Moral Panics And How 'The Kids These Days' Adapt: From Facebook 'Permanence' To Snapchat's 'Impermanence'

from the things-change,-people-adapt dept

It is funny to see how some people react to technology changes, almost always assuming that “new” is somehow bad, because it’s different. Looking back through historical examples, they often look pretty funny. Last year, we wrote about an old moral panic in the NY Times from 1878 about two Thomas Edison inventions, the phonograph and the aerophone (basically a broadcasting system for the phonograph). It’s somewhat hilarious to read these days:

Recently he invented the phone- graph, a machine that catches the lightest whisper of conversation and stores it up, so that at any future time it can be brought out, to the confusion of the original speaker. This machine will eventually destroy all confidence between man and man, and render more dangerous than ever woman’s want of confidence in woman. No man can feel sure that wherever he may be there is not a concealed phonograph remorseless gathering up his remarks and ready to reproduce them at some future date. Who will be willing, even in the bosom of his family, to express any but most innocuous and colorless views and what woman when calling on a female friend, and waiting for the latter to make her appearance in the drawing-room, will dare to express her opinion of the wretched taste displayed in the furniture, or the hideous appearance of the family photographs ? In the days of persecution and it was said, though with poetical exaggeration, that the walls had ears.

Thanks to Mr. Edison’s perverted ingenuity, this has not only become a literal truth, but every shelf, closet, or floor may now have its concealed phonographic ears. No young man will venture to carry on a private conversation with a young lady, lest he should be filling a secret phonograph with evidence that, in a breach of promise suit, would secure an immediate verdict against him, and our very small-boys will fear to express themselves with childish freedom, lest the phonograph should report them as having used the name of “gosh,” or as having to “bust the snoot” of the long-suffering governess.

Beware! And, just a few days ago, someone on Twitter (I fear I can’t find the tweet now) pointed me to this story from last year in the Atlantic, highlighting a similar moral panic in the NY Times, twenty years earlier, about this horrible device known as the telegraph. You see, it spreads information so quickly, we’ll barely have time to think:

“Superficial, sudden, unsifted, too fast for the truth, must be all telegraphic intelligence. Does it not render the popular mind too fast for the truth? Ten days bring us the mails from Europe. What need is there for the scraps of news in ten minutes? How trivial and paltry is the telegraphic column?”

And, of course, things are little different today when it comes to new technologies. In fact, you could take the quotes above from the 19th Century NY Times and with very few changes, likely have them apply to modern internet services and social media — and they would be little different from some of the stories that you do see in the press today.

And, just as was true of those two stories above, it turns out that the fearmongering is way off base, and the ability of people to adapt and change grows. Take the fears over Facebook, for example. Just five years ago, in 2010, the NY Times Magazine warned us all about the perils of the internet remembering everything we’ve ever done, and how you’ll never be able to rid yourself of such a “permanent record.” It discusses previous moral panics about the privacy impacts of certain technologies, but then pulls out the “but this time, it’s different” card.

Technological advances, of course, have often presented new threats to privacy. In 1890, in perhaps the most famous article on privacy ever written, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis complained that because of new technology ? like the Kodak camera and the tabloid press ? ?gossip is no longer the resource of the idle and of the vicious but has become a trade.? But the mild society gossip of the Gilded Age pales before the volume of revelations contained in the photos, video and chatter on social-media sites and elsewhere across the Internet. Facebook, which surpassed MySpace in 2008 as the largest social-networking site, now has nearly 500 million members, or 22 percent of all Internet users, who spend more than 500 billion minutes a month on the site. Facebook users share more than 25 billion pieces of content each month (including news stories, blog posts and photos), and the average user creates 70 pieces of content a month. There are more than 100 million registered Twitter users, and the Library of Congress recently announced that it will be acquiring ? and permanently storing ? the entire archive of public Twitter posts since 2006.

