Anxiety - Networked - Alone Together - Sherry Turkle

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other - Sherry Turkle (2011)

Part II. Networked

Chapter 13. Anxiety

Marcia, sixteen, a sophomore at Silver Academy, has her own problems. “Right now,” she says, on-screen life “is too much to bear.” She doesn’t like what the Internet brings out in her—certainly not her better angels. Online, she gives herself “permission to say mean things.” She says, “You don’t have to say it to a person. You don’t see their reaction or anything, and it’s like you’re talking to a computer screen so you don’t see how you’re hurting them. You can say whatever you want, because you’re home and they can’t do anything.” Drea, a classmate sitting next to her, quips, “Not if they know where you live,” but Marcia doesn’t want to be taken lightly. She has found herself being cruel, many times. She ends the conversation abruptly: “You don’t see the impact that what you say has on anyone else.”

Marcia and Drea are part of a group of Silver Academy sophomores with whom I am talking about the etiquette of online life. Zeke says that he had created “fake” identities on MySpace. He scanned in pictures from magazines and wrote profiles for imaginary people. Then, he used their identities to begin conversations about himself, very critical conversations, and he could see who joined in. This is a way, he says, “to find out if people hate you.” This practice, not unusual at Silver, creates high anxiety. Zeke’s story reminds me of John, also at Silver and also sixteen, who delegated his texting to digitally fluent Cyranos. When John told his story to his classmates, it sparked a fretful conversation about how you never really know who is on the other end when you send or receive a text. Now, after hearing Zeke’s story, Carol picks up this theme. “You never know,” she says, “who you might be talking to. A kid could start a conversation about your friend, but you have to be careful. It could be your friend. On MySpace ... you can get into a lot of trouble.”

Others join the discussion of “trouble.” One says, “Facebook has taken over my life.” She is unable to log off. “So,” she says, “I find myself looking at random people’s photos, or going to random things. Then I realize after that it was a waste of time.” A second says she is afraid she will “miss something” and cannot put down her phone. Also, “it has a camera. It has the time. I can always be with my friends. Not having your phone is a high level of stress.” A third sums up all she has heard: “Technology is bad because people are not as strong as its pull.”

Anxiety is part of the new connectivity. Yet, it is often the missing term when we talk about the revolution in mobile communications. Our habitual narratives about technology begin with respectful disparagement of what came before and move on to idealize the new. So, for example, online reading, with its links and hypertext possibilities, often receives a heroic, triumphalist narrative, while the book is disparaged as “disconnected.” That narrative goes something like this: the old reading was linear and exclusionary; the new reading is democratic as every text opens out to linked pages—chains of new ideas.1 But this, of course, is only one story, the one technology wants to tell. There is another story. The book is connected to daydreams and personal associations as readers look within themselves. Online reading—at least for the high school and college students I have studied—always invites you elsewhere.2 And it is only sometimes interrupted by linking to reference works and associated commentaries. More often, it is broken up by messaging, shopping, Facebook, MySpace, and YouTube. This “other story” is complex and human. But it is not part of the triumphalist narrative in which every new technological affordance meets an opportunity, never a vulnerability, never an anxiety.

There were similar idealizations when it became clear that networked computers facilitated human multitasking. Educators were quick to extol the virtues of doing many things at once: it was how the future wanted us to think. Now we know that multitasking degrades performance on everything we try to accomplish. We will surely continue to multitask, deciding to trade optimum performance for the economies of doing many things at once. But online multitasking, like online reading, can be a useful choice without inspiring a heroic narrative.

We have to love our technology enough to describe it accurately. And we have to love ourselves enough to confront technology’s true effects on us. These amended narratives are a kind of realtechnik. The realtechnik of connectivity culture is about possibilities and fulfillment, but it also about the problems and dislocations of the tethered self. Technology helps us manage life stresses but generates anxieties of its own. The two are often closely linked.

So, for example, mobile connections help adolescents deal with the difficulties of separation. When you leave home with a cell phone, you are not as cut off as before, and you can work through separation in smaller steps. But now you may find yourself in text contact with your parents all day. And your friends, too, are always around. You come to enjoy the feeling of never having to be alone. Feeling a bit stranded used to be considered a part of adolescence, and one that developed inner resources. Now it is something that the network makes it possible to bypass. Teenagers say that they want to keep their cell phones close, and once it is with you, you can always “find someone.”

Sometimes teenagers use the network to stay in contact with the people they “know for real,” but what of online friends? Who are they to you? You may never have met them, yet you walk the halls of your school preoccupied with what you will say to them. You are stalked on Facebook but cannot imagine leaving because you feel that your life is there. And you, too, have become a Facebook stalker. Facebook feels like “home,” but you know that it puts you in a public square with a surveillance camera turned on. You struggle to be accepted in an online clique. But it is characterized by its cruel wit, and you need to watch what you say. These adolescent posts will remain online for a lifetime, just as those you “friend” on Facebook will never go away. Anxieties migrate, proliferate.


We have met Julia, sixteen, a sophomore at Branscomb High School for whom texting was a way to acknowledge, even discover, her feelings. An only child, her mother had a heart condition, and Julia spent her early years living with her aunt. When Julia was nine, her mother underwent successful surgery, and Julia was able to move in with her and a new stepfather. When this marriage dissolved, she and her mother set off on their own. Her health restored, Julia’s mother put herself through college and now runs a small employment agency.

When she was younger, Julia saw her father once a week. But he wanted more and blamed Julia for the infrequency of their visits. She felt caught between her parents. “So,” she now says, “I stopped calling him.” Of course, as is often the case in such matters, when Julia stopped calling her father, she wanted desperately for him to call her. “I wanted him to call me, but he didn’t want to call me.... But if I called him, he would blame me for not talking to him enough.” And so their relationship trailed off in bad feelings all around: “It was just like we hadn’t been talking to each other as much. And the less we talked, the less we saw of each other, and one day it just stopped completely.” For the past four years Julia hasn’t seen or spoken to her father.

