danah boyd: The Kids Are All Right


February 18, 2014

danah boyd is a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, and a research assistant professor in media, culture and communication at New York University. She told FRONTLINE that kids today aren’t much different than they were decades ago; it’s the world around them that’s changed. “Young people are participating in the attention economy just like adults are. They’re part of it; they’re growing up with it; it’s what they see all around them,” she said. This is the edited transcript of that interview, conducted on June 20, 2013.

What’s the difference, if any, in the way teens are observed and marketed to now than 15, 20 years ago?

… I was one of the first groups of teens that grew up online. What that meant is that I was part of the group of young people that were interacting with the Internet when it was primarily self-identified as freaks, geeks and queers. We were social outcasts of every form, and we were online in many ways to escape the kinds of dynamics that we saw in everyday life.

With the rise of social media, what we’ve seen is that the online environment has become in many ways a mainstream environment, and with that has come a whole variety of different kinds of practices and assumptions, one of which is that it is a place where we assume that young people should be marketed to.

The major social medias today are extremely mainstream, and they’re built by private entities with a commercial interest. The rise of Web 2.0 is very much an important parcel with the idea of advertising culture as a way to monetize the existing systems out there. The young people, in going to a place where they just want to hang out and be socializing with their friends, are in many ways part of a commercial ecosystem.

Now, that is not unlike previous commercial ecosystems in that when I was a teenager, we spent all of our time hanging out at the mall. We were of course surrounded by commercial enterprises, but they just saw us as a cluster of kids, not as individual children that have specific interests.

What we see now is that the commercial spaces aren’t just about youth as a whole, but [about] youth as a set of discrete individuals, some of which have particular interests, all of which can be targeted for different kinds of advertising. …

When I was kid, I would put up posters in my bedroom as a way of developing an identity over time. Is the way young people … develop a sense of identity, … is that kind of being interfered with?

The way that young people’s identity works is in many ways connected to all the cultural artifacts that are around them. Whether it was cutting out an icon of a teen boy band from a magazine and posting it on your wall, or whether it’s a matter of taking those same images, grabbing them from Google Images and posting them on your Facebook, we see the same kinds of practices of using what cultural artifacts are around.

Now, a lot of this has to do with celebrity; a lot of this has to do with music and sports culture. It has to do with the ideas of what constitutes taste and fashion. So we start to see these as highly branded, highly commercial moments, where we see the media industries in particular trying to feed young people different kinds of icons that they can engage with as part of their identity production.

This varies tremendously over different groups of young people. What you tend to see is that kids from more working-class, low-income backgrounds are much more engaged with celebrities as icons of possibility than middle- or upper-class youth.

Now, that doesn’t mean that it’s so clean. Icons like Justin Bieber are primarily a middle-upper-class tween phenomenon. But you see these different types of inflections across all the different kinds of identity work that can go on.

Brands are a really funny one in that whole identity work. We’ve always seen fashion as being core to how you work out who you are. You wear particular icons, particular brands as a signal of status, and that is pretty longstanding at this point.

But now instead of actually having to wear those clothes, wear those markers, you actually see a lot of symbolic moves where you put those brands up. You use those; you’re friends with them on social media; you’re connected to them as icons.

Of course it’s a little messier than that, and one of the things I found really interesting in talking to young people was that they often felt that the companies behind social media were more interested in brands than they were interested in young people. I interview these young people who say, “Well, if I just put Nike into my status update, I think it will end up at the top of my friends’ list of updates, so I’ll just throw brands in there randomly.” And then you get this whole other thing going on where it’s both brands as identity work and brands as a way of manipulating the system.

Kids include names of brands in updates or tweets or whatever randomly in order for them to —

Young people often think they understand the algorithms that produce what ends up at the top of status updates. Who knows what’s actually up there? I can’t tell you what Facebook does, but young people believe that if they put in brands, their material will appear higher.

