When I was growing up, online hangouts occurred on IRC, forums or altavista chatrooms. All these platforms had one thing in common: anonymity. The internet was objectively known to be a creepy place.
The first time I went online, I was around 9 years old, around the turn of the millennium. I registered a nickname on my country’s IRC network. Radark, I thought it sounded super badass. I convinced a group of people I was a 16 year old hacker. I had watched my older sibling play around with Netbus and Sub7 a few days ago, so seemed easy enough. Plus, the copied book we got sent by snail mail called “Hacking” gave me some street cred.
So off I went on one of my first online adventures, convincing a group of computer science enthusiasts or students that I was a 16 year old hacker. And it all went well for the whole time of 3 hours, until my sibling came back and told them Radark is a 9 year old kid.
Woopsy. Too bad, great thing I could just do /nick aNewName and off I go, another personality, others to fool, but more importantly, others to converse with. While growing up, I chatted to a lot of people. I did not have many friends in real life, so the internet was a great place. In particular, I could talk about anything without fearing the repercussion of my opinion not being accepted. And as easily as you could create a personality, you could erase it. And it was fine, nobody cared. Granted, you do /whois to figure out whether a nickname was registered or not. But that was pretty much as much as you would know about your conversation partner.
Nowadays, I don’t know where kids hang out anymore. I hope I am wrong, but I have the impression kids hang out mostly on Instagram or Snapchat (Facebook is for old people). And this is worrying because all these platforms have, in its core, the user-centric aspect of it. These are not primarily chatting platforms, despite being used as such. Indeed, they are broadcasting tools – the user is incentivized to share content, which ends up often being personal content (in the form of pictures, videos or others). This also means that changing/deleting profiles is actually an annoying process because you put some effort into these profiles. It also means that the barrier to randomly chatting to someone is now higher – it’s not longer whether the nickname has been registered or not, but whether the other person has shared some content themselves, has enough followers, etc.
I think in general, people don’t think much about the information that can be inferred from public social media posts. Indeed, the current state of the internet incentivizes users to not think about it: it’s cool, link your phone number to your facebook, to use your real name, share geotagged content, win points, whatever. All these academics publishing stuff on user privacy, they are tinfoil hat dudes.
Anyway, my hope is that I am completely wrong, and kids just use Discord now.