I meet Julia at a possible turning point. Over winter break, she plans to go on a school-sponsored trip to work at an orphanage in Guatemala. To participate she needs both of her parents’ signatures on a permission document. Julia is very nervous that her father won’t sign the form (“I just haven’t spoken to him in so long”), but in the end, he does and sends her a note that includes his e-mail address. When I meet Julia she is excited and apprehensive: “So, he sent a letter with the signature for my passport, saying he was sorry, and he’d like to keep in touch now. So, I’m gonna start talking to him more.... I’m going to try to talk to him through e-mail.” Julia is not ready to speak to her father. For her that would be too great a jump—perhaps for her father as well. He did not, after all, send her his telephone number. E-mail was offered as a way to talk without speaking. “E-mail is perfect,” Julia says. “We have to build up. If we talk awhile on the computer, then I can call him and then maybe go and see him.” As Julia talks about this plan, she nods frequently. It feels right.

Julia knows another way to reach her father: he has a MySpace account. However, she explains that there was “no way” she would ever contact him through it. For one thing, Julia is upset that her father even has the account: “It doesn’t seem like something a grown-up should have.” What’s more, to become her father’s MySpace friend would give him too much access to her personal life, and she would have too much information about him. She is not sure she could resist the temptation to “stalk” him—to use the social-networking site to follow his comings and goings without his knowledge. When you’re stalking, you follow links, moving from the postings of your prey to those of their friends. You look at photographs of parties and family events at which your prey might be a guest. To whom are they talking? Julia worries that she would try to investigate whether her father was seeing a new woman.

Despite all of this, Julia cannot not help herself from looking up her father’s extended family on MySpace—his parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, and uncles. She says she is not going to contact any of them, at least not until she e-mails her father. She wonders if MySpace might be a way to take small steps to knit together what had been torn apart in her childhood. And how might she talk about any of this with her mother?

As she describes a call to her father as “too much,” Julia plays with her new cell phone. She has chosen one with a flip-up keyboard, optimized for texting. “I begged for this,” she says. Julia texts her friends many times a day, almost constantly when she is not in class. Julia has to be careful. She explains that if she texts people on Verizon, where she has her account, the texts are free. Texting people on other carriers costs money. “I wish all my friends had Verizon,” she says wistfully. Julia has a best friend on Cingular (a rival service), and says, “We don’t text together.” The solution: “We talk at school.” Julia makes it clear that this is not a happy outcome.

I ask Julia about telephone calls. She doesn’t like them at all. “I feel weird talking on the phone. My friends call and say, ‘What’s up?’ and I’ll say, ‘Nothing.’ Then I’ll say, ‘Okay, I gotta go. Bye.’ I feel awkward talking on the phone. I just think it’s easier to text.” Julia’s phone is always with her. If she is in class and a text arrives, Julia asks to go to the bathroom to check it out. The texts come in all day, with at least one vibration every five minutes. Knowing she has a message makes her “antsy.” She starts to worry. She needs to read the message. Julia tells me that when she goes to the bathroom to check her texts, they are often from people just saying hello. She says, “This makes me feel foolish for having been so scared.”

With Julia’s permission, one of her teachers has been listening to our conversation about the phone. She asks, sensibly, “Why don’t you turn it off?” Julia’s answer is immediate: “It might be my mother. There might be an emergency.” Her teacher persists gently: “But couldn’t your mom call the school?” Julia does not hesitate: “Yeah, but what if it was one of my other friends having the emergency right in school?”

Julia describes the kinds of emergencies that compel her to respond to any signal from her phone. She talks about a hypothetical situation with a “friend” (later Julia will admit that she was describing herself): “Let’s say she got into trouble. She knows she didn’t do something, but she needs to tell somebody, she needs to tell me. Or, I know this one sounds kind of silly, but if she was having friend or boy trouble, she’d text me or call me. So those are the kind of things.” Having a feeling without being able to share it is considered so difficult that it constitutes an “emergency.”

Or something might happen to Joe, the father of her best friend Heather. Joe has had multiple heart attacks. “They told him if he has another one he’ll probably die. So I’m always like, in my pocket, waiting for a call. Heather would either call me, or her mom would call me. ’Cause I’m really close to their family. Her dad’s like my dad. And I love him.... So something like that would be an emergency.”

Julia shows me her cell phone emergency contact list, which includes Heather, Heather’s parents, and all of Heather’s siblings. Julia says that she used to have Heather’s uncle and aunt on her emergency list as well, “but I got a new phone and I don’t have them anymore.” She makes a note to get their numbers for her new phone. Along with her mother, these people are her safety net. Her cell phone embodies their presence.

Julia, her life marked by transitions and separations, always fears disconnection. She is poised to mourn. People can leave or be taken from her at any time. Her phone is tied up with a kind of magical thinking that if she can be in touch, the people she loves will not disappear.3

Julia’s phone, a symbol of connection in a world on the brink, goes some distance toward making her feel safe. She says, “If there was ever an emergency in the school, I could always call 911, or if something happened, if there was a fire, or some strange guy came into the school I could always call my mom to tell her that I was okay, or not okay. So it’s good like that too.” As Julia talks about her anxieties of disconnection, she begins to talk about the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. When I interview teenagers about cell phones, I often hear stories about 9/11. Remembered through the prism of connectivity, 9/11 was a day when they could not be in touch. Many teachers and school administrators, in that generation that grew up hiding under desks in fear of an atomic attack, reacted to the news of the Twin Towers’ collapse by isolating the children under their care. Students were taken out of classrooms and put in basements, the iconic hiding places of the Cold War. On 9/11 Julia spent many hours in such an improvised quarantine. Frightened, she and her classmates had no way to contact their parents. “I was in fourth grade,” she said. “I didn’t have a cell phone then. I needed to talk to my mother.”

For Julia, 9/11 was all the more frightening because one of the girls in her class had an aunt who worked in the World Trade Center. And one of the boys had a relative who was supposed to be flying that day, but he didn’t know to where. Only later in the afternoon, with communication restored, did Julia and her friends learn that everyone they had worried about was safe.