They do the same thing at Google whenever they’re using Gmail, where they’ll suddenly start sending friends messages putting in brand names in order to trigger advertisements, often as a joke.

For example, it’s really funny if you’re a teen boy to try to put things in that will trigger, say, Pampers. It’s not because you’re actually interested in Pampers as a brand, but making your friends see advertisements from Pampers is really, really funny.

“Kids are figuring out that advertisements are connected to these algorithms, and they’re playing with it … just to see the ways that they can mess with their friends.”

So kids are potentially hacking, or hopefully hacking, advertising algorithms as a means of communication.

Kids are figuring out that advertisements are connected to these algorithms, and they’re playing with it. They’re using them as a tool for play just to see the ways that they can mess with their friends. The details of which, how much they understand the algorithm, how accurate their perception is, could be completely off. But they just think it’s funny. It’s a way of punking your friends.

… The other difference between cutting something out and putting it on your wall, … as a kid [we were] not doing it to get likes, … but today you are.

You’re looking for validation. Validation takes on different forms in different kinds of environments. In everyday environments that are unmediated, validation takes on the form of looking at you and saying, “Hey, nice shirt,” or, “Ooh, cool wall!,” when you’re looking in somebody’s bedroom. This kind of recognition becomes very one-to-one.

What’s happened because of social media is that possibility of validation can be scaled. You get to actually get the attention of not just one or two people but actually of a bunch of people. And you also can find out that there are people within your community that are really interested in things you didn’t know about. …

Historically your tastes and your identity were only validated by your close peers. Now there’s the possibility of being recognized by a broader swath of other young people, other peers, other classmates, and I think that this ends up being a different kind of pivot, a way of getting to know people because of shared interests.

Now are they participating unwittingly in a kind of an economy of likes, and are [they] being used in ways that they’re not really aware of? They’re creating things and trying to get likes, and then they’re liking other things, and big-daddy company is looking at it all and using it?

Young people are participating in the attention economy just like adults are. They’re part of it; they’re growing up with it; it’s what they see all around them. They want attention, they want validation, and that’s actually not new. It’s just that the dynamics in which that plays out have been inflected differently.

Historically it was all about getting attention within your class, whether it was making snarky jokes that would upset the teacher but then it would get you some level of attention. Now the possible stage on which you can operate is much bigger.

At the same time, the ability to get attention in a place where there’s tons of information, when there are tons of people competing for attention, is also harder, so young people are trying to position themselves in relationship to it.

I think the best way to understand young people’s relationship to the attention economy is to realize that they’re doing it in a way where they’re trying to make sense of it as part of the public world in which they’re growing up.

We may like it, we may hate it, but the fact is it’s here, and young people are recognizing that’s part of the world around them and trying to deal with it. Some are opting out completely. They want nothing to do with this space. Others are diving right in, determined to get as much attention as possible.

Most teens are just finding a delicate balance. What’s the level of attention that they’re comfortable with? What makes them feel good? How do they get some sort of positive feedback? Who do they care about? Is it about their closest 10 friends, or is it about their community of about 50 to 60?

This is the irony of a lot of social media, is we pay attention to the kids that have millions of followers or are somehow extraordinarily visible, and we see them and we think that that’s become normative or that’s how things are going.

In many ways they’re not that different than the Disney starlets except for the fact that these teens are no longer vetted by agencies who say these are the kids we want to pay attention to. They can create those worlds on their own. But they’re by no means mainstream. Mainstream teens are really just hanging out with their friends, hanging out with their peers, trying to understand the world that they’re growing up with, and that world is highly mediated.

So you would think it’s not a fundamentally [different] dynamic than what was taking place more publicly or permanently.

I think that the underlying practices aren’t radically different. I think that they’re driven by the same motivations to achieve status, to achieve recognition, to figure out who you are, to figure out who you are as a part of a larger public.

