Facebook, Identity, and Generations

When Facebook first emerged in the early 2000’s, it seemed to be just another wave in the evolving social media landscape. Friendster and MySpace had both risen to prominence before it, and it seemed that every few years, a hot new social network would come to displace the incumbent.

But for a variety of reasons, Facebook broke this trend. It didn’t just survive, it is now the de facto social network, almost as expected as a phone number or email address. It is now an act of Neo-Luddism or digital hipsterism to be missing on the social network.

Facebook has continued to grow at such a pace, for so long, that we must consider the fact that it is approaching a generational institution. The children of its first users are now coming of age to join it. In doing so, the choices made by its users begin to impacg not just themselves, but potentially future generations.

Why do I bring this up? I have been considering this phenomenon since I learned I was expecting my first child. Now that he is in this world, I have to realize that my Facebook use could effectively impact his future as well.

How could my Facebook usage effect my child? The first specter is that of privacy. The entire point of Facebook is to monetize my information, to weaponize it to enrich their shareholders by selling ads against it. Facebook seems bent on encouraging me to share everything about my life, including the life of my child.

But this is a secondary concern to me. You could argue that Facebook lies at the vanguard of the invasion of privacy inherent in modern life, but it is hardly the only actor, or remotely the most malicious. I am resigned that the meaning of privacy may be permanently changed in society. I will not rail against change simply because of difference.

The bigger concern for me as a parent is the case of online identity. When I first started going online in the late 90’s, my identity there was mine to establish. Searching for my name came up with humbling little that I did not in some way consciously create and put out into the world.

In this nascent space, I could define my identity to a large extent, freely mixing pseudonyms and IRL identity in any measure I saw fit. Very little, if any, of my parents’ choices impacted this ability. I refuse to believe this was only an incidental benefit of the Wild West days of the Internet. Without this, it becomes a dramatically constricted environment for creativity, experimentation, and exploration.

So with this concern for my child’s ability to define identity in mind, I’m trying to limit how much I pen him in with my activity. This is where a generational Facebook must be taken into consideration. Much as I would like to plaster my Facebook and Instagram (which Facebook owns) feeds with photos and updates about his every move, smile, and milestone, I realize this has a broader impact than my ego.

The problem becomes when Facebook enters its third generation, and my child is potentially facing a social network with thirteen years of photos and videos. Media that he does not have any control of, but could potentially be accessed by a wide swath of the Internet. Even if I lock down my privacy settings and whittle my friends list, this is still an unfair burden in my eyes to his emergent online identity.

I fully realize this may be too dramatic. While the Facebook company looks to have a life well into my child’s future, perhaps the social network element will no longer be the ascendant societal force it is now. Maybe something will supersede the Internet as we know it, making the point moot. Or most likely, perhaps everyone else in the generation will be dealing with this legacy of identity already.

So while my child will not be a non-entity on Facebook, I’m not making it the primary avenue of sharing his life. I want something that gives me more control, and will let my child take control of that information to do with as he wishes. To be fair, Facebook is an extraordinary sharing engine, and not leaning on it will put a burden on me and my wife. But I think the importance of giving my child some independence of identity is worth it.

Parenthood may inherently force your children to live with the consequences of your actions. But for online life, I’d like to give my kid the as much of the world of potential that I had.

This is not meant to be a slight or a judgement on how other people chose to share the lives of their children with their friends. Rather it’s a result of careful reflection and deliberation regarding my child.