Douglas Rushkoff: Does Social Media Empower or Exploit?
Generation Like correspondent Douglas Rushkoff is the author, most recently, of Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, as well a dozen other books on media, technology and culture. He was correspondent on three previous FRONTLINE films, The Merchants of Cool (2001), The Persuaders (2004), and Digital Nation (2010). Follow him on Twitter @Rushkoff.
In the lead-up to Generation Like, FRONTLINE has been asking questions about social media on social media. As I wade through the many responses, I am reminded of my own questions about these platforms when I began making this documentary.
Like me, many of you are thrilled by the opportunity for connection and self-expression that social media offer.
But many of you also share a sense of skepticism about what it is that social media — and the companies behind them — ask from us in return.
We all know this has something to do with our data. We create consumer profiles for the unseen companies on the other side of the screen, and enter into a relationship with them that isn’t entirely clear.
“Who is doing what for whom, and to what end?”
The need to understand this better — and what it means for the young people using this stuff — is what set us on our journey to explore the relationship of teens to the marketers behind social media: Who is doing what for whom, and to what end?
What we learned surprised me. We didn’t find a generation of rebellious teens, struggling to evade the ever-present pull of marketing. We found quite the opposite: a generation of teens looking for ways to participate in the process. The efforts of a snack food or soft drink company to win “likes” and “follows” isn’t seen as something to avoid or critique, but rather a self-promotional opportunity gain more likes for themselves.
In fact, the more kids participate, the more they appear to absorb and express the values and agendas of the marketers. After all, the key to success in music or art or even writing these days is to bring a social media fan base along with you. Likes and views can be a ticket to fame, a path to a career or even way out of poverty.
But to win such large audiences, many teens end up diverging from whatever it was they set out to share. After all, singing and skateboard tricks get less attention than sexy photos and “#EpicFails.” Some teens even learn from the big boys, and employ advanced social media marketing techniques in their own YouTube shows and Instagram feeds.
Making this movie, I realized teens are really no longer really separated from us.
The game of likes in which our teens are immersed is one that affects us all — not just as parents, but as networkers on LinkedIn and job seekers on Monster.com.
Jack Herrington Facebook keeps me connected with my friends and family. But it also gives me a place where I can brag, or post things I care about, and try and get a lot of likes.
February 4 at 5:54pm
The truth is, we grown-ups are just as likely to participate in social media in hope of gaining some points, without fully reckoning with what those points may really cost.
We all have something to learn from Generation Like.
Casey Cep: Generation Just Like Us
Casey Cep has written for The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New York Times and The New Republic, among other publications. She recently wrote an essay “In Praise of Selfies.” Follow her on Twitter @cncep.
Social media is new, but what it represents is old.
Don’t forget that before you could like a band on Facebook, you could request their music videos on MTV or their latest single on the radio. Long before you could retweet your favorite actor on Twitter you could join her fan club through the mail. Decades before brands targeted teens on social media, they were trying to find them on cereal boxes and in comic books.
Culture has always been a tangled web of authenticity and exploitation. One commentor said:
But haven’t we always been? Today’s teens might be eating a Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Taco from Taco Bell because @tyleroakley told them to, but teens of yesteryear wore Nikes because Michael Jordan did, drank Pepsi because it’s what quenched James Dean’s thirst, and ate Wheaties because Shirley Temple appeared on the boxes.
“When we think about how social media affects our lives, we have to recognize how it reproduces what already existed in the world.”
What was Beatlemania if not a well-coordinated media blitz that convinced fans to buy LPs, hound disc jockeys around the country, fill stadiums and theaters, plaster their walls and lockers with pictures and posters, watch live performances on television, and then acquire whatever other merchandise was emblazoned with the band’s logo?
Social media didn’t invent the interaction between brands and consumers, but it has made it feel more exhausting. You can hear that fatigue in the comments like these:
You could turn off the radio or disconnect the television, but social media is portable: It’s on the laptops we carry in backpacks and the smartphones we store in our purses. If we let it, then social media can interrupt our every minute: pushing alerts, vibrating announcements, sounding alarms.
For those of us who aren’t digital natives, that relentlessness is overwhelming, perhaps even a little terrifying. But for Generation Like, indigenous to the web, there’s never really been a division between offline and online.
We seem to worry most about socializing in these virtual spaces.
Joseph Espinosa They are confusing popularity with care or love. Everyone wants to be liked but liked is not the same as loved.
February 14 at 12:47am
Richard Henson It's a blessing and a curse. A blessing because I'm getting back in contact with friends in my life. It's a curse because some folks find it a platform for their hatriotism.