I think that the technologies do inflect these, so it makes some of these things seem different. I also think that there is a variety of other dynamics at play that we have to recognize. Young people today face a lot more pressure.

The ability to actually have upward mobility today is so much more challenging than in previous generations. There’s a lot of stress; there’s a lot of pressure. Kids face that at home. Kids today have less mobility than they have historically.

If you look at studies that have looked at four different generations of young people, you find that four generations ago, you could roam wherever you wanted to, wherever you wanted to go out to. Three generations ago it was all about being home by dark. Two generations ago it was like, oh, you can go around your neighborhood. These days it’s all about being in sight of the home, and good luck getting out of the house, so the result of which is that the kinds of trouble that we may have had when we were running around with our friends is now taking place in a very traceable, very persistent environment. We have to recognize that that changes the dynamics.

The dynamics day-to-day are extremely traceable, are extremely recorded, and it’s often taken out of context. When we see something online, we think we understand it or we think that it’s relevant two years from now, and it’s not. This is where I see young people trying to deal with this in weird ways.

The issues of privacy come up over and over again. Young people are very attentive to people that hold power over them, immediate power over them, whether we’re talking parents, teachers, college admissions officers, these types of folks. And they’re thinking about how they’re going to be read.

So what are they doing? They’re spending a lot of time encoding the types of messages they’re putting out there. So rather than trying to hide access to content, they’re focusing on hiding access to meaning. As a result, we get these moments where people misunderstand what young people are doing.

So we have this ecosystem of big data where we think we can just mine all of the stuff that young people are doing and we’ll understand them. Much of it is completely misunderstood and completely inaccurate.

I guess the best example that I have from this, which is completely crass but it gives you some sense of it — I was on a panel one day. It was a marketing branding panel. I was on this panel, and this representative from Coca-Cola was very proudly talking about how they had so many friends on social media, they were the top hot thing, all of these young people were talking about them, and I literally burst out laughing.

And the moderator was like, “What do you find so funny?” And I was like: “I hate to say it, but I’ve seen how popular Coca-Cola has been with young people, and that’s not the Coke that they’re referring to. It’s become an in-joke reference to use this brand to refer to a very different coke, namely the white substance.”

So you have this odd moment where you think as a brand person that you understand what’s going on because you have numbers, and numbers must mean something. But in fact what we see is that young people are just trying to work with the tools that they have to hang out with their friends.

And sometimes their data [comes] through in ways that can be used; sometimes it’s completely inaccurate. But the funny thing is, it’s hard to tell, and that’s where this whole dynamic about dirty data comes into play. …

Frankly I haven’t found a lot of marketers who really know what they’re doing. They’re just using numbers that they see from the Internet to justify the things they’ve always been doing.

But they’re also using Facebook and Twitter and whatever to try to promote their movies. …

Marketers are going to use whatever they can get access to to try to reach out to their customers, and that means right now social media. But the irony of it all is that young people are pretty much tuning out a lot of it, just like they tune out other forms or advertising. Does some of it seep through? Of course, and we still know that hands down the thing that will get you to the movie is word of mouth.

But there’s no magic formula to word of mouth. There’s no way to guarantee how somebody’s going to start talking about it, how it will actually go within your network. And yet that still is the golden standard.

So we can do all of this more sophisticated way of broadcast messaging, but I’m not convinced it’s necessarily more effective. It’s just definitely more ever-present.

… Is there a way that a company decides, “Oh, we’re going to create this band? The Monkees got created. We understand television; we’re going to create a band and put it on a TV show and cross-market this thing.” What’s the Twitter, Facebook equivalent of that?

Welcome to Hannah Montana, right? This is where the same technique is being used in a new format with new kinds of dynamics.

Now, the funny thing about it is that even the people who create starlets are struggling with the fact that the starlets are not that controllable when the agencies don’t have complete control over what they say.

Take, for example, Demi Lovato. Disney was horrified when Demi started actually speaking out and talking about her own life on Twitter. They were just like, “No, don’t do it.” The fans of course loved it, even as they were watching her struggle with self-injury, mental health issues.