It was scary ’cause my teachers didn’t know what was going on, and they all brought us into a room, and they didn’t really know what to tell us. They just told us that there were bad guys bombing, crashing planes into buildings. We would ask questions, but they didn’t know how to answer. We asked if they caught the bad guys. And our teacher said, “Yeah, they are in jail.” But none of them could have been in jail because they crashed the plane. So our teachers really didn’t know what was going on either.

The trauma of 9/11 is part of the story of connectivity culture. After the bombing of the World Trade Center, Americans accepted an unprecedented level of surveillance of both their persons and their communications. For Julia’s generation, 9/11 marked childhood with an experience of being cut off from all comfort. In its shadow, cell phones became a symbol of physical and emotional safety. After the bombing of the World Trade Center, parents who really had not seen the point of giving cell phones to their children discovered a reason: continual contact. Julia took from her experience of 9/11 the conviction that it is “always good” to have your cell phone with you.

At schools all over the country, this is just what teachers try to discourage. They are in a tough spot because students are getting mixed messages. When parents give children phones, there is an implied message: “I love you, and this will make you safe. I give this to you because I care.” Then schools want to take the phone away.4 Some schools demand that phones be silenced and kept out of sight. Others ban them to locker rooms. At Julia’s school, teachers try to convince students that they don’t need their phones with them at all times. Julia quotes her teachers derisively: “They say, ‘Oh, there’s a phone in every classroom.’” But Julia makes it clear that she is having none of it: “I feel safer with my own phone. Because we can’t all be using the same phone at once.” This is a new nonnegotiable: to feel safe, you have to be connected. “If I got in a fight with somebody, I’d call my friend. I’d tell my friend if I got in trouble with the teacher. I’d tell my friend if there was a fight and I was scared. If I was threatened, I’d tell my friends. Or if someone came in and had a knife, I’d text my friends.” For all of these imagined possibilities, the phone is comfort. Branscomb High School has metal detectors at its entrance. Uniformed security guards patrol the halls. There have been flare-ups; students have gotten into fights. As she and I speak, Julia’s thoughts turn to Columbine and Virginia Tech: “I’m reading a book right now about a school.... It’s about two kids who brought a gun to a dance and keep everyone hostage, and then killed themselves. And it’s a lot like Columbine.... We had an assembly about Columbine just recently.... At a time like that, I’d need my cell phone.”

We read much about “helicopter parents.”5 They hail from a generation that does not want to repeat the mistakes of its parents (permitting too much independence too soon) and so hover over their children’s lives. But today our children hover as well. They avoid disconnection at all cost. Some, like Julia, have divorced parents. Some have families broken twice or three times. Some have parents who support their families by working out of state or out of the country. Some have parents with travel schedules so demanding that their children rarely see them. Some have parents in the military who are stationed abroad. These teenagers live in a culture preoccupied with terrorism. They all experienced 9/11. They have grown up walking through metal detectors at schools and airports. They tend not to assume safe passage. The cell phone as amulet becomes emblematic of safety.

Julia tells her mother where she is at all times. She checks in after school, when she gets on the train, when she arrives home or at a friend’s house. If going out, she calls “when we get to the place and when I get home.” She says, “It’s really hard to think about not having your cell phone. I couldn’t picture not having it.... I feel like it’s attached. Me and my friends say, ‘I feel naked without it.’” The naked self feels itself in jeopardy. It is fragile and dependent on connection. Connection can reduce anxieties, but as I have said, it creates problems of its own.


Lisa, seventeen, a junior at the Cranston School, feels disoriented: “I come home from school and go online, and I’m feeling okay, and I talk for two hours on the Web. But then I still have no friends. I’ll never know the people I spoke to. They are ‘chat people.’ Yeah, they could be twelve years old.” Her investment in “chat people” leaves her with the question of what her online hours really add up to. It is a question that preoccupies Hannah, sixteen, another Cranston junior. She knows for sure that online connections help her with anxiety about boys. Many of her friends have boyfriends. She has not really started to date. At Cranston, having a boyfriend means pressure for sexual intimacy. She knows she is not ready but does feel left out.

Five years before, when she was eleven, Hannah made an online friend who called himself Ian. She joined an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) channel about 1960s rock bands, a particular passion of hers. Ian, who said he was fourteen at the time, was also on the channel. After a few years of getting to know each other in the group, Hannah says that she and Ian figured out how to create a private chat room. She says, “It felt like magic. All of a sudden we were in this room, by ourselves.” Over time, Hannah and Ian got into the habit of talking and playing Scrabble every day, often for hours at a time. Ian said he lived in Liverpool and was about to go off to university. Hannah dreams of meeting him as soon as she goes to college, a year and a half from now, “when it won’t seem strange for me to have friends from all over the world and friends who are older.” Despite the fact that they have only communicated via typed-out messages, Hannah says, “Ian is the person who knows me best.” Hannah doesn’t want to add an audio or video channel to their encounters. As things are, Hannah is able to imagine Ian as she wishes him to be. And he can imagine her as he wishes her to be. The idea that we can be exactly what the other desires is a powerful fantasy. Among other things, it seems to promise that the other will never, ever, have reason to leave. Feeling secure as an object of desire (because the other is able to imagine you as the perfect embodiment of his or her desire) is one of the deep pleasures of Internet life.

Online, Hannah practices the kind of flirting that does not yet come easily to her in the real. The safety of the relationship with Ian allows her to explore what it might be like to have a boyfriend and give herself over to a crush. But Hannah also finds the friendship “a bit scary” because, she says, “the person I love most in the world could simply not show up on any given day,” never to be heard from again. Ian boils down to a probably made-up first name and a history of warm conversations.

