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How the internet turned us into a silent generation

From the freedom to watch to the paranoia of being watched.

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Back in 2010 social media was at a tipping point. Facebook overtook Google’s market share for the first time ever. A moral panic erupted around oversharing and privacy, particularly in light of Google admitting that its Street View cars “accidentally” collected 600GB worth of Wi-Fi data from homes. 13-year-old me began dabbling in the online space, posting cringeworthy statuses without much regard for the long-term consequences.

“I don’t know what your generation’s fascination is with documenting your every thought, but I can assure you, they’re not all diamonds,” remarked the English teacher in Easy A, a coming-of-age film released in that same year. The internet had become a hub for private-lives-turned public, one that offers snoopers a cloak of invisibility.

Thanks to tagging, geolocation and the power of ‘lurking’ (some might call it ‘stalking’), you could find yourself down any rabbit hole, discovering everything from your best friend’s ex-boyfriend’s Ask.fm where he spread rumours about her, to the holiday itinerary of your crush’s aunt when she visited Italy three summers ago.

What goes online stays online forever, yet ‘lurking’ gave you a degree of empowerment; a sense of seizing back control because you were able to sift through data and comprehend it.

But in 2018, my newsfeed rarely encounters those articulations of mundane existence. Social media no longer seems to be that frivolous public journal described in Easy A.

While only four years ago I would have written in my blog daily and shared updates over Facebook and Twitter, nowadays that blog is full of unpublished posts, gathering digital dust in the backend. I agonise over making a comment on YouTube, deleting and rephrasing before discarding the draft altogether. When newsfeed content is too strange or controversial, but I still wish to share it, I often paste screenshots of it over Facebook Messenger rather than openly ‘tagging’ my friends.

Such deliberations have become habit in an age when communication online can affect our reputation as much as interactions offline.

For Via*, a student at the University of Sydney, this self-policing behaviour helps to keep her identity safe and contained. “Whatever we post always comes back to us, and that could have real life consequences, for example, in the workplace,” she says.

As many as 70 per cent of prospective employers conduct social media background checks on candidates, according to a CareerBuilder survey last year.

While Via frequently shares posts that resonate with her political beliefs and personal values, a line is drawn when she deems the content “too personal”.

For instance, although she passionately advocates for LGBTQ+ issues on social media, she makes an effort not to showcase her own engagement in the queer community.

“I’ll find myself checking out LGBTQ+ events on Facebook like Unicorns or Girlthing and despite feeling genuinely interested in the event, I would avoid clicking on the public ‘going’ or ‘interested’ button and instead opt to ‘save’ it privately,” she says.

“I’m just uncomfortable with the idea of sharing anything personal regarding my sexuality on such a public platform, as I am still ‘half-closeted’ and would especially dislike the idea of my parents or my entire online network knowing about it.”

Via finds more ‘closed’ social platforms like Snapchat give her a greater sense of security and thus freedom to express facets of her identity that she herself is still figuring out.

For university student and artist Lucy*, the opposite is true. The relative anonymity of ‘open’ platforms like Twitter has significantly reduced her fear of stepping out of lurkdom to post artworks online.

“I feel too self-conscious [on Facebook] because it’s like I’m baring myself to the world even though it’s probably just a photo or a thought … For some reason it’s the fact that people know me that make me hesitant to post,” says Lucy.

James, a USyd English student, similarly engages in self-censorship.

He says it stems from fear of being judged or misinterpreted. “I ask myself: is it even worth posting? Usually the answer is no.”

Indeed, our paranoia doesn’t come from nowhere: since 2010, data mining scandals have become not the exception but the norm, with Facebook at the centre of several.

“I started getting ads for glasses on Facebook after my friend and I had a conversation about her glasses,” says Lucy.

This, for her, was a wake-up call that private messages themselves cannot escape the grips of algorithm-based targeted advertising; that ‘lurking’ keeps us invisible but not untraceable.

‘Lurking’, in other words, now carries connotations of disempowerment. It’s no longer just a handy tool for the amateur detective.

Rather, it’s transformed into a necessity for those wanting to hide from the online panopticon—the  infrastructures of visibility dictating the dimensions of our identity that will resurface eventually to haunt us.

*Names have been changed