The author, Jeffrey Rosen, declares this a “collective identity crisis”:

As social-networking sites expanded, it was no longer quite so easy to have segmented identities: now that so many people use a single platform to post constant status updates and photos about their private and public activities, the idea of a home self, a work self, a family self and a high-school-friends self has become increasingly untenable. In fact, the attempt to maintain different selves often arouses suspicion. Moreover, far from giving us a new sense of control over the face we present to the world, the Internet is shackling us to everything that we have ever said, or that anyone has said about us, making the possibility of digital self-reinvention seem like an ideal from a distant era.

Concern about these developments has intensified this year, as Facebook took steps to make the digital profiles of its users generally more public than private. Last December, the company announced that parts of user profiles that had previously been private ? including every user?s friends, relationship status and family relations ? would become public and accessible to other users. Then in April, Facebook introduced an interactive system called Open Graph that can share your profile information and friends with the Facebook partner sites you visit.

There are plenty more stories like this. Stories about how difficult it will be for the “Facebook generation” to run for office, given that all their childish antics will be online. Or stories about how people are living too much through their Facebook feeds, rather than just experiencing life.

And yet… people have a way of adapting. Venture capitalist Adam Besvinick, recently noticed that, in talking to recent college grads, they actually were having the opposite experience of what everyone was fretting about just a few years ago. And that’s because they all started using Snapchat rather than Facebook for such things:

He later notes that some of those grads are now regretting that they don’t have much tangible to hold onto about those memories. And, yes, as I’m sure someone is rushing to point out in the comments, Snapchat’s “disappearing” images and videos don’t really disappear, and they can (and often are) saved. But many are not. And they go away. And, yes, that’s kind of like things were in the past, when people just experienced things, rather than share them all.

But it’s important to note that everything adapts. Kids adapt. New services adapt. Societal norms and culture adapt. And things don’t turn into some dystopian nightmare that some worry about.

So many people look at these new services and react with outrage because they’re different, and because they’re different and will create different kinds of experiences, they must be bad. But history has shown that people are pretty damn resilient, and are pretty good at figuring out how to do things in a way that best suits them. And some will fail. And some will make mistakes. But it’s hardly a crisis deserving of a moral panic. These things seem to take care of themselves pretty well — and then people start worrying about the opposite (e.g. not enough permanence) as compared to the original moral panic (e.g. too much permanence).

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Companies: facebook, snapchat

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Comments on “Moral Panics And How 'The Kids These Days' Adapt: From Facebook 'Permanence' To Snapchat's 'Impermanence'”

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Testing 1 2 3 says:

Running for office

There are plenty more stories like this. Stories about how difficult it will be for the “Facebook generation” to run for office, given that all their childish antics will be online.

Are you kidding? Soon you will be unelectable without a normal Facebook profile with a normal level of past foibles. Running for office without any detectable social media past will become like walking into a bank branch wearing a ski mask: instant source of suspicion and distrust. What is he or she hiding?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Running for office

This is correct.

People fear what they do not understand more than anything.

They will no understand why someone does not have facebook, they will not understand why someone values their privacy, and they WILL NOT understand why someone does not hold their values.

Segregation, a principal that works for and against humanity. Some people can be open minded others cannot and any attempt to force them to change by law requires those enforcing it to become hypocrites.

We should all be allowed to freely associate as we see fit, be twitterists, facebookers, or non-public identities as we choose.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Running for office

Ever since the “borking” of Robert Bork, it’s hardly a secret that for the people being nominated for the Supreme Court, the ones who keep their personal opinions to themselves throughout their legal careers will have an easier time getting through the nomination process than the ones who have made their opinions known. Like the old saying, “Loose lips sink ships.”

Anonymous Coward says:

First you jeer at notion that recorded words could be used against one forever, then state that is indeed a problem and here's how clever kids avoid it.

And you’re against Google being required to prevent such reference. Hmm. You have no discernible or coherent philosophy.