Hannah is wistful about Ian. “Even if I feel that I know Ian, I still don’t feel that I know him the same way I know someone in real life.” Sometimes she feels in a close friendship, and sometimes she sees it all as a house of cards. With the aspect of someone who has discovered that they don’t like one of Newton’s laws, she says, “I think it’s kind of sad, but in order to have a really genuine relationship, there has to be some point where you’re with your senses, experiencing some output that person’s making with their body, like looking at their face, or hearing their words.” Hannah falls silent. When she speaks again, her voice is low. There is something else. Her time on the IRC channel has cost her. The people on the channel are not nice. “I don’t like it that I’m friends with mean people,” she says. Her online friends “mock and kick and abuse newcomers,” and sometimes they even turn against their own. Hannah doesn’t think she will become the object of this kind of hostility. But this is not entirely comforting. For she has become part of the tribe by behaving like its members. She says, “I do sometimes make crueler jokes on IRC than I would in real life.... That made me start thinking, ‘Do I want to continue being friends with these people?’ I started thinking about how vicious they can be. It’s a little bit like if someone were in a clique at school, who would viciously reject or mock people they didn’t want in their clique, I might say that’s a little unfriendly, and why do you want to be friends with people who are so cruel?”

Hannah does not think that her “nicer” school friends are so different from her online friends. Like Marcia, she attributes their cruelty to the Internet because “it can bring out the worst in people.... Angers get worse.... There are no brakes.” And now, she is spending close to twenty hours a week seeking the approval of people whose behavior she finds reprehensible. And whose behavior she emulates to curry favor. It is all exhausting. “Friendship on the Internet,” says Hannah, “is much more demanding than in real life.” And in the end, with all those demands met, she doesn’t know what she really has.

Hannah thought that online friendships would make her feel more in control of her social life. Her “original assumption,” she says, had been that she could be online when she felt like it but skip out “and not feel bad” when she was busy. This turned out not to be the case. Her online friends get angry if she doesn’t show up in the chat room. And they are high maintenance in other ways. On IRC, they are fast-talking and judgmental. There is pressure to be witty. Hannah says, “I walk around school thinking about what I will talk about with them later.” Beyond this, Hannah has recently joined Facebook, which only increases her preoccupations. Most Cranston students agree that the people who know you best in real life—school friends, for example—will be tolerant of an un-tended Facebook. The harsher judges are more distant acquaintances or people you hope to bring into your circle. These could be more popular students, students from other high schools, or those already in college. The consensus about them: “You know they’re looking at all your stuff.”

Hannah, sensitive to having all these new eyes on her, becomes drawn into what she describes as “an all-consuming effort to keep up appearances.” She says, “On Facebook, things have gotten out of control.... You don’t have to be on a lot, but you can’t be on so little that your profile is totally lame. So, once you are on it, it makes you do enough so that you are not embarrassed.” In this construction, tellingly, it is Facebook that has volition.

Other Cranston students describe similar pressures. For one senior boy, “You have to give to Facebook to get from Facebook.” He continues, “If you don’t use it, people are not going to communicate with you. People are going to see no one’s communicating with you, and that, I think, leads to kids spending hours on Facebook every day trying to buff it out.” Like a sleek, gym-toned body, an appealing online self requires work to achieve. A sophomore girl says, “I get anxious if my last wall post was from a week ago because it looks like you’re a nerd. It really matters. People know it is a way that people are going to judge you.” A senior boy painstakingly explains how to keep “your Facebook in shape.” First, you have to conserve your energy. “It is a waste of time,” he says, “to use Facebook messaging” because these messages are like e-mail, private between the correspondents. “They will do nothing for your image.” The essential is “to spend some time every day writing things on other people’s walls so that they will respond on your wall.” If you do this religiously, you will look popular. If you don’t, he says darkly, “there can be a problem.” Another senior boy describes the anxieties that attend feeding the beast:

I go on sometimes and I’m like, “My last wall post was a week ago.” I’m thinking, “That’s no good, everyone will see this and say, ‘He doesn’t have any friends.’” So I get really nervous about that and I’m thinking, “I have to write on somebody else’s wall so they’ll write back to me so it looks like I have friends again.” That’s my whole mentality on Facebook.

Hannah succumbed to this mentality and her time on Facebook got out of control. She explains how one thing led to another: “You’re online. Someone asks you something. You feel like they want to know. It makes you feel good, so you keep on typing.... It’s like being flattered for hours. But who are they really?” Now, increasingly anxious about that question, even her friendship with Ian seems tenuous. She has started to feel that by investing in Ian, she is becoming more isolated from what she calls “everyday in-person” connections. There are, she observes, “just so many hours in a day.” In fact, when I meet her, Hannah is taking a break from the IRC channel. But she misses Ian and does not think it will last long.


Julia is afraid to “friend” her father on MySpace because she thinks she would not be able to resist the temptation to stalk him. Stalking is a guilty pleasure and a source of anxiety, but Chris, nineteen, a senior at Hadley, explains how it becomes routine. Every phone has a camera, and his friends take photographs all the time. They post their photos on Facebook and label them. This usually includes “tagging” each photograph with the names of all of the people in it. There are a lot of “tagged” photographs of Chris online, “pictures at parties, in the locker room, when I’m messing around with my friends.” On Facebook, one can search for all the pictures of any given person. This is often where stalking begins. Chris is handsome and an accomplished athlete. He knows that a lot of girls look at his pictures. “The stalking is a little flattering, but it also makes me feel creeped out.... Some of the pictures creep me out, but everybody has all of these kinds of pictures online.” And he is not in a position to cast the first stone. For he, too, stalks girls on Facebook who interest him: “I find myself choosing some girl I like and following the trail of her tagged pictures. You can see who she hangs with. Is she popular? Is there a chance she has a boyfriend? I start to do it in a sort of random way, and then, all of a sudden, a couple hours have passed. I’m stalking.”

Chris does not judge himself harshly. The public display of locker room photos is “awful” but part of being popular. Also, having people look at you puts you in contact with them. Even when you are alone, you know that people are seeking you out. Teenagers seem to feel that things should be different but are reconciled to a new kind of life: the life they know celebrities live. So, you get used to the idea that if you are drunk or in erotic disarray—things that are likely to happen at some point during high school—someone will take a picture of you, probably by using the camera in their phone. And once on that person’s phone, the image will find its way to the Internet, where you will lose control of its further travels.

