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Roger Clarke's 'Privacy Attitudes of the iGeneration'

The Privacy Attitudes of the iGeneration

Original of 10 November 2009; Revisions to 30 May 2010 and 1 February 2011

[The term 'iGeneration' was only an aside in the first version of the paper.
I've since moved it to a more prominent position]

Roger Clarke **

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Short-Form Argument

0. People say 'the generation that has embraced 'reality TV' and Facebook see the world differently, and lead open lives, and consequently privacy will be of much less importance in the coming years'.

On the other hand ...

1. We all took risks in our youth. For Baby-Boomers (roughly, born 1945-1960) and X-Gens (roughly, born 1960-1980), our over-the-top behaviour was limited in space and time. For those born after that, the Web and 'social networking' tools have greatly extended the reach and re-discoverability of the text, the images and the video of youthful indiscretions.

2. Every cohort to date has shown increasing risk-aversion as they got older. They need more security in many senses of the word (e.g. physical security for their children and for their assets, and assurance of regular income). They have done more, and they own more. More information exists about them that could do them harm, and hence they have more that they want to hide.

3. Those born in the period 1980-1995, commonly referred to as Gen-Ys, were risk-takers and exhibitionists at the time that social networking tools peaked in their excessive openness in the mid-to-late noughties. Many people were bitten during 2005-09 through exposure of embarrassing information and images, or through vicarious experience of other people's misfortunes.

4. There is evidence that those born c. 1995 onwards (and hence in their teens in 2010) are more savvy about self-exposure through social networking tools than those aged only a few years older. The term iGens is usefully used to distinguish this group from GenYs.

5. So the reasonable expectation is that the iGeneration be more privacy-sensitive than its predecessors.


For simplicity, I'm treating the Baby-Boomers as those born 1945-1960, and the X-Generation as those born 1960-1980. Several names have been proposed for the subsequent generation although Gen-Y appears to be the most common. Because of the rate of changes, Gen-Y may be assigned a shorter range of birth-dates than its predecessors; and there may be much finer segmentation, based on additional (and probably more relevant) criteria. These notes adopt the birth-years 1980-95 for Gen-Ys, and uses the term iGens for those born subsequently.

Internet industry executives have been putting out the view that GenYs and iGens, who are growing up with electronic tools in general, and social networking services (SNS) in particular, are far more relaxed about privacy than previous generations. In their view, people will carry these relaxed attitudes forward through their lives.

Even in its gentler form, their thesis is that service-providers can ignore privacy advocates, because the privacy concerns of users will be very low. At its most emphatic, their argument extends to the Scott McNeeleyism (variously 'You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it' or 'Privacy is dead, deal with it' - 1999) and the Eric Schmidtism ('If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place' - 2009).

The CEOs peddling these views have quite apparent self-interest in them becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yet the majority of the media uncritically parrot those views, and hence the 'privacy's not the same any more' message has gained widespread coverage with remarkably little consideration being given to whether the proposition holds water. These notes present a counter-argument.

Less Short Argument

1. The Risk-Taking Behaviour of Youth

It's a characteristic of young people (say 15-25) that they use their freedom, exhibit anything other than what they perceive as the stodgy behaviour of their parents' generation, experiment, and challenge what they see as boring conventions.

In doing so, they take risks. Sometimes they take greater risks than they realise at the time (because of a lack of information and of insight). Sometimes they take greater risks consciously and intentionally (most commonly to gain attention, or for the adrenalin-rush).

The proportion of the population that indulges in exhibitionism appears to have increased during the last 50 years. The slogan 'fifteen minutes of fame' was popularised by artist Andy Warhol in 1968. Particularly from the late 1980s onward, the 'reality TV' genre encouraged what would once have been 'bad behaviour', and confessionals, in front of the cameras.

2. The Visibility and Re-Discoverability of Indiscretions

The youth of the pre-Web generations, roughly up to 2000, committed their many indiscretions in a manner that was limited in space and time. The people present saw it, remembered it, perhaps made notices about it in private diaries and letters, perhaps created a wet-chemical photograph of it, or less commonly a home-made-quality video of it. The distribution of the information and the images was limited.

The youth that grew up with the Web, say 2000-05, and with social networking services, say 2005-10, has committed many of its indiscretions in a very different context. The sound and image may be available across space in real-time and close to real-time (e.g. through chat/IM, email and SMS). It may also remain available for extended periods of time (e.g. through SNS, and authorised and unauthorised archives).

There is a further characteristic of the current publishing norms that may transpire to be even more significant than reach and archival. Free-text search has become engrained and close to ubiquitous. It has become a norm to apply informal tags to image and video ('folksonomy), with the result that many non-text objects are also subject to searching. The further characteristic is therefore greatly enhanced re-discoverability, so there is technology-enabled projection across space, and there are technology-enabled echoes over an extended period of time.

3. The Increasing Risk Aversion of the Maturing Adult

In all generations to date, most people have become more risk-averse as they grew older. This used to begin during the 20s, and was associated with such life-changes as marriage and particularly children, progress in a career, financial support for their family, the acquisition of assets - particularly their own home - and of associated financial responsibilities - particularly a mortgage. During the latter part of the 20th century, for many people the age at which 'adult responsibilities' set in drifted backwards in life, into the 30s.

