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The Baltimore Sun

Prediction: The new, hot thing in our future will be anonymity.

To be unfamous.

To be Googled - and to not be there. No link. No Wiki. No tube, space or face. No nothing.

It's too late for most adults - anyone with a job, a driver's license or a signature on a public document. But in a world where anyone can be known, what could be cooler than not being known? In a celebrity-saturated culture, what could be hotter than not being a celebrity?

You may have noticed that celebrity ain't what it used to be. Where there was once hard work and accomplishment behind one's being awarded celebrity status, today one need only wake up, plug in the video cam and hit a button. Voil?! Insta-fame.

Time was, one had to do something to earn fame. Write a best-seller; break a world record; find a cure.

Now, one can be famous for being famous. Think Paris Hilton, the most Googled person of 2006.

Thanks to people such as Ms. Hilton, being anonymous is not, alas, high on most people's agendas, especially among the twentysomething crowd, the so-called millennial generation.

Recently, the Pew Research Center polled 18- to 25-year-olds about their generation's top life goals. Of 579 interviewed by telephone, 81 percent said getting rich is their generation's most or second-most important goal, while 51 percent said being famous was most important.

In USA Today, young people elaborated on those findings, saying they were influenced by the celebrity lifestyles they witness through the media.

While some said they weren't seeking fame so much as distinction, others see celebrity as an end in itself. Said David Morrison of the research firm Twentysomething Inc.: "We're seeing the common person become famous for being themselves."

Thanks to Web phenomena such as YouTube, MySpace and Facebook, anyone can be her very own self.

On YouTube, millions post everything from Saddam Hussein's execution to two guys being funny in a dorm room. In some cases, really funny.

Millions of others keep up with friends and make new ones on Facebook and MySpace, where they post their biographies - and photographs many will live to regret. Both sites require membership to enter and permission from owners to access personal areas. That seems civilized enough, even though recent lawsuits accusing MySpace's parent company, News Corp., of negligence related to adults' stalking underage users suggest that privacy is never absolute.

Other new Internet developments are less respectful of ownership. With the advent of cell phone cameras and video, anyone can be made involuntarily famous. The option of being unknown is practically nil, while privacy may be unattainable.

In our brave new world, Big Brother isn't just watching; he's snooping.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on new snoop sites where people can anonymously post reports about other people's foibles. Sites offer postings of people who don't clean up after Rover, who drive badly, who drop cigarette butts on the ground, who talk too loudly on their cell phones, and who steal others' newspapers.

Shaming is back, say observers of the trend. And while a little shame might be helpful in curbing boorishness, snooping is another level of rude behavior. In democratizing technology, we've also empowered the tiny-minded and the underemployed. Everyone's a potential member of the paparazzi.

Do we really want to live in a world populated by nosy neighbors with nothing better to do? Or who harbor malice toward another? Will cell stalking become the latest misdemeanor?

Anonymity, meanwhile, belongs only to the snoops and spies, who can blog someone's overheard telephone conversation or capture a couple's quarrel and post it for millions to see. No name, no blame. Only shame for the victims of tattletales run amok.

On the plus side, video technology has the potential to effect positive social change. In Los Angeles, Cop Watch solicits pictures of people being abused by the police. In Iraq, citizens are reporting events that otherwise might go unrecorded.

But in the personal realm, the bad may outweigh the good until we find a balance between what we can do and what we should do. In the interim, you should assume that wherever you are, whatever you're doing, someone is watching through a lens darkly.

Here's lookin' at you, babe.

Kathleen Parker's syndicated column appears Mondays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail address is kparker@kparker.com.

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