So, stalking is a transgression that does not transgress. A seventeen-year-old junior at the Fillmore School describes it as “the worst. Normal, but still creepy.” Normal because “it’s not against the rules to look at people’s wall-to-wall conversations [on Facebook].” Creepy because “it’s like listening to a conversation that you are not in, and after stalking I feel like I need to take a shower.” Just starting college, Dawn, eighteen, says she is “obsessed” with the “interesting people” who are her new classmates: “I spend all night reading people’s walls. I track their parties. I check out their girlfriends.” She, too, says, “My time on Facebook makes me feel dirty.” So stalking may not be breaking any rules, but it has given young people a way to invade each other’s privacy that can make them feel like spies and pornographers.

As teenagers turn stalking into part of their lives, they become resigned to incursions into their privacy. Julia says that at Branscomb “you get into trouble if there are MySpace pictures of you at a party where there is beer.” She and her friends believe that school officials and the police look at students’ MySpace accounts. Julia’s response is to police herself and watch over her friends. “I’m, like, always telling them, ‘Don’t put that picture up there. You’ll get into trouble.’” One Branscomb senior says that he has “a regular blog and a secret blog. On my secret blog I have a fake name,” but later in our conversation he wonders whether his secret blog can be traced to him through the IP address that tags his computer. He hadn’t thought of this before our conversation. He says that thinking about it makes him feel “hopeless.”

At Roosevelt High School, sixteen-year-old Angela had her MySpace page “hacked.” She explains, “‘Hacked’ is when people get on your page and change everything. Yeah, that happened to me once. I don’t know who did it. But it happened. [voice gets quiet] They changed the whole layout. And they made it as though I was a lesbian. I had to go and erase everything. A lot of people asked me, ‘Oh, are you a lesbian now?’ I had to explain to everyone, ‘No, I got hacked.’ It took me a long time to explain. And they’d say, ‘Oh, that sucks.’”

When people tamper with your physical mail, they have committed a crime. When people hack your social-networking account, you have explaining to do. When Angela first blurted out her story, it was clear that the incident had frightened her. Then, she backtracked and minimized what had happened, saying, “It doesn’t really happen every day.” This is the defense of those who feel they have no options. Angela is not going to give up MySpace. Anger will serve no purpose. So, instead, she reinterprets what happened to her. She had been inconvenienced. “I was mad because now I had to do everything all over again, but I didn’t really care that they did it. It doesn’t really happen every day… . It doesn’t really happen every day.”

I hear a similar kind of backpedaling in a discussion of online life at the Silver Academy. When I ask a group of sophomores, “Are any of you worried about your online privacy?” they call out, “Yeah, yes, yeah.” Carla and Penny rush to tell their story. They are so excited that they begin to speak together. Then they settle down, and Carla takes over: “I went out to the store with my mother, and I left my phone at home, and Penny here texted me. And I didn’t have my phone, but my brother was right near it, and it was buzzing. So my brother decides to text her back as me. And she said something, and my brother was being very rude. And I had to call her up later and tell her that it was my brother texting, not me.” At first, the two girls seem to want everyone to know that this is a very upsetting story. But when the group listens with little visible emotion—everyone there has heard of a similar story—the girls retreat. Penny says that Carla’s brother was not artful in his impersonation, so maybe she would have figured it out. Carla, now isolated in her anger, backs down. “Yeah, I guess so.”

The media has tended to portray today’s young adults as a generation that no longer cares about privacy. I have found something else, something equally disquieting. High school and college students don’t really understand the rules. Are they being watched? Who is watching? Do you have to do something to provoke surveillance, or is it routine? Is surveillance legal? They don’t really understand the terms of service for Facebook or Gmail, the mail service that Google provides. They don’t know what protections they are “entitled” to. They don’t know what objections are reasonable or possible. If someone impersonates you by getting access to your cell phone, should that behavior be treated as illegal or as a prank? In teenagers’ experience, their elders—the generation that gave them this technology—don’t have ready answers to such questions.

So Julia, despite worrying that school authorities and the police look over students’ online profiles, is quick to admit that she is not really sure that this is the case. But then she adds that that no matter what the truth might be, there is nothing she can do about it. One seventeen-year-old, “scrubbing” her Facebook account under the orders of her high school guidance counselor (concerned about compromising photographs that should be removed before the college-admissions process), is convinced that anyone with enough time and money can find a way onto her Facebook page without her permission. “People keep talking about how colleges look at it and employers too. I guess they just have people signing on, pretending to be friends. I don’t really know how it works.”

There is an upside to vagueness. What you don’t know won’t make you angry. Julia says, “Facebook and MySpace are my life.” If she learned something too upsetting about what, say, Facebook can do with her information, she would have to justify staying on the site. But Julia admits that whatever she finds out, even if her worst fears of surveillance by high school administrators and local police were true, she would not take action. She cannot imagine her life without Facebook.

Julia ends up a portrait of insecurity and passivity. She wants to hide from the details. She would rather just be careful about what she does than learn too much about who is actually watching. “I put it out of my mind,” she says. She tells me that she, personally, feels safe because “I’m kind of boring.” That is, it makes no difference if she is watched because there is nothing much to see. A sixteen-year-old girl shrugs off Facebook’s privacy policy in similar terms: “Who would care about me and my little life?” Another sixteen-year-old, a boy, says that when he wants to have a private conversation he knows that he has to find a pay phone—“the old fashioned kind” that takes coins.These are disturbing mantras.

Some teenagers say that their privacy concerns are not as bad as they might seem because, in the future, everyone running for office, everyone about to get a judicial appointment or an important corporate job, will have an accessible Internet past with significant indiscretions.6 In this narrative, implacable digital memory will not be punishing but will create a more tolerant society. Others come up with a generational argument: “Facebook is owned by young people.” This idea confuses investors, owners, managers, inventors, spokespeople, and shareholders. It is innocent of any understanding of how corporations work or are governed. But it is not a surprising response. If your life is on Facebook or MySpace or Google, you want to feel that these companies are controlled by good people. Good people are defined as those who share what you feel is your most salient characteristic. For the young, that characteristic is youth.