But the thing is that she became more real, but not in a controllable fashion, the result of which is that Disney now has a whole set of restrictions about when young people who are their starlets can speak out, what can they say.

And this is where we see this wonderful tension between control on the side of the brands and individual young people who are part of the star economy deciding that they actually have some agency, too.

“The Justin Bieber ecosystem is only one small part Justin Bieber. Huge chunks of it are teens really just hanging out with each other, finding out that … they have all these other things in common.”

So the individual young person is a fan of Justin Bieber, or this, that and the other, … and they start retweeting things by that group or tweeting things that they can note because they want to get followers themselves.

Of course. Celebrities want attention, right? They want authentic attention from their fans. They really want to be engaged with their fans, and the fans want to be engaged with celebrities. …

The other thing that goes on is that you have fans talking among fans, so the Justin Bieber ecosystem is only one small part Justin Bieber. Huge chunks of it are teens really just hanging out with each other, finding out that they’re part of the same culture, finding out not only that they’re really interested in Justin Bieber, but they have all these other things in common.

And that’s where you see celebrities as part of a broader ecosystem of culture. The way that culture’s produced, what’s recognized, what does taste look like, and young people as trying to figure out who they are in the world are deeply caring about taste. It gives them one way of positioning themselves in relationship to everybody else.

The fact of the popularity contest of kids is happening online with metrics and [in] public with potentially thousands of people, as opposed to the one that happened when I was a kid with 18 people in my junior high school class, does it create any fundamental difference?

I think the places where we see differences for young people are those who are seeking mass attention. So when we were growing up, it was really not possible to garner an audience that was extraordinarily large. You might have fantasies of being in your rock band and getting large audiences, but it was extraordinarily hard to do. Now if there’s a teenager who is seeking out that kind of mass attention, they make a song, they put it up on YouTube, they try to actually attract that attention, and they can.

But the majority of teens are not actually seeking mass attention. They’re seeing very local attention. They’re seeking validation and status within their peer group, so that really has not changed nearly as much as it has for those who are really seeking mass attention.

So the ones that are seeking mass attention go more the American Idol pathway … and votes through phones tied up in some weird democratic something or other that I can’t quite wrap my head around. …

This is the weird thing about the media ecosystem’s obsession with reality, right, where reality has nothing to do with reality. Reality is this whole move where we perform or produce the idea that you, too, can get access to this heightened level of attention.

And for those who are really seeking it, those who want to be famous, the possibilities of getting picked up because of what you put up on YouTube or because of being seen, so maybe you’ll get into the Jersey Shore, suddenly become highly desirable. Meanwhile you have a lot of other people who go, “Oh, I want nothing to do with any aspect of that.”

I think that what we’re seeing is very much a culture that is media-obsessed, media-produced, narrated through an industry that is trying to find a cheap way to make television entertainment for the masses through getting people into the front and the spotlight. And I think that there is an element to that that is extraordinarily gross. But I don’t know that it’s necessarily something that is youth-produced as much as it is [an] odd dynamic between the ideas of recognizing fame and seeing that the possibility of making people famous has a draw. It’s a new form of tabloid culture in many ways.

But it does create a type of wish-fulfillment thing. … I feel like an increasing number of people feel like they’re going to get noticed and be the next Justin Bieber.

This is the American obsession with meritocracy. The more we become obsessed with the individual and the individual pathways to success, the more we become convinced that the right combination of being in the right place and having the right talent will get you an entrance into the possibility.

Historically the idea was that you had to go to Los Angeles in order to be recognized, so you had kids growing up thinking that they could get to Hollywood, and that once they got to Hollywood, they would become big stars. Now the narrative is that you could be picked up anywhere. You just need to put yourself out there; you need to be seen.

