Met my new nephew for the first time. It was quite an experience, particularly when there hasn’t been a baby in our family for twenty years.
At ten days old he was tiny and, I realised, a blank canvas. Sure, some environmental influences will quickly shape his understanding and outlook, but for these briefest of moments, he’s completely fresh to the world.
After I had reluctantly let him go (he was mid way through the cycle of eating, sleeping and what-have-you), the first thing I did was to tweet a photo of me holding him. A bit indulgent, but I was genuinely very proud and couldn’t help myself. I’ve since kept abreast of his movements via my brother’s profile on Facebook.
It dawned on me afterwards, that my little nephew will never have control over his online footprint. He’s online from birth, through photos and his family’s status updates.
I understand that of course no-one can ever completely erase themselves from the web, or only with great difficulty. However, for people aged 20 or over, it’s likely that you could have made a conscious decision to not join any social networks, or produce anything online under an honest identity.
For my nephew though, he has been born into a cradle-to-grave digital world.
This got me thinking of other generations and my Great Great Great Uncle Richard. I blogged a little about him previously. It seems almost unbelievable to me that someone ‘normal’ who died in 1937 has a digital footprint of any size. And yet, without any planning on his part, and a little bit of digging around on mine, Uncle Richard of Walthamstow can be found in several places online. These include the London Gazette’s digital records, census returns and an ancestry website where various people have built a profile of him.
He wasn’t famous, infamous or particularly notable for any reason. Some family paperwork made me think he was worth a few bob. But the network that built up around him as I searched the web has given me something akin to LinkedIn in terms of number of people and detail (does Klout have a way of scoring your influence among dead Victorians?).
So it seems there are very few of us, possibly a generation or two, who have had an opportunity to opt in or out of a personal online footprint. And even for those who opt out I imagine it is hugely difficult to stay offline.
As the web continues to be recognised as a marketplace full of conversations, not just an extension of broadcast media, it’ll be increasingly crucial for individuals, like my nephew, to have their voice.