New rules for a new game


Is nothing private any more? Apparently not, if you're a member of the Bebo generation, who have no qualms about posting the most intimate details of their lives on the internet, writes Angela Long.

DAVE HAS BEEN living a lie for a long time. Sofia thinks her life sucks. And Gemma quite fancies Stephen Merchant, whereas Rachel got "rreally, rrrreaally wrecked" on Saturday night . . . It's all out there, for anyone to conjure up with Google, any time.

You might have wondered how "the young" can bear, or can be bothered, to record and post every detail of their lives, from eating a sandwich to getting riotously drunk in a pub.

The new generation gap has opened, yawning between the under and over 30s. The nature of the yawning chasm is privacy. And its manifestation is seen in what people post on social networking sites.

A woman who has been described as "Hillary Clinton crossed with Carrie Bradshaw of Sex in the City" thinks the gap could divide society and have consequences in the workplace, education and personal relationships.

Marian Salzman is one of the world's leading futurologists, a proven trendspotter. She's the author of books such as Next, Now, Buzz, and The Future of Men. A former vice-president of JWT, the giant J Walter Thompson advertising agency, she has just crossed species to be the chief creative thinker at PR firm Porter Novelli. She's the woman who had us all spotting "metrosexuals" and pondering on the wisdom that "sleep is the new sex".

Now she sees the trend of "radical transparency". At a large media conference in London, where all the other speakers were obsessed with "monetisation" (making money from the web), Salzman spoke of how the Bebo generation are happy for their lives to be transparent, and think that anything not put in the public domain is a shameful "secret".

Anyone older than 25 is not so comfortable with what another generation called "letting it all hang out". "When I was a kid, there would be whispers going around, perhaps 'Jane likes Joe and Joe likes Sue, but she's a bitch'. Today, it's 'but Sue's got HIV'. And it's posted permanently, whether it is true or not. This sort of thing could cause huge damage," Salzman says.

This frightens her. And she is teasing her mind with solutions to the chaotic, borderless world of the internet, and the virtual relationships into which young people can enter so easily. "Kids today are going to have to grow up with thick skins, if there is so little privacy in their lives. The only privacy will be in your heart and your head."

ON THIS TOPIC, psychiatrist Patricia Casey makes the point that privacy is vital to everyone's sense of self. "It is absolutely essential to have a secret sanctum of ourselves, something that is only shared with those closest to us." Many of the Bebo generation, Casey thinks, would have little of great importance on their pages.

"It would be mostly clothes, rock groups, school. We just hope that they learn boundaries as they go on in life, and don't tend to become over-involved with people too quickly, to share private things that other people might resent being shared."

Andrew Power, head of cyberpsychology at Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art and Design, agrees that a new divide is opening up. "We're seeing it even between people in their early 20s and teenagers, 11-year-olds," he says. However, he doesn't think there is any need for fear.

"Every time there is a new technological development, there are these fears. But there are positives and negatives with most things, and usually there is a middle path."

Cyberpsychology deals with how people interact with technology, how they use the internet, computers, mobile phones and the emerging gadget army.

The course Power heads at Dun Laoghaire, believed to be the first of its kind in the world, aims to produce people with the understanding of this human-machine relationship.

Grainne Irwin, who also teaches on the course, did her PhD on cyber crime. She sees the disregard for privacy in young social networkers as akin to the mantra of the first generation of superhackers, more than a decade ago. "The hackers' motto was that there should be no secrecy, everything should be open-source. This seems to have spread wider and wider." But, as she points out, those hackers almost inevitably operated under a nickname and hidden identity.

Recently, a class of students at Dublin Institute of Technology were intrigued when one of their own made a presentation which featured their social networking pages. There were giggles and shrieks, a little palpable embarrassment. The point being made, said masters student Niall McGuinness, was that all this information is there, accessible to just about anyone - peers, employers, teachers, gardai, the media.

MARIAN SALZMAN says parents, from now on, are going to have to bring up their children with a new set of smarts, including knowing how to counter cyberbullying.

"Parents will have to be proactive, and prepare kids from the age of six to deal with cyberbullying. This is all starting now, there are no rules yet." She says her own powers of prophecy are not up to where social networking and internet openness can take society.

"We have to prepare for consequences of this new world, but there are no rules yet. Regardless of age, people are learning so much more today than was ever possible before. And there are new social rules, communication rules, and norms of personal integrity, that are only just developing."

But it's not necessarily all bad, or even just bad. "When I was 14, the world was where I could take my bike - that was my limit. That was normal. Now, for kids today, there is virtually no limit, but that is the norm. People don't have to think that things should always be what they grew up with," says Salzman.