In fact, from the very beginning, Facebook has been in something of a tug-of-war with its users about how much control it has over their data. The pattern, predictably, is that Facebook declares ownership of all of it and tries to put it to commercial use. Then, there is resistance and Facebook retreats. This is followed by another advance, usually with subtler contours. One sixteen-year-old says, and her comment is typical, “Oh, they [Facebook] keep changing the policy all the time. You can try to change their policy, but usually they just put the policy in fine print.” She herself doesn’t read the fine print. She assumes that in the end, Facebook will take what it wants. “You can try to get Facebook to change things. Maybe after years they will. Maybe they won’t. This is just the way it is.” Google’s advances and retreats in this arena show a similar pattern. 7 As long as Facebook and Google are seen as necessities, if they demand information, young people know they will supply it. They don’t know what else to do.

Some Internet entrepreneurs have made the case that there is not much to do.8 As early as 1999, Scott McNealy, a cofounder of Sun Microsystems, said, “You have zero privacy anyway; get over it.”9 A decade later, Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, added a new spin: “If you have something you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” Most recently he is on record predicting that in the near future all young people will be automatically entitled to change their names to escape their online pasts.10


In the early 1990s, I began studying people experimenting with identity on the Internet. They created avatars and Web pages. They played with romance and revenge. In those early days, it was commonplace for Web sites and virtual locales to disappear because the enthusiasts who ran them lost interest, lost access to a server, or invented something new. When this happened, people migrated to other online places. These migrations could mean “losing” all the work you had put into an avatar and a virtual community. The Internet seemed transient.

The Facebook generation goes online with different expectations. They expect Facebook or its successor company to be there forever. This expectation is incentive to “behave.” Of course, people slip up and repent at leisure. Gloria, eighteen, contemplates the things she has posted on Facebook and says, “It’s like the Internet could blackmail me.” She has grown more careful. She cannot imagine doing something in public that will not end up on Facebook. Any time she goes out to a dance or a party or a coffee shop, friends are taking pictures and posting them. She does not want to misbehave in a way that would cause Facebook to want her off the system.

Hester, eighteen, a college freshman, says that she has started to worry about all the things she has put on the Internet that it is “too late to take away.” She says, “That’s the one bad thing [about online life]. On a typewriter, you can take the paper out and shred it. But if it’s online, it’s online. People can copy and paste it; people can e-mail it to each other; people can print it.... You need to be careful what you write on the Internet because most of the things … if you put it on the Internet, that’s it. A lot of people … they may or may not have access to it, but still, it’s there.” This is life in the world of cut and paste. Worse, this is life in the world of cut, edit, and paste. A senior at the Hadley School reviews what can happen to an online conversation: “People can save it, and you don’t know they’re saving it. Or people can copy and paste it and send it to someone else. You think it is private but its not.... And all they have to do is rewrite anything they want. They can send it to a friend, making a person look a lot worse. Nothing you say will necessarily stay the way you said it.”

A junior girl at Roosevelt High School is worried: “My SAT tutor told me never to say anything stupid on e-mail because it can always be available to people. Which is a little alarming, because I’m writing every day to my friend in Toronto, and of course I’m mentioning other friends and sometimes summarizing them in ways I wouldn’t want them to see, and so I’m kind of hoping no one discovers that.” A Roosevelt freshman, already aware that the Internet is a “permanent record,” decides to commit her most private thoughts to paper: “I keep my secrets in my diary, not on my computer and not on my website.”

We have met eighteen-year-old Brad, wary of the Internet. He knows that his online life is not private. Most of the time, he manages not to think about it. But most recently, he is troubled. What bothers him most are his friends’ use of “chat logs.” Brad explains: “Anytime you type something, even without your having done anything or agreed to anything, it [the chat log] saves it to a folder.” Brad was unaware that there was such a thing until a conversation with a friend brought him up short. At the time, they were both high school juniors, and she mentioned something he had said during freshman year. She had been using chat logs all through high school. Brad says, “I was shocked that this was how she was spending her time … going through conversations like that.” Now, he is torn between feeling upset that he had been unknowingly “recorded” and feeling angry at himself for being surprised. “After all,” he says “I know how IM conversations work.... I think I had heard of this but forgot it. I know there’s a very good chance … that I know certain [people] who have chat logs turned on.”

Brad blames himself for being too free in his messaging. The idea that his sophomore year ramblings could find their way onto somebody’s Facebook page or blog or “wherever” is intolerable to him. Brad doesn’t have a very clear image of what bad things might happen, but his anxiety is real. He says that data capture is “awful.” His words could show up anywhere.

Brad says that he no longer sees online life as a place to relax and be himself “because things get recorded.... It’s just another thing you have to keep in the back of your mind, that you have to do things very carefully.” In person, if he loses his temper or is misunderstood in a conversation, he says, “I can be like, ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘Let me repeat myself’ ... or I can crack a joke and laugh it off.” Online, even if a person isn’t recording you, Facebook is. “I’ve heard plenty of stories about people leaving messages or posts on people’s walls on Facebook that, the next day, they felt bad about, because they felt it was stupid of them. It was spur-of-the-moment, they lost their head or something like that.” But there it was, representing you at your worst.

Brad acknowledges that “of course, if you say or do something stupid in person,” you can be reminded of it later, but in face-to-face communication, he sees a lot of “wiggle room” for “general human error.” Online, it is always possible that people are collecting “visual proof … saved written proof” of your mistake. Brad steps back from blaming either what the technology makes possible or the people who record you without permission. He says he is a “realist.” By this he means that “anyone who lives in the digital world should know that it is not permissible to lose your temper online or say anything that you would not want to be distributed.” And besides, says Brad, “there is never any reason to use online communication for spontaneous feeling.... You have no excuse for snapping online because you could have just waited for a couple minutes and not typed anything and cooled down.” Here, we see self-policing to the point of trying to achieve a precorrected self.

When Brad talks about “visual proof … saved written proof” of damaging exchanges, he sounds like someone hunted. I ask him about people saving his letters. He says that this does not bother him. In a letter, he explains, he thinks before he writes, and sometimes he writes a letter over several times. But to him, even though he “knew better,” Internet conversations feel tentative; you get into the habit of thinking as you write. Although everything is “composed,” he somehow gets into “an experience of being in a free zone.” Audrey, sixteen, described a similar disconnect. She feels that online life is a space for experimentation. But she knows that electronic messages are forever and that colleges and potential employers have ways of getting onto her Facebook page. What she feels and what she knows do not sync.

