“My e-mail?” The boy looks at me as if I had just suggested staying in touch by carrier pigeon. “What, you don’t have an email?” I ask, insecure now. “Sure I do. But I only use it for my parents and my grandparents,” he says. “Aren’t you on Facebook?” I am. Phew. Of course I mostly check my Facebook profile when I’m prompted by an e-mail notification, but I don’t tell him that. Trevor Dougherty is 19 and to him, I am a geriatric 36-year-old who belongs to that amorphous generation of people-who-don’t-really-get-social-networking that stretches all the way back to, well, his grandparents.
I met Trevor in January, during a dinner debate on social networking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he was by far the youngest and most eloquent speaker on the subject. I have perhaps 100 people in my life I call friends. Trevor has 1,275. At one point he tried to add someone called Trevor in every capital so he would have friends to visit across the world. He chats, posts, tweets and consults “his community” on important decisions: “I’m going to start producing/DJing electronic music. What should my stage name be? #youtellme.”
The encounter made me curious: what does it do to teenagers to be “on” all the time? Are they just doing what we did 20 years ago — gossiping, dating, escaping pubescent solitude — and simply channeling those age-old human urges through this new technology? Or is this technology changing humanity in a more fundamental way? What kind of citizens, voters, consumers, leaders will kids like Trevor grow up to be?