As people age, they generally reduce their risk-taking behaviour, and they increasingly collect 'something to hide'. Financial data and health information have generally been high on the scale of privacy values, but many people placed great weight on particular data that was sensitive to them personally.

For the Internet industry assertion that 'privacy concerns are a lot lower now' to be correct over the next 10-30 years, the longstanding phenomenon of increasing risk aversion with age would have to stop dead, in a few short years.

4. The Experiences of the 20-Somethings During the Late Noughties

During the last few years - roughly 2005-10, many accidents have befallen SNS users in their twenties. Some were exercises in free speech, in a forum that they unconsciously assumed to be either limited in scope or permissive of strong expression. Their bosses saw it differently. Other indiscretions took the form of 'off your face' images that came to light during pre-employment checking.

In some cases, the user who exposed themselves, or was exposed by SNS 'friends', may have been philosophical about the damage they suffered. In other cases, they may have been at least disappointed about it, or concerned, or even distraught. The many others who became aware of the well-publicised case studies may well have become nervous about the scope for similar damage to themselves, and may have adjusted their behaviour - or, perhaps more likely, adjusted the openness of information about their behaviour to recording and publication.

5. The Insights of the Teenagers of 2010

There is both anecdotal and some empirical evidence that many teenagers regard with disdain the inadequate understanding of SNS by their seniors. See for example, (a Pew survey of 'Teens, Privacy and Online Social Networks' published in April 2007.

It may well be that the default openness arising from excessive exuberance was a short-lived phenomenon, and that the generation immediately following the 20-somethings of 2007 is already far more savvy. A few commentators have suggested that an 'iGeneration' will need to be distinguished for those born after about 1995, because they are even more 'native' to electronic contexts than Gen-Ys - which would therefore be restricted to the birth-years 1980-95. See my subsequent short piece on The iGeneration.

Evidence might also be sought in the behaviour of SNS providers. It is in their interests to attract publicity for the brand, and to drive visitors to their site, and into membership, use and self-exhibition. If there was a drift among users towards less permissive settings in their profiles, and hence a reduction in SNS 'friends' counts and notional social-network connections, it would be reasonable to expect attempts by SNS providers to adapt the defaults in order to sustain their traffic-volumes. See for example, Wendy Grossman's piece in late 2009; and consider the initial settings that Google put on its SNS-extension for gmail, Buzz, in February 2009.

6. Conclusion

On the basis of the above analysis, it is at least tenable that the normal pattern of increasing risk-aversion with age will be reinforced by the negative experiences that people in their teens and twenties garnered during the period of SNS excess around 2005-10. As a result, iGens will be more privacy-sensitive than their predecessor Generations.

Postscript - 30 May 2010

From 2004 onwards, Facebook rode the wave of social networking service fervour, growing to the point that in late 2009 its traffic volumes overtook Google, and it finally turned a profit. During the first half of 2010, however, Facebook was subjected to attacks from its users and the media, because its record as a serial privacy-invader has reached the threshhold of unacceptability (Clarke 2010). (As a result of the bandwagon effect, however, growth in users and usage continued exponentially through 2010, encouraging the company to do the minimum in relation to privacy concerns).

On 24 May 2010, Bruce Nussbaum provided an interpretation of 'Facebook's Culture Problem'. He argues that change in the attitudes of Facebook users was inevitable, as GenY'ers grew up. "Lifecycle changes can trump generational changes, and cultural values perceived as crucial at age 13 can be very different at 20. ... [My students in a design school] assumed Facebook would evolve as their lives shifted from adolescent to adult and their needs changed. [Instead, ] Facebook is behaving as thought it owned ... the friendship networks created on it".

Origins of the Meme

This section traces the origins of the notion that iGens will be more privacy-sensitive than their predecessor Generations.

The earliest documentation I have of a use of this line of argument is an email of 10 August 2008, where I wrote the following to Liz Porter, a Sydney Morning Herald reporter, who had published an article headed 'Malice in Wonderland':

Your article was a valuable review of youth privacy, thanks.

But most commentators seem to miss some critical points:

Young people's behaviour, in short, is much like it always was.

So there may be less difference in the underlying values than people assume; but rather there are some big differences in the context.

In particular, boastful and over-the-top self-exposure:

Another aspect that's been put to me is that there's a cleft between the 'generations' who are currently 18-25 and those that are 12-18.

The proposition is that the 18-25-year-olds are naive, and make some pretty silly self-exposure choices; whereas the 12-18-year-olds are maturing very rapidly and new balances are emerging.

I'd been saying things along those lines for a while, but finally putting fingers to keyboard may have been partly sparked by a quote in an Australian Financial Review article on 22 July 2008:

[ALRC Chair David] Weisbrot says through the ALRC's various community consultations and town hall-style meetings held to gauge the public's response to and needs for online privacy, it was clear the younger generation is changing the game entirely.

Weisbrot says today's youngsters have a different view of their privacy and interacting online to their parents.

"The clear message we got from them was they want control of their identities and the websites they visit to use a level of integrity with their personal data", he says.

"Even though children and young people have more willingness to share information online - namely through social networking sites - and are willing to put certain personal quirks and foibles online, they still want to be the ones to choose what information goes on".

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of N.S.W., and a Visiting Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

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