Brad and Audrey both experience the paradox of electronic messaging. You stare at a screen on your desk or in your hand. It is passive, and you own the frame; these promise safety and acceptance. In the cocoon of electronic messaging, we imagine the people we write to as we wish them to be; we write to that part of them that makes us feel safe. You feel in a place that is private and ephemeral. But your communications are public and forever. This disconnect between the feeling of digital communication and its reality explains why people continue to send damaging e-mails and texts, messages that document them breaking the law and cheating on their spouses. People try to force themselves to mesh their behavior with what they know rather than how they feel. But when people want to forget that they do not have privacy on the Internet, the medium colludes.

Recall seventeen-year-old Elaine, who thought that the Internet made it easier for the shy to make friends because they have fewer inhibitions when they can hide behind a screen. Elaine’s sense of this “free” space is conflicted. For example, she knows that everything she puts on a site like Facebook will always be there and belong to Facebook. But Elaine has no confidence that, once online, she will be able to remember that she is speaking to posterity. The Internet might be forever, but it takes discipline to keep this in mind. She thinks it is unrealistic to say, “What happens on the Internet, stays on the Internet.” She says that this is “just too hard.... It’s just human nature that things will get out.” She is skeptical of those who say they are able to place a wall between their offline and online lives: “Everything that is on the Internet, everyone can copy and paste, or save.... If you’re having a conversation with someone in speech, and it’s not being tape-recorded, you can change your opinion, but on the Internet it’s not like that. On the Internet it’s almost as if everything you say were being tape-recorded. You can’t say, ‘I changed my mind.’ You can, but at the same time it’s already there.”

There is truth in a view of the Internet as a place for experimentation and self-expression. Yet, from Elaine’s point of view, what she is free to do is to say things that will “be remembered forever.” Common sense prevails: “free” combined with “forever” doesn’t seem workable. Elaine says, “I feel that my childhood has been stolen by the Internet. I shouldn’t have to be thinking about these things.” Dawn tried to “scrub” her Facebook page when she got into college. “I wanted a fresh start,” she says. But she could only delete so much. Her friends had pictures of her on their pages and messages from her on their walls. All of these would remain. She says, “It’s like somebody is about to find a horrible secret that I didn’t know I left someplace.”

Here, as in Brad’s unforgiving self-criticism (“I should have known ... you have no excuse … ”), one sees a new regime of self-surveillance at work. As toddlers, these children learned how to type online, and then they discovered it was forever. We see a first generation going through adolescence knowing that their every misstep, all the awkward gestures of their youth, are being frozen in a computer’s memory. Some put this out of mind, but some cannot, do not—and I think, should not.

It has taken a generation for people to begin to understand that on the Internet, the words “delete” and “erase” are metaphorical: files, photographs, mail, and search histories are only removed from your sight.11 The Internet never forgets. The magnitude of this is hard to believe because one’s first instinct is to find it unbelievable. Some teenagers deny what is happening; some respond by finding it “unfair” that they will, like turtles, be carrying themselves on their backs all their lives. Corbin, a senior at Hadley, comments on the idea that nothing on the Net will ever go way. He says, “All the things I’ve written on Facebook will always be around. So you can never escape what you did.”

With the persistence of data, there is, too, the persistence of people. If you friend someone as a ten-year-old, it takes positive action to unfriend that person. In principle, everyone wants to stay in touch with the people they grew up with, but social networking makes the idea of “people from one’s past” close to an anachronism. Corbin reaches for a way to express his discomfort. He says, “For the first time, people will stay your friends. It makes it harder to let go of your life and move on.” Sanjay, sixteen, who wonders if he will be “writing on my friends’ walls when I’m a grown-up,” sums up his misgivings: “For the first time people can stay in touch with people all of their lives. But it used to be good that people could leave their high school friends behind and take on new identities.”

This is the anxiety of always. A decade ago I argued that the fluidity, flexibility, and multiplicity of our lives on the screen encouraged the kind of self that Robert Jay Lifton called “protean.”12 I still think it is a useful metaphor. But the protean self is challenged by the persistence of people and data. The sense of being protean is sustained by an illusion with an uncertain future. The experience of being at one’s computer or cell phone feels so private that we easily forget our true circumstance: with every connection we leave an electronic trace.

Similarly, I have argued that the Internet provided spaces for adolescents to experiment with identity relatively free of consequences, as Erik Erikson argued they must have. The persistence of data and people undermines this possibility as well. I talk to teenagers who send and receive six to eight thousand texts a month, spend hours a day on Facebook, and interleave instant messaging and Google searches—all activities that leave a trace. The idea of the moratorium does not easily mesh with a life that generates its own electronic shadow.

Peter Pan, who could not see his shadow, was the boy who never grew up. Most of us are like him. Over time (and I say this with much anxiety), living with an electronic shadow begins to feel so natural that the shadow seems to disappear—that is, until a moment of crisis: a lawsuit, a scandal, an investigation. Then, we are caught short, turn around, and see that we have been the instruments of our own surveillance. But most of the time, we behave as if the shadow were not there rather than simply invisible. Indeed, most of the adolescents who worry with me about the persistence of online data try to put it out of their minds. The need for a moratorium space is so compelling that if they must, they are willing to find it in a fiction. This is an understandable and unstable resolution. The idea that you leave a trace because you make a call, send a text, or leave a Facebook message is on some level intolerable. And so, people simply behave as though it were not happening.

Adults, too, live the fiction. Some behave as though e-mail were private, although they know it is not. Others say they never have significant business or personal conversations electronically. They insist that for anything important, they speak on a secure landline. But then, as we talk, they usually admit to the times that they haven’t followed their own rules. Most often, there is a shamefaced admission of an indiscretion on e-mail.

