When you’re four years old, the figurative meaning of phrases like “boogie down” are hard to grasp. Home video cameras were invented for these moments. “Hey Bister! Boogie down!” My dad’s voice sounds from behind the camera balanced on his shoulder. Bister peers up, considering the unfamiliar suggestion. The record on the stereo, whose music escapes the open front door, fails to inspire him. He puts his finger into his nostril and withdraws the only boogie has ever heard of. His plump knees bend as he carefully places it down on the grass.
My brother didn’t realize how lucky he was to be born in the era of videotape. Since watching this video entailed digging into the cluttered cabinet under the TV, extracting the correct one from the clattery plastic stacks of tapes, feeding the tape into the VCR and fast-forwarding to the correct moment, it was practically guaranteed that screenings were limited to immediate family.
Seven-year-old David, a child of the 21st Century, has no such luck. His daddy belts him into the backseat with care after a dental procedure. “Is this real life?” the kid quavers, head lolling from the fading anesthesia. Daddy, a father of the 21st Century, gets out the digital recorder. “David After Dentist” became a YouTube sensation, viewed almost 24,000,000 times. Now David’s dad administers an entire YouTube channel featuring more David videos and selling T-shirts. Ads for dental procedures scroll below the boy’s visage.
My generation is the last generation on earth who will remember what it is like to live a life of moments that are not at risk of being broadcast to the world. When I was a child, I used to imitate a seagull. I still remember my chagrin the day the video camera came out. I should have wept in thanks for being born in the 1980’s. Unlike David, my childhood screeches are confined to a long-lost video tape – my embarrassment is not incubating on some digital camera one skinny cord away from the internet.
I was more resistant to the age of internet sharing than most of my peers. The Facebook/MySpace craze was just taking off during my college years, but I avoided joining, uncomfortable with the idea of my friends’ friends and family trolling through my social life. Once I graduated, I was relieved to think that no-one would ask me if I was on Facebook anymore: that was for teens and college kids. But one day, it happened: my husband was friended by his mother-in-law. Now the only other person in the world besides me who was not on Facebook was Kim Jong-un, heir to North Korea. But this did not sway me as much as my eighteen-year-old sister-in-law’s profile. A digital camera is like a newly evolved appendage which dangles from teenaged girls’ wrists. Without fail, an hour after the wedding, birthday dinner, or pool party, pictures of me appeared on Facebook (my husband, having accepted friendship with his mother-in-law and anxious to see what he’d missed during his hours in the real world, logged on as soon as we got home). Scroll over my chubby form with the cursor and there’s my name, in case there was any doubt. Like it or not, I had already made my Facebook debut.
Since the advent of Facebook and YouTube, we approach each trip outside our homes with the documentarian fervor of the mother of the bride. No possible combination of people and activities goes unphotographed with 500 friends waiting to view our latest album. Despite our upbringing in an age of clunky Polaroids and VHS, we see each moment as if through the eye of a camera, and if we won’t be cast in a reality show within the next few years, there’s still the chance that any moment could be the next YouTube phenomenon. David was viewed on the way home from the dentist by 24,000,000 people through no design of his own. And what about the infant stars of “Charlie Bit My Finger – Again!”, whose viewers currently top 105,000,000?
When a kid like my little brother boogied down on VHS, the worst case scenario was that your parents mailed the videotape to “America’s Funniest Home Videos” – but at least then you had a chance to win $10,000 and to meet Bob Saget in your Sunday best. My generation is the first generation who chose to broadcast our lives online, but once we’re through with our kids, we’ll also be the last ones who ever had a choice about that broadcast. Our babies are on Facebook and YouTube before they even know what a camera or computer is. When tens of millions of people have already viewed the goofiest moments of your childhood, in what ways will you be compelled to broadcast yourself?