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Psychology of Technology: N.E.I. is the New T.M.I.

One of America’s most cherished rights is citizens’ right to privacy, as former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun noted, "the right to be let alone." Passions are stirred by debates about the right to privacy and it has become a political hot potato in recent years due in part to the domestic wiretapping controversy, identity theft, and data mining on the Internet. Yet these days, a growing swath of America, mostly the young and tech savvy, are not only unconcerned about their privacy, but actively eschew that right. They seem to believe in N.E.I. (Never Enough Information) rather than the more familiar T.M.I. (Too Much Information, for those who were just rescued from a deserted island).

This desire on the part of young people to be an "open book" began in the ancient days of the 20th century (and probably long before) when the dominant form of media was television. Reality-based shows, such as MTV’s Real World and Big Brother, in which the lives of young people were broadcast for all the world to see, were the forbearers of today’s movement to make lives embarrassingly public. The growing wave of social media that caters to N.E.I. has included MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, and is now pushing the I-don’t-care-about-privacy envelope with Google Latitude, Foursquare, Blippy, and DailyBooth.

Why the shift from privacy to publicity? What is motivating people to want to share information about themselves that is, at best, of little interest or value to others and, at worst, could be used against them (think drunken Facebook rants and embarrassing photos)? I could argue that it is simply the natural extension of one’s own community (family and friends share everything, right?) afforded us by the long tentacles of the Web and social media. But I’m too cynical of people’s motives and new technology to accept such a positive rationale for this behavior. I see several possible explanations focusing on both the changing world in which we live and how we are feel about said world.

Despite appearances to the contrary, the decline of the nuclear family and the neighborhood, the mass migration caused by job mobility, and loss of national unity due to political polarization has caused many of us to feel more substantially disconnected than ever before. Social media and the ability to share ourselves so completely makes us feel connected with others, however superficial that connection may be.

We live in a time of tremendous ambiguity and flux. The uncertain economy, global instability, and political unrest can cause use to feel powerless. When we share information about ourselves — and believe that others find it worthwhile — we feel valued, important, influential.

It’s pretty easy to feel insignificant in this everyone-else-seems-to-be-rich-and-famous world. When we share information, whether a comment to a blog post, our location, our opinion on amazon, or what we purchase on Blippy, it proves that we exist, that we matter, that we are, literally and metaphorically, a recognizable dot on the map.

This N.E.I. phenomenon could be explained by the rise in narcissism among young people these days fostered by a popular culture of "it’s all about me," where self-importance, self-promotion, and exhibitionism are the road to being "somebody." Need I say anything more than Jersey Shore?

We also live in a world that has grown more impersonal as the size of the Web has expanded exponentially. When we share so much about ourselves, we feel a sense of intimacy (however false it may be) despite revealing nothing of real consequence about ourselves.

How about our culture’s obsession with the insignificant and the irrelevant? Perhaps triviata is the new opiate of the masses, preventing us from having to confront the existential vacuum that exists in our souls and the scary world that exists beyond our grasp.

Whatever the explanation for the rise of this N.E.I. movement, there’s always going to be someone out there who really believes in T.M.I. and reminds us that sharing information doesn’t really have anything to do with who we are or our place in the world. (motto: Raising awareness about over-sharing), for example, posted Foursquare location information showing when people are away from their homes. As the site’s name implies, would-be burglars can simply log on and not only have an easy time relieving these N.E.I. believers of their worldly possessions, but also remind them in a very real-world way that they really do exist and they really do mean something to someone.