The average 24 year-old of 2007 is a professional spy with 10 years of rigorous training and experience.
USA Today has named my generation the "digital natives," a group lured by 1994's chat room/ email-chocked AOL and reeled in by the new millennium Web 2.0 social networking boom.
I am no exception. I used to talk myself into entering a questionable chat room or, more recently, checking the Facebook profile of an ex-boyfriend on a 3 a.m. drunken whim, out of boredom, or in a jealous compulsive fit. Afterwards, I always felt guilty and shameful. Nowadays spying has become a faceless normality embraced by most Web 2.0 sites and their users, myself included. Even the respectable news-sharing site Digg boasts the Digg Spy feature, which allows users to track ALL member activity (posts, favorites, etc) in real time.
Along with the majority of my peers, I admit however to no open discussion of my habit other than the typical coffee-talk IM banter:
"OMG -- you are such a stalker!"
In the past, hard drives held all of our secrets. All of our skeletons. And perusing someone else's hard drive is an invasion of privacy, isn't it? But now, the Web 2.0 space has become the world's open diary, forever taunting and teasing with its accessibility, depth of information and speed. Every day the Internet perfects its ability to expose human messiness - seething desires to cheat, gamble, dig up dirt and become information gluttons. Our conscience is the only thing holding us back, while curiosity urges us to probe deeper.
The quintessential Catch-22 of 2007: How can we refrain from stalking, from compulsively checking our 10 email accounts, from pirating music and movies, when the Internet's charms have become the focal point of our day-to-day life?
Spill Your Guts
And herein lays the ingenious Web 2.0 paradox: Young spies and stalkers are also narcissistic and self-doubting.
When I started college 7 years ago, I was shocked that my roommate's computer remained on day and night, her AOL Instant Messenger displaying a different away message 15 times a day. By my junior year, I was changing my away message every hour ("Runnin' Like Lola" = at the gym, "Men are bullshit" = post break-up anger, "Personal office hours" = visiting boyfriend, my class' teaching fellow). Every away message had to be clever in revealing my location; I secretly yearned for my whereabouts to be publicized but didn't want to be obvious about it.
Throughout most of my senior year, I vowed never to become a Facebook drone. When I finally caved in, I created a phony profile with a naked African statue as my picture. But as time wore on, my Facebook identity became more important than my actual one. I figured if people were spending as much time on the Facebook as I was, my profile should attract attention. I wanted to seem hot, funny and popular. I wanted to inspire jealousy in classmates, show up my boyfriend's ex-girlfriends and flip off my own failed loves.
Do I still want these things? Hmm... well let's just say that I recently requested to join the closed group "Sexy Women of Facebook."
But enough about me.
Away with etiquette
Digital natives have been instant messaging one another since 7th grade Computer lessons. Consequently, we have no class. We threw hellos, goodbyes, and the other common niceties out the window. In their place, we constructed sentences with a series of indecipherable acronyms,emoticons and one-letter word replacements. This led to two unfortunate consequences: 1) a proclivity to conducting 10 instant message conversations at once, hence giving each person 1/10th the amount of attention that s/he deserves, and 2) an inability to spell words like "chic."
Let me explore the first consequence a bit. I've been on both ends of this IM debacle, and both are equally torturous. Fail to respond to a couple questions, shoot a few short or curt responses after 10 minutes of lag time, sign off without saying goodbye - and suddenly you're an asshole. On the flipside, imagine IMing a boyfriend or someone who you haven't communicated with in months and having to wait 5 minutes for a 2-word response. Yes, it's infuriating. And shamelessly accepted.
In addition, pulling the plug on thoughtful responses and face-to-face contact enables IMers to get downright nasty and/or oblivious, creating unnecessary squabbles and miscommunication. Too many times my conversations have ended with something like this:
Me: So I'm taking you out tonight right? ;)
Me: Ok, where should we go? I was thinking this nice place in the North End - you'll love the lobster bisque.
Me: Sound good?
Friend: Busy. Gtg ttyl bye.
Being in constant contact with all friends and family has not brought us closer. Conversely, it has made us numb to human interaction. Instead of savoring every conversation we are distracted, oblivious - connecting with the masses and yet isolating the few most important.
Obsessive Compulsive Normality
"Going online" is a dated term. As Larry Weber's teenage son put it, "[we] don't go online, we just are online." Therefore, college students and young professionals share the same obsession - we are addicted to our computers, the instrument that is both necessary and detrimental to our growth. Fluent in spying and stalking, blogging and IMing, the average 18-30 year old is plopped before a computer 8-9 hours each day. Real work can be accomplished while staring at a computer screen equipped with high-speed Internet, but more realistically this set of events will occur:
1. Enter dorm or office, say hi to no one and either turn on computer or disable hibernation.
2. Open AIM/Jabber/Google Talk and IM a few people for no particular reason (these windows will stay open all day). Read everyone's away messages and profiles, looking for slight changes. Take no prisoners; even the roommate who you know to be in class for the next 2 hours or your coworker sitting in the next cubicle.
3. Open Outlook/iMail. Click send receive 3 times. Open all new emails before responding to one.
4. Open Hotmail/Gmail/Yahoo account (one, or all, if applicable). Hit "Inbox" or "Get Messages" twice on each browser. If a new message loads (which most likely will not happen), your heart will leap. Even if it's a promo email from 1-800-FLOWERS.
5. Open Facebook/MySpace/Friendster/Ziki/LinkedIn/SecondLife etc. Look at your profile, even though you have it memorized. If you're on Facebook, read the stalker-companion, aka Newsfeed. NOTE: this feature was ridiculed by users upon its inception, but now Facebook members can't live without it. Scrutinize friend's (and then friend's friend's) photos, even ones you've seen before. Look at people's profiles that you secretly have a crush on or secretly hate. Follow links to other shared photo sites and blogs.
6. Read friend's blogs, then any other blogs of your interest. Comment on a few. Blog reading can last all day if not moderated.
7. Choose a topic from your ongoing list of wonderful blog ideas and post a witty but thoughtful blog to your own site.
8. Begin the work that you originally set out to accomplish.
Finally, we've got the world and everyone's personal information at our fingertips! That and neurotic tendencies. I've watched close friends pull up their laptop to finish a task and become so distracted by email notifications, instant messages, profile updating and socially ranked news articles that they completely forget about the work they sat down to complete.
Confession: This article took me 3 months to perfect because while writing it I engaged in 40 IM conversations, received 2,500 emails and checked my email twice a minute.
That's 20,000 times.