Growing up with a lifelong digital footprint
Your online trail that you do not own
No longer identify with a post from last year? Well, you can just delete it with no sweat, right? Not always. In fact, this is becoming increasingly false. Over the next decade, we’ll begin to collectively feel the weight of our compiling digital content— that of which tends to be much more intimate for younger generations.
Gen Z (born 1997-2012) will be the first generation to endure an almost lifelong digital footprint, and in the way that celebrities traditionally learn to deal with the media trail that follows them, Gen Z and those in collaboration will have to adapt.
Social media platforms tend to have a minimum age requirement of 13 years old for users, but the use of digital tech for education, community, and entertainment purposes peaks kids' curiosity well before then. In the way that older generations associate pre-teen and teen years with initial identity exploration, Gen Z and younger also associate this time with wide-reach mediums that complement their learnings.
The TikTok platform
TikTok is synonymous with today’s youth and has users empowered to share their identity through the most intimate form of content: video. Not only that, but this content can get fed to thousands, if not millions, overnight on a basis that is far more frequent than any other platform.
The vulnerability that people have on TikTok likely has to do with the vast majority of content consumed being from strangers. On a platform like Instagram, there’s a lack of quality curation without user initiative— pushing people to follow their friends, family, and/or peers at the start. On TikTok, this is not the case, as the For You Page pushes content that is essentially a mirror of what you’re most likely to pay attention to— determined by watch time. The vast majority of users’ following lists tend to be people they’ve never met in real life. In turn, users seem to internalize that there is a strong likelihood that their content could only be seen by strangers.
Mixing TikTok’s high growth and instant gratification potential, along with the overall casual and quick-paced nature of the platform, users are not holding back. Just last month, trends have included sharing your most psychologically “crazy” moments, showing a clip of yourself high to draw a parallel to current gas prices, and even telling a significant other that you’re glad they “came”— followed by pictures of your children. Yeah, you read all of that right lmfao.
Today’s reach potential
It’s tough to grasp the potential exposure you can get online— until it happens. It’s also tough to grasp the digital footprint that can be created from a single piece of content— until a tornado of public opinion picks it up.
While there are a lot of great opportunities that can come from quickly gaining an unusual reach, there’s also the burden of an unfathomable amount of strangers feeling compelled to download, screen-record, and/or share that content. Some will do so with the intent of enjoyment, but others may do so maliciously. This then puts the privacy of that content collectively at others’ discretion, no longer just the original publisher’s. Even a single duet, stitch, or repost can remove all autonomy.
The older latter of Gen Z are now out of their teens, and already have had eye-opening moments in regards to their youth digital footprints. A platform like Tumblr still lives on, but a large percent of late 2000s, early 2010s users have abandoned their accounts come adulthood. Some of these users will never be able to access them again due to reasons like forgotten passwords and since deleted associated email accounts. Regardless, their footprint on the platform remains.
On a platform like Vine, which felt like it rose to fame and died just as quickly, the content lives on even though users are no longer able to login to the platform. Due to how accustomed younger Millennials and the older latter of Gen Z are in regards to adapting to new social media platforms, many don’t realize this, as they simply moved on to the next one.
Especially on social media platforms that have managed to still thrive today— people’s comments, direct messages, and more have compiled to an amount that feels near impossible to manage or even recall. Morals aside, there are people on high-reach platforms like TikTok who have no shame putting more intimate digital interactions on blast, whether it be a DM or dating profile, from recently or years ago.
Much of Gen Z and younger will have a thorough, well-documented digital upbringing– one that may not necessarily align with what was considered ideal-hire behavior in the past. As younger generations continue to experience the trials and errors of life both publicly and permanently, how we assess digital footprints must evolve.
Platforms need to prioritize building tools to manage it, but we collectively need to give people more empathy and support in regard to it.
I want to clarify that sharing intimate, personal details on the internet can be amazing. I’m not here to be a school teacher who encourages you not to post something because an employer won’t fuck with it— I’m talking personal piece of mind. There’s a difference between posting for personal liberation and creating shared experiences with others versus deciding to do so with high growth and instant gratification at the helm.
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