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B. Jeffrey Madoff Headshot

Deeply Superficial

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"Purple haze all in my brain
Lately things just don't seem the same"


There was no way I was ever going to convince my parents that Jimi Hendrix's music was good. More than anything, the youth culture was defined by its music. The chasm it created was called "the generation gap" a metaphor for the ideological differences that separated us. There is a new generation gap. It's not defined through music or politics or fashion, those ideas are shared much more among the generations than before. This time it's about privacy.

"Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take
I'll be watching you"

(Every Breath You Take by Sting, 1983)

My generation came of age thinking about "1984", the looming threat of "Big Brother" watching over all of us all of the time. It was the government or some group which would monitor all of our actions, know all our habits: who we associate with, what we watch, what buy.

1984 came and went. Nothing like "Big Brother" happened unless you count Apple computer's historic "Big Brother" commercial which ends with the slogan: "On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won't be like "1984". They were right - 2009 is.

Personal details used to be considered private. We were careful about who knew what about us and certainly didn't post pictures of our friends, families and fantasies for all to see. Privacy does not seem to be valued anymore. Giving up one's privacy has become a rite of passage. It's what you leave at the portal when you sign up for any of the social networking sites on the internet. The sites are free - as long as you don't calculate the value of your identity, demographics, viewing and buying habits to advertisers. This isn't new, the Nielsen Ratings service has been assembling viewer information since the 1950s for television advertisers, but its methods were primitive in comparison to the two way constant information gathering that's done on the internet.

In March 2009, Google initiated the use of "behavioral targeting", which uses information collected on someone's web-browsing behavior, such as the pages they have visited or the searches they have made, to select which advertisements to display to that individual. Social networks are constantly harvesting huge amounts of data that has tremendous value to advertisers.

When Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation bought MySpace in 2005 for $580 million, his intent was very clear: they signed a deal with Google in 2006 for $900 million to provide a search engine and advertising on MySpace. Although the founder of Facebook claims to not be in it for the money, my guess is their venture capital partners are - that's why investors go along for the ride.

The internet is like an amusement park, there are rides that get lots of attention then fade in popularity as something newer and faster shows up. The newest attraction on the fairground is Twitter.

Twitter's promotional material states, "Real life happens between blog posts and emails - now you can share". Share what, I'm not sure, because if you are twittering away the time between blog posts and emails you would still be missing out on real life - so what are you twittering about?

Although Twitter has been around about as long as Facebook, in the last six months its profile has blasted off the charts and embedded itself in pop culture. While Obama was giving his first major congressional address in February, some members of Congress were shown twittering - juvenile and impolite but phenomenal publicity for Twitter. It seemed impossible to not hear about Twitter, most recently culminating in the blitz about Ashton Kutcher becoming the first Twitterer to reach the one million follower mark, followed by CNN and Britney Spears in third place. You can't buy publicity like that, but you sure can annoy the hell out of a lot of people who are wondering what has happened to our culture.

According to Twitter's Privacy Policy, they have the right to collect personally identifiable data about its users, share it with third parties and retain the right to sell that information if the company changes hands. Twitter's founders claim they want to get the model right before they attempt to monetize it. That could be why Twitter's vocabulary is about "followers" not "friends".

The next technological step towards "Big Brother" is called "geosocial networking" or "social discovery service". Companies such as Loopt, Google Latitude and Pelago are offering cellphone based GPS social sharing so people can constantly update their friend's location and find out what they are doing.

Pelago's mission: "We foresee a world in which human behavior in the physical world is digitized, like human behavior on the web is today." I have no idea what they mean.

As a part of an online social network you can meet, establish and end a relationship without ever actually meeting the other person. This used to be called having a "pen pal". Technology has created the opportunity to develop hundreds, even thousands of pen pals in a very short time and connect them to form a social network. There are many tips and techniques available for sale to those who want to obtain huge friend lists, therefore becoming quite popular, at least online. Online you can create yourself as a celebrity, defining your success by the numbers you accumulate. Celebrity is the phenomenon of being known, not necessarily for accomplishing anything worth knowing.

The younger side of the generation gap is very loose with their privacy requirements, but very tight with how they try to project their image because they know all their "friends and followers" are watching. They communicate differently than we on the other side of the gap. Text. Twitter. As we have become more wired, networked, looped and linked, we've become more detached from that which makes us human - emotion.

Technology has given us so many more ways to communicate but we seem to have less to say. No conversation - it takes too much time. In an effort to be unique, the quest has become gathering as many friends or followers as possible, most of whom you have no real knowledge of. You can only ask "what" not "why" - anything more becomes an obstacle to the rapid aggregation of numbers. A "Friend" is not a verb. Communication has become deeply superficial.