Mem­o­ries not just of the Stasi mute their en­thu­si­asm for liv­ing their lives on­line


On the maps chart­ing how Sil­i­con Val­ley’s ten­drils of power have spread around the planet, one re­cal­ci­trant coun­try stands out like As­terix’s vil­lage in the land­scape of Ro­man Gaul.

Ger­many is the de­vel­oped world’s last re­doubt of re­sis­tance to so­cial me­dia. It is among a pre­cious hand­ful of rich coun­tries whose peo­ple are more likely to buy a news­pa­per than fol­low cur­rent af­fairs on Twit­ter or Face­book. Scarcely two out of five Ger­mans have a so­cial net­work ac­count, com­pared with two out of three peo­ple in Aus­tralia, Bri­tain and the US. It is not that they don’t like the in­ter­net: more than 90 per cent of them are on­line, and they spend just as much time watch­ing videos of skate­board­ing pugs or brows­ing for re­main­dered shoes as their Euro­pean neigh­bours. It is more that they are specif­i­cally re­luc­tant to hawk out their lives for pub­lic con­sump­tion. My Ger­man friends’ Face­book ac­counts are like a fleet of dig­i­tal Mary Ce­lestes. There might be a pro­file pic­ture taken on a hol­i­day in Sri Lanka six years ago and the odd sta­tus up­date wish­ing the world a happy new year, but that is more or less that.

The coun­try’s broader so­cial net­work­ing cul­ture is un­usu­ally stunted. A few dozen “in­flu­encers” — in­clud­ing Adri­enne Koleszar, a blonde, gym-honed 34-year-old from Dres­den who is feted by the tabloids as “Ger­many’s most gor­geous po­lice­woman” — are for­tu­nate enough to scrape a liv­ing to­gether from their YouTube or In­sta­gram ac­counts, but they are very much in the mi­nor­ity.

The Ger­man Twit­ter­sphere is a niche habi­tat dom­i­nated by strange ben­thic fauna such as po­lit­i­cal geeks, jour­nal­ists, and rightwing ob­ses­sives.

Peter Man­nion, a fic­tional Tory MP in the British tele­vi­sion po­lit­i­cal satire The Thick of It, has three times as many fol­low­ers as the real-life Ger­man In­te­rior Min­is­ter. An­gela Merkel does not even have a pres­ence. “If you look at how fre­quently Euro­peans use so­cial net­works, out of all 28 EU mem­ber states, the Ger­mans are truly bot­tom of the pile,” says Sa- bine Trepte, me­dia psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Stuttgart’s Ho­hen­heim Univer­sity. “Only a third of Ger­mans look at Face­book on a daily ba­sis,” she notes, com­pared to al­most twice as many in­ter­net users else­where.

I used to have a small menagerie of pet the­o­ries on this sub­ject. One: Ger­mans pride them­selves on their lack of small talk, which rules out pretty much 85 per cent of so­cial me­dia in­terac- tions. Two: big tech has built a busi­ness model the size of the Nor­we­gian econ­omy on Andy Warhol’s in­sight that ev­ery­one will be fa­mous for 15 min­utes. Most peo­ple seem per­fectly con­tent to sac­ri­fice their pri­vacy in or­der to get a bit of at­ten­tion. But per­haps the Ger­mans are sim­ply not that both­ered. Three: maybe they just don’t care for be­ing bossed around by evan­gel­i­cal Amer­i­cans with big ideas.

Over din­ner a cou­ple of months ago, though, a Ger­man friend po­litely dis­missed all this fan­ci­ful spec­u­la­tion. “Erm, I don’t think so,” she said. “It’s ac­tu­ally be­cause of the Stasi.”

It was less than three decades ago that half the coun­try was in the grip of a to­tal­i­tar­ian sur­veil­lance state that main­tained an in­for­mant for ev­ery seven or­di­nary peo­ple. The roots of Ger­many’s itchy anx­i­ety about be­ing watched run deeper than that, though. Be­fore the Stasi, there was the Gestapo. And even be­fore the Gestapo, the Prus­sians rid­dled Ber­lin with a for­mi­da­ble net­work of se­cret po­lice in the early 19th cen­tury.

“Per­haps it is really down to our past,” Trepte says. “The Ger- man fear of sur­veil­lance is deeply an­chored in Ger­man his­tory and in many fam­i­lies’ sense of iden­tity. You have to bear in mind that our moth­ers and fa­thers can still re­call how they or other fam­i­lies were snooped on and per­se­cuted. It was not all that long ago. First came the Nazis, then the Stasi. At the very least, the Ger­mans are cau­tious and crit­i­cal.”

These an­cient psy­cho­log­i­cal scars have far-reach­ing con­se­quences in the 21st cen­tury. Ger­many’s pri­vacy laws are among the strictest in the world.

With Ber­lin’s bless­ing, the EU’s com­pe­ti­tion com­mis­sioner has be­come the only heavy­weight reg­u­la­tor to take on Sil­i­con Val­ley in earnest, im­pos­ing fines run­ning to hun­dreds of mil­lions of eu­ros on pre­vi­ously un­touch­able com­pa­nies such as Face­book, Google and Ap­ple.

A year ago, Ger­many’s in­grained wari­ness of so­cial me­dia might have seemed fusty and para­noid. But now, as the world wakes up to the many ways in which big tech has abused its power, it is start­ing to look pre­scient.

These an­cient psy­cho­log­i­cal scars have far-reach­ing con­se­quences in the 21st cen­tury

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