February 9 at 2:05pm
When we think about how social media affects our lives, we have to recognize how it reproduces what already existed in the world. Facebook didn’t give rise to bullying or social alienation; they were always there on the schoolyard and in the cafeteria. There were celebrities long before the number of Twitter followers quantified their popularity. The gulf between poverty and opulence exists whether or not it’s given a fancy filter on Instagram.
It’s also useful to recognize how social media has served as a surrogate for traditional social spaces that have been unavailable to Generation Like. Teens loiter on Twitter because we’ve criminalized loitering on street corners and in parking lots. They talk books on Goodreads because we’ve let local bookstores and libraries close or restrict hours. They talk movies on Facebook because video rental stores, drive-ins, and movie theaters have either shut down or priced them out. They interact with musicians and performers on YouTube because we’ve closed dancehalls and restricted their access to clubs.
Social media, like any form of technology, is what we make of it. For every @iansomerhalder who is leveraging his millions of fans for product endorsements, there’s a student walkout organized on Twitter like that at Eastside Catholic High School when the Archdiocese of Seattle fired an administrator for marrying another man. For every Facebook user who spends hours every day participating in the “grassroots” promotion of The Hunger Games, there’s another calling attention to racial discrimination or sexist advertising.
Our online lives will always mirror our lives offline: a messy blend of seriousness and frivolity, charity and self-promotion, entertainment and activism, self and society. One user’s engagement with a brand or celebrity may seem like corporate manipulation to another. Product endorsements are the measure of success for some, but selling out for others. Targeted advertisements are likely anathema to those who value privacy, but bliss to those who yearn to see their lifestyle acknowledged or validated by others. Social media isn’t the source of these contests, only the latest arena for the conflict, just as Generation Like isn’t the first to forge their identities in a consumerist society, only the first to do it on social media.
Leah Reich: Social Media As Lifeline
Trained as sociologist and ethnographer, Leah Reich writes about the intersection between culture, relationships and technology. She has written for The Atlantic, The Awl and Medium, where she recently published an essay on selfies. You can follow her on Twitter at @ohheygreat.
We hear a lot about social media’s ability to connect us with brands. Generation Like is full of examples of how brands are influencing teens, and vice versa. But just because brands get value out of social media doesn’t mean that’s what social media’s value is.
What social media is actually good at is connecting us with each other. With people.
As I read through the responses to FRONTLINE, this comment jumped out at me:
Beth Jones Facebook showed me that I am not so different from other people as I thought. For an introvert who has trouble socializing in person, this is perfect. It connects me to others.
February 4 at 5:31pm
Beth makes a critical and easily dismissed point – social media can be a lifeline for people who have a tough time connecting offline, for any number of reasons.
It’s easy to dismiss this, especially if you speak up easily, don’t often get ignored, aren’t bothered by pesky social anxieties, and don’t have the remnants of centuries of systemic oppression weaseling their way into average, everyday interactions
But what about the rest of us?
Based on a daily, non-scientific scan of what I see on Twitter, it can be a lifeline of connection for a lot of people: minorities, women, people in the LGBT community, people who are differently abled, people with mental illness, any intersection of the above.
And even for teenagers.
“Social media can be a lifeline for people who have a tough time connecting offline…”
It’s funny to think about that, because we’ve been such a teen-focused society for so many years now. We are obsessed with teenagers, and imagine them as having more connections than they can handle. But that’s the point: How much of a voice do you have if you’re the object of a society’s fetish, irritation, anger, obsession?
Rookie Magazine is a great example of how the Internet can help teens. Founded by Tavi Gevinson when she was 15 years old, Rookie could have gone in any direction. But while it does feature writing by adults, men and women alike, Rookie is very much by and for teenage girls to create and see connections, to feel less alone and weird about things, to make their own statements and to feel supported in doing so. In a world in which parents of teenage girls are terrified, and often rightly so, about the dangers that lurk online, something like Rookie provides a counterbalance.
Or think of LGBT teens. Online outreach can be vital and powerful lifelines for those with few resources or who have no one to turn to in person. Two immediate and recent examples: the powerful tweets and images surrounding Michael Sam’s coming out and Ellen Page’s speech at HRC’s Time To Thrive Conference.
Sure, likes might attract brands, but for a teen who is terrified of being disliked or worse for who he or she is, imagine what it might mean see thousands of retweets and likes on a tweet or Instagram image that says “You are like me. And we can do this.”