Digital environments are becoming the most important public spaces of the twenty-first century. These digital spaces are where many young people—and many older people, too—spend enormous amounts of time. These spaces are akin to the public parks, schoolyards, malls, and lecture halls of the physical world.1 These are places where social lives take place, where nearly all information is found and republished, and where important functions like learning and participating in civic life occur. With every passing year, digital technologies are mediating more and more of the ways that we lead our lives.
In this essay, I explore several of the privacy and speech problems that arise in the context of lives partially mediated by digital technologies. I conclude by arguing that we should focus not just on the civil rights and civil liberties problems, but also on the opportunities afforded by life in these new public spaces online.
Risks Associated with Life in Online Public Spaces
Just as there are great things about life online, so, too, are there risks. Consider the prevalent behavior of those young Internet users who lead lives extensively mediated by digital technologies. Not all young people use technology the same way. There are important variations based on where one lives in the world, how much money one has, what age one is, one’s level of literacy, one’s gender, and so forth. Here, though, I focus on youth in developed countries, where Internet access is nearly ubiquitous and where the vast majority of young people go online multiple times per day.2
These wired young people do not distinguish much between life online and life offline—it is all just life. Teachers and parents, lawyers and law enforcement officers, technology companies and social networks: we all need to heed this lesson, too. And as we seek to protect our children in this hybrid world (as well as to live in it ourselves), we need to be sure not to trample on civil liberties like speech and privacy. Nowhere in today’s world are people striking this balance well; nowhere in today’s world do we yet see ample protection of safety and of civil liberties online. It is a noble and important goal, for our children and for all of us.
As we seek to understand emerging problems online—such as threats to safety and the privacy of our children—and to anticipate the future, we have to listen to our children and our grandchildren and seek to understand how their behaviors differ from those who are older.
Take the concept of identity, for instance. Identity formation is one of the ways in which young people often use technologies and relate to the world differently than those who came before.3 Young people shape their identities by what they wear and who their friends are, just as they always have. But they also shape their identities through the profiles that they create in online social networks, through the personalities that they develop while instant messaging and texting, and through blogs and LiveJournals and their avatars in games and virtual worlds. Identity is shaped in this converged space of online and offline.
Young people interact with both friends and strangers online. Their understanding of the word “friend” (as in, to “friend” someone on Facebook, for instance) is changing. They may consider someone they have never met, other than in an online chatroom, to be a close friend. They spend a great deal of time online with their friends—as they play games together, plan something that they might do later, share music and movies, or just chat—and chat, and chat (or: text, and text, and text). These are the spaces where growing up takes place.