Thanks to the proliferation of social media platforms, Prince William’s and the Duchess of Cambridge’s first child will be the most tweeted-about, blogged-about and photographed royal baby in history. Then, thanks to the pervasiveness of the digital trail we leave behind as we make our way around the Web, this royal baby will grow up to be the first king or queen born into the Internet age.
For an entire society based upon class and privilege, this is actually a very radical proposition. The democratizing force of the Internet has the power to open a very large window to the public on every action and every activity of the newest royal — less a concern now than when the future King or Queen begins to enter adulthood. The reach of the Internet into every facet of our lives means that the likelihood of a Prince Harry in Vegas problem increases exponentially.
The options for the royal family are to pull the privacy curtain even closer around them, or to change their behaviors to reflect the realities of the digital age. Today, we fully expect people to be on social media, communicating their every idea and whim with the world — including what they’ve had for lunch. Even the Pope has a Twitter handle, using social media as a new platform for sharing the Bible in short missives of 140 characters or less. In response to this relentless digital momentum, it’s likely the royal baby may have no choice other than to adopt the same social media platforms as the working class blokes of London, opening up his or her private life for scrutiny.
And, as the future King or Queen embraces these new digital behaviors, it will change the underlying societal norms. If you start with a Downton Abbey view of the world, how many of the social norms of British society - class distinctions, aristocratic privilege, etc. - would stand up under a lifetime’s worth of Web-enabled scrutiny? Too much pomp and circumstance, too much aristocratic privilege — and you quickly become a modern day jester — fodder for hilarious viral videos.
The good news is that the royal baby will grow up in a world where people will not have to worry about obsessively covering up their digital trails, afraid that any small electronic bread crumb might spill into the public domain. When Prince Harry behaves like a Rich Kid of Instagram today, it’s deeply embarrassing for the crown. Twenty years from now, it’s hard to believe it will even matter. We will expect all of our leaders to have had these moments of indiscretion, and we may even wonder if their Facebook timeline has been scrubbed free of them.
However, let’s take it one step further, beyond social norms. How well do some of the fundamental concepts that underpin the centuries-old monarchy hold up under the intense microscope of the Internet? Already, the British monarchy is in the process of revamping the laws governing succession to the throne, so the new royal will be the third in line for the crown, regardless of gender. In a society being shaped by Big Data, the idea that a woman would be passed over for a position simply because she was a woman is already, by and large, anathema.
In a world where our lives are open to the public for inspection, we commonly equate Big Data with Big Brother. But, there is another side to the story, as the British monarchy is about to find out. Big Data also has the power to shift social norms and perhaps even transform society by sweeping away all the anachronisms of the analog era, such as sexism and class distinctions, and replace them with something entirely new.
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