Yeah, I am naked on the Internet,” says Kitty Ostapowicz, laughing. “But I’ve always said I wouldn’t ever put up anything I wouldn’t want my mother to see.”

She hands me a Bud Lite. Kitty, 26, is a bartender at Kabin in the East Village, and she is frankly adorable, with bright-red hair, a button nose, and pretty features. She knows it, too: Kitty tells me that she used to participate in “ratings communities,” like “nonuglies,” where people would post photos to be judged by strangers. She has a MySpace page and a Livejournal. And she tells me that the Internet brought her to New York, when a friend she met in a chat room introduced her to his Website, which linked to his friends, one of whom was a photographer. Kitty posed for that photographer in Buffalo, where she grew up, then followed him to New York. “Pretty much just wanted a change,” she says. “A drastic, drastic change.”

Clay Shirky, a 42-year-old professor of new media at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, who has studied these phenomena since 1993, has a theory about that response. “Whenever young people are allowed to indulge in something old people are not allowed to, it makes us bitter. What did we have? The mall and the parking lot of the 7-Eleven? It sucked to grow up when we did! And we’re mad about it now.” People are always eager to believe that their behavior is a matter of morality, not chronology, Shirky argues. “You didn’t behave like that because nobody gave you the option.”

It’s hard to pinpoint when the change began. Was it 1992, the first season of The Real World? (Or maybe the third season, when cast members began to play to the cameras? Or the seventh, at which point the seven strangers were so media-savvy there was little difference between their being totally self-conscious and utterly unself-conscious?) Or you could peg the true beginning as that primal national drama of the Paris Hilton sex tape, those strange weeks in 2004 when what initially struck me as a genuine and indelible humiliation—the kind of thing that lost former Miss America Vanessa Williams her crown twenty years earlier—transformed, in a matter of days, from a shocker into no big deal, and then into just another piece of publicity, and then into a kind of power.

The biggest issue of living in public, of course, is simply that when people see you, they judge you. It’s no wonder Paris Hilton has become a peculiarly contemporary role model, blurring as she does the distinction between exposing oneself and being exposed, mortifying details spilling from her at regular intervals like hard candy from a piñata. She may not be likable, but she offers a perverse blueprint for surviving scandal: Just keep walking through those flames until you find a way to take them as a compliment.

This does not mean, as many an apocalyptic op-ed has suggested, that young people have no sense of shame. There’s a difference between being able to absorb embarrassment and not feeling it. But we live in a time in which humiliation and fame are not such easily distinguished quantities. And this generation seems to have a high tolerance for what used to be personal information splashed in the public square.

Jakob Lodwick seems like he shouldn’t be that kind of idealist. He’s Caitlin Oppermann’s friend, the co-founder of Vimeo and a co-creator of the raunchy Lodwick originated a popular feature in which college girls post topless photos; one of his first online memories was finding Susie’s videos and thinking she seemed like the ideal girlfriend. But at 25, Lodwick has become rather sweetly enamored of the uses of video for things other than sex. His first viral breakthrough was a special-effects clip in which he runs into the street and appears to lie down in front of a moving bus—a convincing enough stunt that MSNBC, with classic older-generation cluelessness, used it to illustrate a segment about kids doing dangerous things on the Internet.

This is Jakob’s vision: a place where topless photos are no big deal—but also where everyone can be known, simply by making him- or herself a bit vulnerable. Still, even for someone like me who is struggling to embrace the online world, Lodwick’s vision can seem so utopian it tilts into the impossible. “I think we’re gradually moving away from the age of investing in something negative,” he muses about the crueler side of online culture. “For me, a fundamental principle is that if you like something, you should show your love for it; if you don’t like it, ignore it, don’t waste your time.” Before that great transition, some Susies will get crushed in the gears of change. But soon, he predicts, online worlds will become more like real life: Reputation will be the rule of law. People will be ashamed if they act badly, because they’ll be doing so in front of all 3,000 of their friends. “If it works in real life, why wouldn’t it work online?”

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