And there’s your characteristically silly logic of “someone in the past was wrong, therefore (whatever you want)” is absolutely proved.

Oh, if only Timothy Geigner, aka “Dark Helmet”, now a paid writer here at Techdirt, had been clever, or ordinarily civil, or could erase this from permanent record for so long as Techdirt is archived:
“There are white people, and then there are ignorant motherfuckers like you….”

Just to explain for any noobs: that pops into my mind whenever Techdirt gets on its preachy “don’t have moral panics” hobby-horse. Techdirt writers have “moral panics” and go on lengthy rants every day, but can’t see selves as being just like everyone else.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: First you jeer at notion that recorded words could be used against one forever, then state that is indeed a problem and here's how clever kids avoid it.

And this to give the kids another to click “report” on.

Tired of Techdirt wasting your time from slow page loads of javascripts and images, and of not seeing comments the fanboys have censored?

Use the mobile version, Techdirt Lite!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

The good news – for us attempting to identify the intentionally dishonest ones, anyway – is that out_of_the_blue’s brand of being a disingenuous asshole is pretty damn signature. Even after abandoning his moniker and constant changing of his IP address via the pirate tool TOR, he still sticks out like a polar bear’s nose against the Arctic wastes.

There’s no satirizing out_of_the_blue – he’s just that much of an asshole.

Stoffolk says:

Are you sure?


What of Brandon Eich’s ousting at the hands of a Twitter lynch mob over a political donation he made some years prior? Seems to be a manifestation of the 2010 concerns you brought up.

And don’t forget how colleges now have posters everywhere talking about how employers are increasingly scanning a prospective employee’s social media profile for use in deciding to hire or not. That’s certainly not the freewheeling freedom those who grew up in the pre-social-media-era of the Internet had.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Are you sure?

I have long regarded HR personnel’s position as looking for reasons NOT to hire. When faced with thousands of resumes to screen,how else is one to do it? The applicants goal is to get past those reasons: ANY WAY THEY CAN. That doesn’t sound right!

Now we have them not only looking at social media accounts, but if one doesn’t have one. How many different ways might either of those be read, and what is the actual value to the hiring process?

(For myself I always looked at the hiring process as determining 1) if the candidate could do the job, and 2) if they would fit in with the group they were being hired to work with. Trust is another issue, but cannot be determined without giving trust until there is a reason not to.)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Are you sure?

Huh? Which Brandon Eich would you be referring to?

The only Brandon Eic I’ve heard of is the the one at Mozilla, the one who was promoted to the head of the organization — an open, public organization with a specific agenda that explicitly supports and promotes diversity and inclusiveness, and an organization that relies rather heavily on volunteer participation to accomplish its goals — despite that guy being a long-time, firmly-committed and unrepentant supporter of anti-gay politicians and anti-gay political platforms, associated organizations, and (the item that alerted the “lynch-mob” in the first place) a referendum created for the specific purpose of taking existing civic rights away from certain citizens based on their sexual orientation.

Is that the Brandon Eich you’re referring to? If so, I somehow fail to see how it’s supposed to exemplify a problem…

Stoffolk says:

Re: Re: Are you sure?

I am absolutely certain. While I don’t agree with his views on gay marriage, I support his right to hold those views. To my knowledge, he kept his politics out of the workplace and the only reason they even came up is because of mandatory public filings of political donations.

Nowhere within Mozilla’s manifesto is the word “inclusion,” and rightfully so. “Inclusion” is a weasel word that means anything but actual inclusivity. It is the promotion of intolerance, identity politics, and bigotry over superficial qualities such as skin color or gender. Any sane person supports the inclusion of women and minorities in all aspects of tech. “Inclusivity” works against this by viciously attacking the women and minorities that disagree with rags that push the bombastic claim that white supremacy and fear of inclusion are why skin color and gender demographics in Silicon Valley are largely homogenous.

