Citizens of the Digital City

Big Brother is watching you - but that's what you want, isn't it?

"25 Random Things", seemed harmless enough. Three or four of my friends had "tagged" me, and since I really hate being "it", I played along, wrote it out and tagged a few other people. I didn't think much about it, these kinds of things - called "memes" - have been going around the Internet forever. Besides, the people I have as friends on Facebook really are friends - people who probably know this stuff anyway.

It was a few days later that I started hearing about "25 Random Things" everywhere. On the news, in magazines, blogs, you name it. The consensus was that this was the dumbest thing to hit the Internet since "The Big Red Button", that it has cost millions of dollars in lost productivity, and that no one really cares to know these things.

And they're right. At least to a degree. Some people have hundreds of "friends" on Facebook, or MySpace, or some other social networking website. How many of those people can you truly know?Few. And the same is true for blogs, YouTube videos, Twitter, and all these other applications that have come to be known as part of Web 2.0.

By design or by accident the developers of these sites and others (such as Wikipedia) have hit on one of the defining characteristics of our humanity: narcissism. At heart, people are basically selfish and conceited and these Web 2.0 applications have provided the perfect outlet for us. They allow us to say "Hey, world! You know you care what I have to say, so here it is!"

There are exceptions to this rule. I (maybe mistakenly) count myself in this category. Yes, I have a blog (obviously), several in fact, and I have a MySpace, and a Facebook, I have videos on YouTube, and I even have a Twitter account. I use these resources not to feed my own selfish desires for attention, but as tools to provide information, pictures, home movies, and relevant news, to friends and family. I try to be very careful not to divulge personal information - such as full names - in places that are open to the public (like in videos), and when I can I check to see who is accessing the information. I have a MySpace only because my children do and I try to hold them accountable to the same rules I use for myself. I have a Facebook, but every person who I have listed as a friend is someone I know in the "Real World", some are current friends who I see at least once a week, others are old friends I lost contact with over the years and Facebook has given us the ability to reconnect. Judging by the size of their friend lists, most of my friends feel this way, too. (The exception for me would be this blog. This is my creative outlet. I kinda know who reads it, but really don't care if anyone does or not.)

But it's probably the majority of people who use social network applications who are looking for their 15 minutes of fame. Do a quick search for "vlog" (like "blog", only video) on YouTube and you will turn up MILLIONS of hits. Click on any of them and you will find someone talking to their web cam. Now don't get me wrong, a vlog, like any other web-based tool, can be a useful thing. (See as an example of a vlog that actually has very useful information about new technology.) But for the most part, vlogs are just useless ramblings and general nonscense. And there's people who spend hours a day producing these for the general public.

As a result of all these tools that allow us to share our lives with the Universe, we've produced an entire generation that has, by choice, placed their lives in a fishbowl. I can't help thinking of George Orwell's novel "1984". I remember reading it in Jr. High, (in 1981 or so) and thinking "Wow, this could be happening". Now, 25 years later than 1984, it is happening; but not in the way it's presented in the novel. Instead we have put every aspect of our lives on display BY CHOICE. Not only can we share intimate details about ourselves in our blogs and videos, but we can even share, minute by minute, what we are doing with everyone using Twitter. And, anyone who so chooses, can follow you, minute by minute, by reading what you post there.

Big Brother is real, but he's not some dictator somewhere, he's everyone, everywhere. Instead of having him peer into our homes, we've opened the windows and doors wide and begged him to come in. Think of the Internet as a city, Digital City, and all the buildings are made of glass; a vast menagerie where everyone can see everyone else. You don't have to live there, but many of us choose to do so.

What's my point? The point is, make sure you know what you're getting yourself into. I won't tell you "Don't! Stop! Take that video down!" But you need to be realistic about living in Digital City. Here's a few pointers:

1) Be very careful not to divulge personal information. Check what you already have out there. Can people you don't know find out your full name? Where you live? What school you go to? I'm not even talking about identity theft (which is another story), I'm just talking about having people you don't normally associate with knowing intimate details about you. Is a pedofile looking at pictures of your kids? Is he combing your blog to find out where they go to school? If that doesn't creep you out, it should. If you must live in Digital City, put up some blinds.

2) Are you sharing things with people who really care about them? Sure, 25 Random Things might be fun with a group of close friends, but are there people on your friends list that you really don't want reading that note? On Facebook, even if you don't "tag" people in your note, everyone on your friends list will get a notice that you posted a note. Do you want your boss, coworkers, the cute girl who works at Starbucks, do you want them reading the dorky stuff you put in the note? If you have to live in Digital City, know your neighbors really well.

3) Are you wasting other people's time? Your blog, your YouTube video, everything you pass through the Internet is cataloged somewhere for search engines, such as Google. If you tag you post with certain words, search engines will return that post as a "hit" when someone searches for that term. For example: you heard this great joke. You write the joke down and post it on your blog using the tag (or label) "joke". The Google machine comes along and sees your post and notes it as "joke". Now, when someone searches for "joke", your blog posts will come up in the list of search results (along with millions of others, but follow me). Now, let's say instead of a joke you just wrote the word "boo" a hundred times. When someone clicks on your link that came up in the search on Google, all they will see is "boo" when they were expecting a joke. You wasted their time.

Now, this isn't such a big deal for common things, like "joke", but lets say someone is doing research for a heavier topic, something they really need, like "treatments for brain cancer". You've put "treatments for brain cancer" as a tag or label in your blog post that just says "boo". See what I'm getting at? You might get a lot of hits, but you've just pulled a mean prank on the last person that you should be pranking. If you have to live in Digital City, don't be a jerk.

4) How wired do you need to be? Sure, you might be connecting with your friends, but do you really need to update your Facebook status or Twitter with every little thing you do? Do your friends really care that you're out to lunch or that you just used the bathroom? Yes, you might have a humerous message to share or you might have legitimate news that you can put in your status. But do you really have to share EVERYTHING? Do your friends really care? If you have to live in Digital City, don't force people to look at you going pee.

5) What is your purpose for posting? If you're putting up that awesome video in the hopes that you'll be discovered, then forget it. It does happen, but so does winning the lottery. Your chances are better of being eaten by a shark whilst being struck by lightening at the same time. Are you obsessed with getting a thousand hits and having your video featured on YouTubes home page? Or are you just sharing it with friends and family who are far away? Do your friends really care about what you're posting? Or is it just meaningless BS to them? Ask yourself this before hitting "publish". If you have to live in Digital City, have a reason for being there.

6) You're never going to make enough money from posting stuff on the Internet to be able to quit your job. Through Blogger and YouTube, Google gives you the ability to monetize your blog and videos. They do this by placing advertising in your blog or on your video. Some people do make a living off the Internet (see the story behind, but only through a lot of amazingly hard work and dedication. If you get enough hits, you might make a few bucks from your everyday blogging and rambling, but don't quit your day job. Ever. In fact, don't bother trying. And don't just keep making post after post after post of meaningless stuff in the hopes that through sheer volume you'll make some money. Take the effort you're putting into it and get a real job. If you have to live in Digital City, commute to Reality and get a real job.

So, do you wanna read my 25 Random Things?