Thursday, June 28, 2012

The rising Approval Ceiling, and the death of Privacy

This is a bit of a downer, but I think it's important.

Imagine you are a baseball player in the Steroid Era. Your predecessors of the early '80s thought that hitting 40 home runs was a real accomplishment – but now hitters are blowing past 40 in August and earlier. You can't keep up, and then you find out that the inflated numbers are achievable, if only you invest in certain drugs. What do you do?

The same phenomenon exists today, in the world of Popularity, and it's radically changing our teens.

Twenty years ago, popularity for a teen meant your high school peers knew you and liked you. Maybe, if you were a star athlete, you were known around town and in competing schools. If you were a star academic, you might have some notoriety in your field, if there was a large enough prize for your brand of achievement. The "approval ceiling" maxed out in the 100-500 range, as a rule.

Today, thanks to the Internet and social networking, a high schooler with only 100-500 "friends" is an outcast. Your own friends, and then their friends, are a social circle of thousands. The big dream is to go viral with a meme, picture, tweet or video, and then you are in the millions. Through networking, the Approval Ceiling is sky-high. Never mind that this "approval" is shallow and fleeting, it's the standard by which you are evaluated.

But what steroid do you take? How do you impress thousands of people, or millions? Not by working out so that you look physically impressive. Not by acing an exam, or buying a cool leather jacket. No one can see you! You need to be out there, visible, working the network, showing people your abs or your grade or your bling. You need to drop the notion of privacy, and embrace the stage.

This is what our teens do; to my mind, this is why they text and sext, record silly videos and tweet details that in the past were considered private. Nothing is too private when it comes to impressing thousands of people. For this generation, suggesting that they keep their dating or mental health struggles or personal habits to themselves is the equivalent of suggesting to an earlier generation that they not enter a sports competition, run for school president, or go to the party everyone who is anyone is attending. Self-revelation is their steroid, to hit 70 home runs. How am I going to make friends if I keep to myself? And so the rising Approval Ceiling has dynamited privacy.

Thomas Friedman wrote the other day about Popularism, and the phenomenon of politicians sacrificing leadership and depth in pursuit of popularity. I don't think this is new for politicians, except perhaps in intensity. The concept of sacrificing for popularity is not new for teens, either, but the levels of popularity they can achieve are unprecedented for teens, and they are proving all too willing to make whatever leap is necessary in order to get there.

Privacy – or tzniut, as it is known in Judaism – has always been a bit of a ball and chain, to those who thought that being more revealing would win them friends. Today, though, the the temptation of sky-high popularity, and the absolute necessity of being "out there" in order to achieve it, is a game-changer, and privacy is left in the dust.


  1. My privacy disappeared the second I walked into yeshiva in NY. And in Israel--forget it. Everything you do or say is subject to public scrutiny.

  2. About true friendship (written by Carole King):

  3. That's because the Israeli haredi world, to my deepest pain and sorrow, accidentally became a quasi-totalitarian society. Big Brother is Watching, and He is NOT God.

  4. Holy Stitchers-
    Are you responding to the post, or to Adam?