Can teens escape embarrassment on Facebook?

The only way to avoid starring in those baffling pictures is to skip the party. And who wants to do that?
Friends dancing
The new paparazzi
Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

There are 518 pictures of me on Facebook—several of which show me drinking, smoking, and occasionally doing both while wielding a plastic light sabre—none of which I took or uploaded myself. And I’m not unusual.

“In this day and age, you can’t really attend a social gathering without risking the chance of ending up on Facebook,” says Toronto blogger Sara Melvin, 22. “Generation Y is obsessed with documenting its social life.”

She should know. Melvin is responsible for roughly a third of the compromising photos of me mentioned above. Some people (my mother) would consider this grounds for “defriending” her, but to assume that posting pictures of someone to Facebook without his or her permission is, in this day and age, an obviously unfriendly and inconsiderate act is to reveal that you know very little, if anything, about the way young people use social media.

And therein lies the problem with, the federal government’s new campaign to educate youth about Internet privacy. Because for all its ominous overtones about identity theft and the dangers of posting provocative party pictures to Facebook, it fails to address what is arguably the most insidious social media problem facing youth today: it’s impossible for them to control who takes their pictures and where they turn up online. Digital cameras have become house-party staples, documenting whatever or whoever enters their frames. The reality is that avoiding being in a single party picture on Facebook means avoiding the party altogether.

Canada’s privacy commissioner, Jennifer Stoddart, has overlooked this reality, to the detriment of her well-intentioned campaign. “We want to say to kids,” she says, explaining one of the project’s core mandates, “that it is not appropriate behaviour to take pictures of others without their consent, and post them [online] without their consent.” What’s appropriate, though, is incredibly hard to gauge in a photo-sharing age, when you don’t have to be the subject of an incriminating photograph to end up in one. Zion Lipstein-Saffer, a 15-year-old high school student in Toronto, knows this all too well. “I’ve learned to refrain from doing stuff in the central ground of the party with people I’m not close to,” he says. “I just instinctively do it.”

The notion that this teenager feels he has to hang out on the party’s periphery to avoid the gaze of cameras has a strange air of celebrity to it. Perhaps what Stoddart—who isn’t on Facebook—has overlooked is that social media operates like a personal tabloid. Party photos are taken of the group at random, and regular people must exercise celebrity caution if they don’t want to be in the digital press (Facebook, Twitter) the next day. Which makes the thrust of her campaign— “If you don’t want a future college/job/internship/scholarship/sports team to see it, don’t post it publicly”—difficult to manage, especially when you’re not the one taking or posting the photos.

So who is? According to Lipstein-Saffer, teenage girls are the serial camera carriers; the paparazzi, if you will. “It’s not even just drunk girls,” he says, “but girls in general. It’s not big among guys.” And there may be some larger truth to that. One recent University of Buffalo-led study found young women more likely than their male counterparts to “spend more time managing online profiles” and “share more photos online.” University of Ottawa student Meghan Palowin, 19, agrees, adding that her “guy friends hate it when people take pictures [at parties].” Palowin, a self-avowed party photographer, says she’s been stuck with camera duty for years. “I’m just usually the one who brings a camera [to parties] and takes the pics,” she admits. Palowin agrees with the tabloid culture analogy, noting that even when she forgets her camera, “everyone has cellphones with cameras on them anyway, so it doesn’t really matter.” One way or another, the event will be photographed and, inevitably, uploaded onto Facebook. This is precisely the point Canadian author and sociology professor Martin Hand makes in his forthcoming book, Ubiquitous Photography, which explores how the marriage of digital photography and social media has created a trend in which “events, activities, moments . . . and people are ‘captured’ and distributed as images on an unprecedented scale.”

But can such a scale ever be contained? It’s unlikely, considering the fact that Facebook’s most attractive purpose is—in true tabloid fashion—to anonymously invade the privacy of people you don’t really know (this process is referred to as “creeping” or “stalking”). And that invasion is dependent on photo sharing, because few people would read a tabloid without any pictures. Mark Zuckerberg can talk all he wants about “connectivity” and “openness,” but at the end of the day his product isn’t used to socialize, but to survey. “There’s a concept in celebrity studies [an academic discipline that explores the nature of fame] called ‘parasocial relations,’ ” says Danah Boyd, a senior Microsoft researcher and assistant media professor at New York University. “It’s the idea,” she says, “that you can keep track of someone’s life without them knowing that you exist. We see this all the time with social media, and it’s part of what creates the appearance of a tabloid culture.”

Facebook’s enormous popularity is bound to the fact that whoever you’re “creeping” will never know you viewed his or her profile. When I was in high school, for example, word got around about a rogue program that would allow Facebook users to see exactly who viewed their pictures, and how many times. This prospect was exciting on one front (you would know if your crush checked out your profile) but horrific on another (they would know you checked out theirs). People were spooked, and many cut back on their Facebook time until it appeared the program was nothing more than a rumour. In fact, it was the only time I have ever considered actually leaving the social networking site. Not when Sara Melvin posted over a hundred embarrassing photos of me, but when my right to anonymously browse embarrassing photos of other people was temporarily jeopardized. In other words, I cared more about invading the privacy of others than I did about protecting my own.

But I cared even more about something else: the fear of being absent in general, the agony of being out of the loop. It’s a technological twist on the age-old philosophical adage, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” My generation’s version: “If you go to a party and you don’t appear in the Facebook album, were you really there?” According to Queen’s University media professor Sydneyeve Matrix, photo sharing has birthed a new breed of anxiety: one she refers to as FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). In other words, a party you missed will haunt you forever in online photo albums and digital ruminations. “There are two sides to social media,” says Matrix. “There’s the deep pleasure of sharing and the torment of seeing what you’ve missed out on.”

And that’s why adult-driven government campaigns—well-meaning as they are—will never curb non-consensual photo sharing. Nothing will. That’s just the nature of the beast. Campaigns can change policy, but they can’t uproot culture. Especially not a confessional culture like mine; one that’s far more concerned with telling secrets than keeping them. Stoddart believes that young people care about their privacy. But caring about something and making the sacrifice to ensure its survival are two very different things. I could cite forum after forum that decry Facebook’s privacy settings, yet only a measly 39,000 people have actually left the website since “Quit Facebook Day” in May last year: 39,000 out of 800 million active users. My personal paparazzo, Sara Melvin, thought she had successfully shed her own online persona, “Smelvs,” this fall when she worked at a lodge in Algonquin Park where Internet access was hard to come by. Initially she found the slow death of “Smelvs” and the rebirth of real private space liberating, but eventually reality asserted itself. “I couldn’t stay in the woods forever” was how she put it.  Which is to say she had to abandon the real woods where the leaves were changing for the virtual woods where the action was always happening. Time alone to meditate? Not so great.

The truth is that Generation Y doesn’t care about its privacy until it’s been violated. And even then it’s not such a big deal. Technology has ramped up the inclination of young people to live in the moment by a large factor and the moment has shrunk accordingly. In a rapidly updating world, what’s important isn’t five years from now (“college/job/internship…”) but five minutes from now: Facebook status, Twitter update and, of course . . . evidence that you were at last night’s party.