Talkin’ bout my generation

A couple of months ago, there was an article in Businessweek describing the Myspace Generation – the current crop of teenagers and college students (the tail end of which being people my age) which, to put it succinctly, have online identities. Of course, when these things get mentioned by the mainstream press, its always through the prism of capitalism: How can we market to these people? Beyond the rather sickening mindset that this demonstrates, its remarkable to me how time and again this phenomenon is identified, but the massive social shift that it represents gets missed. It makes me wonder if the baby boom got viewed the same way.

David Canton of eLegal (via Techdirt) recently raises an interesting point which illustrates the social shift that accompanies this new generation:

We often forget this information is there for anyone to find at any time. That snarky remark or embarrassing photo that seems amusing at the time may become a real problem when future employers check you out.

Online tools and sites also mean anyone can search the Internet to verify information provided by job-seekers, people applying for credit or running for office.

This makes it easier to find discrepancies or experiences that were intentionally omitted.

It will become interesting during the next few years when those who routinely use these kinds of sites start running for public office. All kinds of potentially embarrassing information will be readily available to opponents.

While these various ways to interact with others may seem innocuous at the time, they can come back to haunt later. People often treat these kinds of sites like a personal conversation with a few close friends, but the reality is they are having that conversation with the world and it is preserved forever.

What will happen when the Myspace Generation starts to run for office, apply for those high profile jobs, or even become celebrities – and their every youthful indiscretion is recorded forever in Google’s cache?

It’s no secret that politicians aren’t usually of upstanding moral fiber (some much less so than others). But there’s a big difference between, say, everyone knowing that you used to be an alcoholic, did coke in college, and skipped out on National Guard duty – and anyone being able to Google your own descriptions of that experience which you’d posted on Myspace thirty years prior. Under the current political system, no such person would be electable.

It’s unrealistic to suggest that people simply abstain from using these tools to protect their future selves. No one has that kind of foresight, and further, these tools are too powerful not to use.

On the flip side – I’m a more or less upstanding person, but I’d probably be crushed if I ever ran for office, based on the stuff I’ve said and done online. Honestly, I’d be afraid of anyone that actually has the squeaky clean record necessary to withstand the scrutiny that comes with a political campaign (much moreso than the George Bushes of the world). Anyone that could actually manage it would have to be a some sort of sociopath.

So, what’s it mean for future political campaigns? Well, pretty much everyone that runs is going to have indiscretions and embarassments that are easily google-able. The main difference that I see is that these things will no longer come as revelations; they’ll lose their shock value. This has the potential to be a very good thing. The electorate might finally become desensitized to youthful sexual or chemical indiscretions, forcing campains to become qualification and issue-centric. (On the other hand, maybe I’m just being an idealist).

Regardless of whether I’m right about that, the important thing is that it’s a major sociopolitical shift regardless. And it’s one which has been little-examined because there’s such a schism between those who do the examining, and those who are actually part of the generation.

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