Earlier this month, 25-year-old Star magazine editor-at-large and dating columnist Julia Allison posted a blog entry about the swift end to her short relationship with Vimeo founder Jakob Lodwick. The word count? 1,195, not counting the e-mail exchange between the two of them that Allison had copy-pasted.
Lodwick, 26, posted only 164 words in return on his blog. But considering Lodwick's blog is dedicated less to the profusion of words and more to a series of daily photographic self-portraits, that's understandable.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is my generation. Allison and Lodwick are my contemporaries, both in age and as fellow members of Manhattan's burgeoning digital media scene. I don't know exactly how many people actually read either of their public breakup statements, or who even gives a damn about their banter over selflessness versus narcissism, but I'm guessing it's not many. After all, the primary external publicity for both of them (aside from numerous media hits on cable news channels) has been Gawker, the perpetually sneering New York media blog that's made a business out of turning irritating members of the publishing industry into celebrities who probably don't deserve the press.
But Julia Allison and Jakob Lodwick are two examples of something bigger, a trend that may come to define our understanding of creative young Americans born in 1980-something. We are the Naked Generation, as I like to call it, the ones who snicker at the fact that Britney Spears' outfit at her much-maligned Video Music Awards performance was embarrassingly revealing but nod in quiet accordance at her ability to keep the world fascinated. We change the channel when reruns of The Simple Life show up on the E! network but grudgingly admire Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie's ability to self-brand their way to lives of luxury and international renown.
But the majority of us didn't have "socialite" already on our resumes, so we turned to the Web. The Internet is more than just our stage; it's our dressing room, our cocktail lounge and, most notably, our PR department.
It's no longer noteworthy to point out that there are hordes of Web users who are putting their lives online, from revealing "personality surveys" posted in pink Comic Sans MS on glittery MySpace profiles, to Flickr play-by-plays of the wildest Pi Beta Phi rush week since the invention of the digital camera. I'm not talking about them. The Naked Generation is something different: its figureheads are smart, business-savvy young adults, typically in emerging creative fields, who see the embarrassing antics of "MySpace kids" and their emotional outpourings, and see a window of opportunity. They're smart, and they know it, so they think they can use online exhibition as an advantage rather than an embarrassment.
The word to highlight there is "think."
Julia Allison and Jakob Lodwick are by no means alone. Look at Chris Crocker, the 19-year-old from Tennessee who took his dramatic YouTube personality over-the-top with a sobbing missive to Britney Spears haters that may or may not be tongue-in-cheek. There's Justin Kan of Justin.tv fame, who chose to turn a Yale degree and a Bay Area start-up job into a 24-hour streaming Webcast of a camera attached to his head--it might pose some issues with potential employment opportunities in the future, but hey, it's made him Internet-famous! Then there's Kan's follower, 23-year-old graphic designer Justine Ezarik, who continually confounds me with both her ability to keep her makeup in impeccable condition throughout an entire day's "lifecast" and her seemingly endless collection of low-cut tank tops.
We're not the only ones getting naked. A few months ago, Wired magazine had a cover story about corporate transparency, featuring The Office star Jenna Fischer on the cover--literally naked, with the dual aim of personifying bare-it-all business practices and selling more magazines to its largely male reader base. Transparency, like the candid blog put forth by billionaire Mark Cuban, isn't new to the marketing buzzword scene. But pure "corporate transparency" is often a strategy to put a new spin on a culture that wore a particularly negative mantle in the earlier part of this decade (hello, Enron). But last time I checked, no one thought 20-something journalists were evil. (Are we? Am I missing something?) The Naked Generation doesn't get naked to save face. It's a way to create face.
I'm not one to express disapproval--I have accounts on more social networking sites than I'd like to, and you can occasionally find me making faces for the camera on CNET TV--and simply chiding these "meta-exhibitionists" is not what I want to do. I don't see the Naked Generation as a threat to my contemporaries' livelihood, but rather as a deep curiosity. Is it out of arrogance or simply a lack of foresight that an army of strikingly intelligent and potentially innovative young people thinks that its brains and guile can differentiate it from those annoying kids with whiny video diaries?
In other words, does conscious and methodical self-branding really make it any different?
Every generation has its embarrassments (Hair bands? Shoulder pads?) but I'm wondering if my generation's embarrassment will be its lack thereof. Or maybe I shouldn't be talking about "embarrassment," because it's an antiquated concept by now. The cycle of ironic retro pop-culture revivals now spins so quickly that the most played-out trends of 2001 can be back in 2007 with a dose of hipster snarl. (Britney's original hit, "...Baby One More Time," is practically indie rock these days.)
The celebrity gossip press, of which Julia Allison is a card-carrying member, has brought us enough sufficiently humiliating photos, sex tape rumors, and third-hand recountings of wild nights at West Hollywood nightclubs that an anxiety dream about being naked on the subway seems rather ho-hum in comparison; I won't even start on Miss Teen South Carolina. With the sorts of outlandish things that turn up on TMZ.com and YouTube, the Naked Generation flippantly believes it has nothing to lose. So, the common wisdom now goes, go ahead and post that camera phone clip of you falling into the swimming pool. You should be proud of it. Putting yourself out there takes confidence.
Maybe there will be consequences for flagrant online exhibitionism as a way to climb the social ladder (or when their ladder-climbing reaches, say, the quest for elected office). Maybe there won't, and we'll be due for one Naked Generation after another into the foreseeable future. Or maybe the only real consequence will be the fact that when a more introverted younger generation asks us in disbelief whether people in 2007 actually did post their dating histories on the Internet for all to see, we'll have to smile awkwardly and say, "Yeah, we did." And then we'll fasten those extra buttons on our shirts.