religious participation (and yes, sex) can change over the life course and we frequently see the emergence of new values within the collective consciousness (Who was talking about sustainability in a mainstream way 20 years ago?), why should we expect anything different when it comes to the prominence of social networking and the nature of our relationship to it? Assuming stasis is short-sighted.
They skipped the best part
The Pew’s report misses arguably the most interesting aspect of what the implications of a continued emphasis on social networking and info sharing will be, namely the potential effects on our social relationships and collective and individual self-image. If we continue to make public our formerly private lives, will this lead to a normalization of behaviors or attributes that we previously held up as shameful/private (a reduction in social stigma around dropping out of school, having an STI or declaring bankruptcy, perchance)? Will it prop open the door for 24/7 surveillance of the lives of our peers and encourage the culture of comparison that current social networking platforms have already fostered (after all, a running stream of updates on the achievements of peers is never more than a click away)? It’s one thing to declare online sharing is the death knell of digital privacy, but quite another to delve into its long-term offline ramifications.