BROOKE GLADSTONE: Google serves many needs, ranging from general research to shopping, to - let’s face it – snooping. We all know that people use Google to find out about one another, and on MySpace and FaceBook, young people have a tendency to tell all.
I say young, because it’s a generational thing. Most of us older people never had the chance to act like – well, kids online, whereas today’s 12-year-olds have chronicled their lives in a way that is virtually impossible to erase.
For instance, one of our producers, Nazanin Rafsanjani, once wrote a letter, an email, actually, to a website called www.iranian.com. She’s here to tell the tale. Nazanin, welcome to this side of the microphone. NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: Thank you. [LAUGHS] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you were 19 when you wrote this letter. It was in response to America’s response to 9/11. You wrote it in 2001. Can you read the portion of it that I highlighted? NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: Yeah, yeah, okay, so “I hate this American reaction and yet where else would I feel safe writing these words? Not in Iran, so where do my loyalties lie? They lie with the Americans who have died in this tragedy; they lie with the Afghanis who will die in its wake. I will not be pressured to rally behind a government that kills in the name of democracy, and I reject the one that oppresses in the name of Islam. My loyalties lie with innocents, and that is where they belong.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So why did you find that embarrassing?
NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: I just – I don’t have this desire to get my feelings out into the world, and it’s just the only time that I did this, and had I known at the time that I’d be talking about it six years later, [LAUGHS] I never would have done it.
And, you know, I realize that in the grand scheme of the things that could be on the Internet it may seem ridiculous that I care about a letter like this, but reading it now, it just sounds so, you know, serious. BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was a serious time, and you were a teenager. NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: It was, yeah, it’s true. That’s true. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have you tried to get it removed from www.Iranian.com? NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: [LAUGHS] Yes, I did try to get it removed, and partly that was because I was embarrassed about it. But partly it was because I was going to Iran and in other parts of the email I say some things about the Iranian government, and I wrote a letter to the publisher of the site and I asked for it to be removed.
And he wrote me back and said everything on Iranian.com is permanent, and I understood that, but after he said that, it dawned on me that I can’t get rid of it, no matter what I do. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And it didn’t occur to you when you sent that letter that, you know, it was going to be out there? You weren’t sending a personal letter on paper; you were sending it to a public forum. NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: I really thought it was going to be up there for a week or something, and that it would just sort of disappear or keep going down the list of things that I had done, but it won’t. It comes up really high. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And we’ve established that you really are a private person, so I’m just wondering, how come you’re talking about it right now? Aren’t you just drawing more attention to it? NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: I do generally ignore it, but I feel like I might as well just face it head on. Maybe this interview will come up close to that [LAUGHS], close to the letter when people Google me or something. By doing this, I feel like I am effecting it or controlling it a little bit. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nazanin, thanks very much. NAZANIN RAFSANJANI: Thank you. [LAUGHS] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nazanin Rafsanjani is a producer for On the Media, and hers is an increasingly common problem. For a solution, or at least some perspective, we turn now to Emily Nussbaum, who wrote about the phenomenon of life online for New York Magazine. Emily, welcome back to the show. EMILY NUSSBAUM: Hello. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how is this different, really, from the experience of every young person from the beginning of time who say and do things that they may later regret? EMILY NUSSBAUM: To me it’s very different. A researcher that I interviewed, Danah Boyd, had characterized online communications as differing from offline communications in these four specific ways: She talked about the fact that there’s something called chronological asynchrony, which basically means you could write something in 1999 and somebody could see it and comment on it in 2004. Everything that you put out there is linked to every other thing, and you can’t predict how much it will be linked. It’s searchable, and you don’t know who’s looking at it.
She called it “invisible audiences,” and I think that this is the biggest paranoia-building aspect of this, is that you just have the sense that something is floating out there and you don’t know who’s searched for it. And that’s just not been true in the past when it comes to embarrassing experiences [when] the furthest it’s probably going to go is the edges of town. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And when you were writing your piece, you ran into people who weren’t only trying to fix their own mistakes but the mistakes other people made in statements said about them, and that, I guess, is just as hard to get rid of. EMILY NUSSBAUM: That’s true. I mean, there are people who certainly are extremely upset about stuff people have said about them online, and that is a, you know, an experience for people of all ages.
But the one thing that I did find, with younger people, was a lot of people had been through that sort of online melodrama when they were 15 or 16, and they’d had this one experience where they had gotten into a fight online, they’d written a bunch of passive-aggressive comments back and forth, and it blew up into this huge thing. And it lasted a couple of months, and they cried and were very upset.
But it happened that one time and, in a strange way, it acted almost like a vaccine that prevented them from necessarily being so enraged, so upset, so bothered by stuff in the future.
One person that I interviewed had had somebody write something unbelievably nasty on an anonymous college blog, and she and her friend basically looked at it and thought, huh, I wonder why people think that we’re, you know, like coked-out party whores, or whatever they had written about her.
And she kind of looked at her profile and thought about it and, you know, she said that it stung for a minute but it just wasn’t that big a deal. I think that’s really unusual. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you’ve said that this is the biggest generation gap in 50 years, ever since rock ‘n roll, and so is it that relationship with your own public face that makes the generations different? I don’t mean just between people 15 and 50 but between people 15 and 25. EMILY NUSSBAUM: Yes, I actually do think that that particular reaction, the one of being stung for a moment but basically being like hey, well, you know, that’s just something somebody’s saying about me, that is something that seems specific to me to people who’ve grown up with the Internet and have come to regard it just as part of their identity, as part of their self.
People who are older often feel just much more thrown for a loop by stuff about them being out in public. They feel more humiliated, more out of control.
Although I think those feelings are understandable, in a way they’re just a dead end, because young people, not in some sort of abstract knowledgeable way, but just in a gut feeling way, they understand that there is not a place for a lot of privacy anymore.
Every time they buy something it’s tracked. Every time they go into the subway it’s tracked. There are cameras everywhere. Every email they send is stored. They’re being documented, whether they like it or not, so part of their response to that is just to say, you know, as long as my stuff is going to be out there, I might as well be the one doing it.
Every single person that I talked to had at least a FaceBook profile. That stuff seems really benign to somebody who’s 18. Generally, to somebody who’s 50, that is something that seems like an absolutely shocking transgression in publicness. BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s true. We’re just not used to living out loud, even those of us who have relatively public lives. I have a Wiki entry, and at some point, I checked it and somebody had put in the names of my kids, and I freaked out. And I went and I tracked it down, and it was posted by a friend of one of my kids at Oberlin, who went all right, all right, all right, I’ll take it off. What’s your problem?
And I realize, yeah, maybe it is my problem. I just don’t get it. I don’t want their names out there. They have FaceBook sites of their own. They’re already out there. EMILY NUSSBAUM: I completely identify with your reaction. There is just that, even though it’s just a factual thing, like the names of your children, like there’s just this sense of like why should everyone who looks for me know that? BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, joked that everybody should be able to change their names when they’re 21 in order to be able to change their Google hits. EMILY NUSSBAUM: I actually understand why that’s an incredibly appealing fantasy, the notion of just erasing one’s adolescence, but since it’s clearly not truly possible any more, it might be a really positive social change, where people just become more accepting of the fact that these unformed, passionate mistake-making weird former selves are floating out there in the universe.
I can’t say that that will definitely happen [LAUGHS] but it would be a good thing. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Emily, thank you very much.
EMILY NUSSBAUM: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Emily Nussbaum is editor at large for New York Magazine. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, a segment some might call pulling back the curtain, and others, too much information. BOB GARFIELD: That’s my view. This is On the Media from NPR.