Some say this issue is a nonissue; they point out that privacy is a historically new idea. This is true. But although historically new, privacy has well served our modern notions of intimacy and democracy. Without privacy, the borders of intimacy blur. And, of course, when all information is collected, everyone can be turned into an informer.


It has become commonplace to talk about all the good the Web has done for politics. We have new sources of information, such as news of political events from all over the world that comes to us via photographs and videos taken by the cameras on cell phones. There is organizing and fund-raising; ever since the 2004 primary run of Howard Dean, online connections have been used as a first step in bringing people together physically. The Barack Obama campaign transformed the Dean-era idea of the “meet up” into a tool for bringing supporters out of the virtual and into each other’s homes or onto the streets. We diminish none of these very positive developments if we attend to the troubling realities of the Internet when it comes to questions of privacy. Beyond passivity and resignation, there is a chilling effect on political speech.

When they talk about the Internet, young people make a disturbing distinction between embarrassing behavior that will be forgiven and political behavior that might get you into trouble. For high school and college students, stalking and anything else they do to each other fall into the first category. Code such antics as embarrassing. They believe that you can apologize for embarrassing behavior and then move on. Celebrity culture, after all, is all about transgression and rehabilitation. (These young people’s comfort with “bullying” their peers is part of this pattern—something for which they believe they will be forgiven.) But you can’t “take back” political behavior, like signing a petition or being at a demonstration. One eighteen-year-old puts it this way: “It [the Internet] definitely makes you think about going to a protest or something. There would be so many cameras. You can’t tell where the pictures could show up.”

Privacy has a politics. For many, the idea “we’re all being observed all the time anyway, so who needs privacy?” has become a commonplace. But this state of mind has a cost. At a Webby Awards ceremony, an event to recognize the best and most influential websites, I was reminded of just how costly it is. The year I attended the Webbies, the ceremonies took place just as a government wiretapping scandal dominated the press. When the question of illegal eavesdropping arose, a common reaction among the gathered “Weberati” was to turn the issue into a nonissue. There was much talk about “all information being good information,” “information wanting to be free,” and “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” At a pre-awards cocktail party, one Web luminary spoke to me with animation about the wiretapping controversy. To my surprise, he cited Michel Foucault on the panopticon to explain why he was not worried about privacy on the Internet.

For Foucault, the task of the modern state is to reduce its need for actual surveillance by creating a citizenry that will watch itself. A disciplined citizen minds the rules. Foucault wrote about Jeremy Bentham’s design for a panopticon because it captured how such a citizenry is shaped.13 In the panopticon, a wheel-like structure with an observer at its hub, one develops the sense of always being watched, whether or not the observer is actually present. If the structure is a prison, inmates know that a guard can potentially always see them. In the end, the architecture encourages self-surveillance. 14

The panopticon serves as a metaphor for how, in the modern state, every citizen becomes his or her own policeman. Force becomes unnecessary because the state creates its own obedient citizenry. Always available for scrutiny, all turn their eyes on themselves. By analogy, said my Webby conversation partner, on the Internet, someone might always be watching, so it doesn’t matter if, from time to time, someone actually is. As long as you are not doing anything wrong, you are safe. Foucault’s critical take on disciplinary society had, in the hands of this technology guru, become a justification for the U.S. government to use the Internet to spy on its citizens. All around us at the cocktail party, there were nods of assent. We have seen that variants of this way of thinking, very common in the technology community, are gaining popularity among high school and college students.

If you relinquish your privacy on MySpace or Facebook about everything from your musical preferences to your sexual hang-ups, you are less likely to be troubled by an anonymous government agency knowing whom you call or what websites you frequent. Some are even gratified by a certain public exposure; it feels like validation, not violation. Being seen means that they are not insignificant or alone. For all the talk of a generation empowered by the Net, any discussion of online privacy generates claims of resignation and impotence. When I talk to teenagers about the certainty that their privacy will be invaded, I think of my very different experience growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s.

As the McCarthy era swirled about them, my grandparents were frightened. From Eastern European backgrounds, they saw the McCarthy hearings not as a defense of patriotism but as an attack on people’s rights. Joseph McCarthy was spying on Americans, and having the government spy on its citizens was familiar from the old world. There, you assumed that the government read your mail, which never led to good. In America, things were different. I lived with my grandparents as a young child in a large apartment building. Every morning, my grandmother took me downstairs to the mailboxes. Looking at the gleaming brass doors, on which, she noted, “people were not afraid to have their names listed, for all to see,” my grandmother would tell me, as if it had never come up before, “In America, no one can look at your mail. It’s a federal offense. That’s the beauty of this country.” From the earliest age, my civics lessons at the mailbox linked privacy and civil liberties. I think of how different things are today for children who learn to live with the idea that their e-mail and messages are share-able and unprotected. And I think of the Internet guru at the Webby awards who, citing Foucault with no apparent irony, accepted the idea that the Internet has fulfilled the dream of the panopticon and summed up his political position about the Net as follows: “The way to deal is to just be good.”

But sometimes a citizenry should not simply “be good.” You have to leave space for dissent, real dissent. There needs to be technical space (a sacrosanct mailbox) and mental space. The two are intertwined. We make our technologies, and they, in turn, make and shape us. My grandmother made me an American citizen, a civil libertarian, a defender of individual rights in an apartment lobby in Brooklyn. I am not sure where to take my eighteen-year-old daughter, who still thinks that Loopt (the application that uses the GPS capability of the iPhone to show her where her friends are) seems “creepy” but notes that it would be hard to keep it off her phone if all her friends had it. “They would think I had something to hide.”

In democracy, perhaps we all need to begin with the assumption that everyone has something to hide, a zone of private action and reflection, one that must be protected no matter what our techno-enthusiasms. I am haunted by the sixteen-year-old boy who told me that when he needs to make a private call, he uses a pay phone that takes coins and complains how hard it is to find one in Boston. And I am haunted by the girl who summed up her reaction to losing online privacy by asking, “Who would care about me and my little life?”

I learned to be a citizen at the Brooklyn mailboxes. To me, opening up a conversation about technology, privacy, and civil society is not romantically nostalgic, not Luddite in the least. It seems like part of democracy defining its sacred spaces.