Supporting free speech means supporting the existence of speech one disagrees with. I fear too many people, in their zeal towards attaining equality, are becoming the very monsters they sought to fight against.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

No Account

So, I have no social media accounts (well I got suckered into linkedin before I knew their direction and now can’t get rid of them, though the original reason to use them no longer exists), now that might be held against me?

People who do not record their writings in a format that is meant to be saved (a la paper or it’s digital equivalent) should not complain. Why in hell would anyone want everything they say recorded for posterity, especially when it might come back and kick you in the ass? I can certainly appreciate (and have empathy for) not wanting youthful thought tryouts that may, or probably will be turned over with maturity (more thought) and experience (do, try it, fix it).

Even now Facebook is blocked in my hosts file. I will be led to twitter by associates (Techdirt or friends) but damned if I will use it.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Re: No Account

Interestingly, I had a conversation with a college student this afternoon, she is studying communications. I asked her about methods for person to person communications, and her first response was “Facebook”. I pointed to this article where only 22% of Internet users were members and asked how she might reach a higher percentage. I then pointed out that if her goal was say ‘social change’ that both copyright and government spying would be in her way and the she would need to find different methods for such communication (suggesting TOR and pointing out that it may be compromised)…and thought took place…it remains to be seen if that thought has any effect.

I suggested to her that not only have things changed with regard to communication, but things will continue to change, and that that rate of change will continue to increase. I challenged her to ask her professors about this, and will follow up when I see her in the future.

Shill says:

“It is funny to see how some people react to technology changes, almost always assuming that “new” is somehow bad, because it’s different.”

It’s funny how Techdirt reacts to my posts by assuming that just because I disagree with them it’s somehow bad because my viewpoint is different. Then they all go into a moral panic of wanting to censor all my posts before anyone sees them because they’re so so afraid of the truth!!!! Then they complain about moral panics when its’ Techdirt that’s the one panicking the most every time I post the truth and they’re afraid anyone will see it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I doubt anyone here is afraid of change. They are most certainly concerned with freedom of culture and government intrusion (however they express it).They most certainly are NOT concerned with YOUR focused, limited point of view. Who needs or wants to hear from shiils! Find a short pier, and take a long walk. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY (including your employers, you are not doing them any favors) will miss you.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Nobody, and I mean NOBODY (including your employers, you are not doing them any favors) will miss you.”

Actually my employers seem to be very pleased with my posts so far. I figured out the secret. The more ridiculous the posts the happier they are. I figured that everything the MPAA/RIAA and others like it say is ridiculous and so I have started to go that route.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

What you call a ‘shill’ is just a differing opinion, without which Techdirt would just be a circle jerk of obeisance to Mike’s often twisted logic.


Left to your own devices Techdirt loyalists would be fucked cos you can’t tell the difference between what has happened and what might (see Pope Painting story, count how many posts say “greedy trolls” or “fuck getty”, then count how many documents have been filed in court by Getty against the Pope picture,)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Then the codemonkeys walk their pet bots all over our LANs and start making a mess with honeypots without cleaning up after themselves. Those Honepots are very sweet and they tend to attract computer bugs. Darn it, why don’t people clean up after their pets these days, especially when it involves my LAN.

Ninja (profile) says:

I think the ‘panicky’ articles do have a point. But in the end it’s a matter of balances and nuances. Social media can be useful if done right. I mean, if you can choose what circles and people to share and the company behind doesn’t try to sell your info at every opportunity it is indeed a way to preserve memory. The problem in the end is not the technology but rather how it is deployed.

Anonymous Coward says:

The worries about the phonograph sound closer to concerns about stingrays, surveillance drones, wiretaps, etc. Couldn’t the same logic (along with the “society adapts so it’ll be OK” conclusion) apply equally to government surveillance?

I’m no fan of governments spying on citizens, but don’t see why the argument applies to social media but not surveillance.

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