I am not a digital native. I was born in 1975 and didn’t send my first e-mail until I was a sophomore in college. I spent my junior year abroad, where e-mail came in handy and Internet porn would have, if only I had known about it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Luddite. These days I love the Web like Joanie loves Chachi. (That’s a pre-digital cultural reference for all you youngsters.) But I came of age at a time when most photographs ended up in a shoe box or a photo album. I never spent hours snapping self-portraits with a digital camera trying to get that perfect profile pic. And I always assumed that any pictures taken of me before I had graduated from college were forever safe from Google’s tentacles.
That was until Caroline, a high-school friend’s little sister, joined Facebook. She scanned a batch of her pics from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, posted them to her page, and tagged them—identifying the people in pictures and, if they were on Facebook, announcing to their entire networks that these photos had been uploaded. I signed on one day to find that she had posted a picture of our friend Dan in all of his 1990 glory: blousy white shirt, jeans that may or may not have been acid-washed, righteous mullet. He is standing beside Kim, who is wearing a floral print dress and a scrunchie around her wrist. Of course I left a comment, something to the effect of “HAHAHAHAHAHA!” Caroline commented back, ominously, “ur next braiker.”
I went through a bit of a hippie phase in high school: long greasy hair, Dead shows. I was a few pounds heavier then and hadn’t yet blossomed into the well-groomed specimen of smoldering manhood who is typing this today. So when I received an e-mail alert that Caroline had tagged me in a photo, I was horrified. Rightfully so. The picture she posted is terrible. It’s homecoming 1991, though it could easily be mistaken for the parking lot at a Phish concert. I appear to be dancing or jumping; my unwashed mane is flying all over the place; I look like a hobo who has spent the night in a patchouli patch. My first impulse was to detag the photo. I mean, how dare she? Who goes through the trouble of unearthing mortifying 18-year-old snapshots, scanning them, and then putting them in a public space? Yet, somehow removing the tag, which is my prerogative, seems weaselly—especially since I had gleefully commented on Dan’s photo. Instead, I typed a lame comment (“who is that handsome devil?”) and hoped that nobody would see the picture.
But the whole experience nagged at me. I felt violated. So I made some calls. “There is a generational element to this,” says John Palfrey, co-author of Born Digital. “A picture of someone taken today at a party is thought to be fair game for uploading by young people, whereas pictures taken in the pre-digital age are not.” Palfrey, a Harvard Law School professor, conducted interviews with so-called “digital natives,” members of the first generation to have grown up online. He found that these people place information, say a photograph of themselves, into one of three separate categories. That photo can be either 1) something they’ve put up on the Web themselves, 2) something a friend put up online and then tagged, or, more worryingly, 3) something a third party uploaded without them knowing—and was subsequently identified, without any human intervention, by some facial recognition software.
Palfrey, who is three years older than me and much smarter, admits to having detagged photos of himself on Facebook for privacy reasons. But whereas he and I might bristle a bit at that second category, we all know that the digital native is more accustomed to letting it all hang out online. The third category, however, freaks everyone out, says Palfrey. And it’s not purely science fiction, either. Already there’s Riya, a search engine that can recognize images of people and things, with mixed success. Affine Systems promises to do the same for videos. “Say you’re the copyright holder of Hannah Montana and you want to find any time Miley Cyrus appears on Youtube, a service like Affine’s could be very useful” says Palfrey. “You could also think of it being more pernicious if it’s used in a social setting.” One can only imagine the horror of learning that some bot has tagged you in footage of a high school musical, or some other compromising situation, that somehow ended up online. As far as Palfrey knows this hasn’t happened yet, but it feels like only a matter of time. “That seems to be the new frontier,” he says.
As with any new frontier, the rules of engagement can be vague. Fortunately, there is Debrett’s, which is publishing the A to Z of Modern Manners, the first of their etiquette guides to tackle social networking, in the United States next month. Its author is Jo Bryant, a chipper Brit who thinks that “people are confused about what’s right and wrong and how far you can go” on sites like Facebook. “It is a whole new code of behavior that we need to get to grips with.” Even digital natives have been known to struggle: Last month Chelsy Davy changed her relationship status on Facebook, inadvertently triggering a tabloid feeding frenzy because she was no longer seeing her boyfriend of five years, Prince Harry. More recently, the now infamous Chris Brown confirmed his split from Rihanna by changing his relationship status to “single,” according to the New York Post.
Bryant, who has herself been tagged on Facebook “but nothing bad, thankfully,” agreed that I would probably be overreacting if I were to detag the offending photo. She did offer advice to would-be taggers. “Just because you’re online you shouldn’t forget how your actions might make someone else feel,” she says. “That’s really what manners and etiquette are all about.” So finally I called Caroline and asked her, as politely as possible, just what the hell her deal was. Turns out she had just gotten a scanner and, she says, has “a ton of free time right now,” so she went on a bit of a scanning and tagging binge.
Caroline told me that she’s had her own unfortunate pre-digital photo scanned and tagged, and therefore claims to be “very sensitive” on the topic. “I got my tag cherry popped because this girl from my boarding school put up all these photos and they were amazing and I was so happy to see them,” she says. “Then she tagged me in one and I was embarrassed and self-conscious that all my cool new friends were going to see that I was fat in high school. I was going to remove the tag but I didn’t want her to feel insulted. I wasn’t sure what to think of it.”
What she ended up concluding is probably the best—and hardest—lesson Facebook has to offer. Once you start reconnecting with people from your distant past, even if fleetingly online, your life goes from feeling like a patchwork of acquaintances and experiences to something more fluid and cohesive. This can be humbling. Or, as Caroline said when I whined to her about posting that photo: “You can never be too cool for your past.”