[My opinions only, most certainly not necessarily those of my employer. I do not have any influence over the development of G+ and obviously am wishing G+ to be successful from the sidelines. I would like this post to remain a general discussion rather than about any specific services or policies, and I will moderate comments that stray off-topic.]

I'm springboarding off +Jillian C. York's solicitation of definitions of who is a Digital Native at https://plus.google.com/105931402039205614444/posts/NjSp9ACL5MM and +danah boyd's post about whether imposing rules to force behavior rather than allowing emergent behavior to develop causes resentment. Also thinking about the Cluetrain Manifesto to some extent, but it’s not quite topically relevant since Cluetrain discusses marketing rather than social development of peers.

I view myself as an Internet Native, as distinct from a Digital Native (or in my parlance, Digital Founder). Unlike the Digital Founders who as adults created the technologies that their digital offspring use today, I first encountered the World-Wide Web around my sixth birthday. I learned to program in fourth grade. I've been forming friendships online (supplementing my offline friendships) since I was fourteen years old. I've been a software engineer/sysadmin semi-professionally since I was sixteen. I've had ubiquitous access to the internet in my pocket at all times starting from my eighteenth birthday. I started working fulltime in the tech industry when I was twenty years old. I’m now twenty-four.

Communicating online is a skill I grew up with and am natively fluent in (analogous to learning a native language by being immersed in it early). And I'm on the older edge of Internet Natives. My fiancee Elly is two years younger than me and has been using IRC as her primary medium of communication since she was twelve. Her friends are primarily people she's met online and has no intent to meet in person. She has a completely different persona she exposes to each distinct audience. She believes that creating a new identity should be as simple as creating a new GPG key, and that it should be possible for people to have completely different identities that accumulate and lose reputation independently.

I am concerned by what I'm starting to perceive as a divide between Internet Natives and the older generation of Digital Founders over what constitute acceptable standards for self-expression online. The older Digital Founders appear to be imposing their own standards and expectations (which are entirely valid for them and served useful purposes during the creation of the Internet) upon Internet Natives without realizing that Internet Natives do not necessarily need or want these standards. Unfortunately, Internet Natives are not yet old enough to have influence over the institutional resources of large companies. Most computer scientists my age graduated from college at most two years ago, and are still in entry-level positions rather than having the ability to lead large projects to innovate upon and improve the infrastructure we use to communicate, socialize, and interact. This infrastructure is key to our culture, and ultimately we’d like to take it into our own hands rather than have our digital parents telling us “no, you can’t do that.”

I think that free speech online is a key value. One of my primary forms of communication (and perhaps Elly's native method of communication) is online, so censoring our ability to do so feels like squelching our ability to explore ideas, think, and freely interact with our friends. We view such restrictions as quaint and obstacles to be worked around. We don’t care what handle someone uses, especially since we’re likely never going to meet them in meatspace. If we have a problem with content, we will simply choose to walk away by browsing away, blocking, or muting rather than ask a service provider to censor it from everyone, including people that are not offended by that content. If it’s especially bad, we will tell our friends who share our views that they may want to preemptively block or avoid.

I believe that technology is a tool that can be used for good or bad and that it is fundamentally wrong to require evil bits be set or omniscience protocols be applied to deal with authors who might use a new platform for something other people might find objectionable. Obviously, I personally object to actions that cause others harm such as hate speech, inciting violence, and child exploitation. However, we've already had these arguments around banning PGP, banning Tor, etc. because they might be used for evil. It just doesn't work, and the consequence of being draconian results in squelching free expression and throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Building products for Digital Founders and Digital Immigrants that impose mandatory rules to replicate “real life” is a very different problem than building products for Internet Natives, who find “real life” irrelevant. The more that I see attempts by Digital Founders to create products that are better for the cases they deeply understand, the more I worry that they are missing the point as far as Internet Natives are concerned. While I sincerely hope that Digital Founders will choose to design technology for Internet Natives, the point may become moot soon as more Internet Natives come of age.

Our future is here, and we Internet Natives are poised to define our own path. We will make use of the technology available today if it suits our needs, or create our own if we have to. Will you join us in building the future?
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