And again, this plays into a very particular notion of celebrity culture that we very much manufactured, but it fits within the American model of the individual as the character of success. And I think one of the places that I see it and it becomes really disheartening is that there are very few other possibilities for upward mobility for a lot of young people, particularly marginalized young people.

College used to be a guaranteed pathway to the middle class. That’s increasingly not true. So if you’re already privileged, you already have a lot of economic access, you already have huge networks because of your parents, sure you’re going to get into college and you’re going to get a solid job and you’re going to be on path to being successful as an adult. But if you’re a working-class kid in this country, what are your possibilities and pathways to really having true success?

At the same time we keep selling billion-dollar companies or having narratives [of] people who suddenly become millionaires off of their bright idea or their sudden path into fame. Young people look at that and say, “I want that,” because you see fame and you see money as being freeing. And freedom and money have these dreamy notions to them that if you had either one of them, you wouldn’t have people telling you what to do. You wouldn’t have to actually go to school. You wouldn’t have to be so heavily restricted, so they seem so appealing.

So when young people see that and they become obsessed with the possibilities of fame and money, then what is the possibility toward it? It’s not necessarily about hard work or getting into college. Those are lost narratives. It’s now about the possibility of winning that lotto ticket.

“What we’ve seen is that the Internet has mirrored and magnified the good, bad and ugly of everyday life.”

… Is this notion that … young people were going to now participate actively in the participation of their culture, is that truth or a myth?

Technology doesn’t determine practice. It really is what people bring to technology that matters. To the degree that young people really want to participate in the creation of culture, they will use technology to do so. When they don’t care, they’ll just be a part of it as a participant.

… The early adopters of the Internet were so much more thinking about the ways that they could use this to do the things that weren’t possible in their everyday environment before the Internet. For most of the rest of young people who have gotten online since, they were just thinking about how they can extend what they were already doing.

I think that this is why we’ve come to this more oddly dystopic feeling now, is that it’s like we were all hoping that the Internet would open up possibilities, would create new formations of culture, that it would be magically better than the previous versions. In fact, what we’ve seen is that the Internet has mirrored and magnified the good, bad and ugly of everyday life, and we look at it and go, “Hmmm, it’s not all we had hoped it to be.” It’s not this utopian vision. It’s not this magical free-for-all that just makes everything OK.

I think this is one of the reasons that we saw so many of the 1990s utopian dreamers reach an existential crisis probably in the last five years and write much more dystopic messages, because the thing is what we see right now is that the Internet is mainstream, and the majority of the Internet takes with it the stuff that most of us were trying to escape. …

… Is there something that you would want young people to know about the relationship of the marketer to the culture that they’re in that you think they don’t already get?

What I want young people to do is to question everything. Question the underlying dynamics about every system that they’re a part of, who has power in this system and whether or not they’re trading off something that they can live with.

I think that it’s reasonable for young people to make trades in order to get access to something that really means something to them. And for young people a lot of that is about having a place to hang out with their friends, and they’re willing to trade a lot to do so.

But then you have to step back and say: “Is this OK? Am I OK with what I’m trading in order to get that?” And that’s where, for me, what I want young people to really be doing is thinking critically about the media that surrounds them, the culture that produced the values, the norms. Is that really what they want?

It’s a hard thing for me to watch young people engaging with a lot of crass media, because of course it’s entertaining and fun, but it actually removes us from a respect or dignity narrative of what humanity looks like, and I think that’s really, really costly.

So for me it’s not [enough] just to say, “Oh, my gosh, there’s a marketer behind the curtain.” It’s more a matter of saying, “Wow, it’s really not OK that meanness and cruelty for sport has become a form of entertainment in the public.” And I realize that I’m a part of this attention economy; that the hardest thing to do is to make a decision to not look.

That’s where it’s about recognizing that the decision to give attention to something is what allows it to continue, what allows it to be recognized, what allows it to be circulated. And it becomes this really hard challenge of not being drawn into the stuff that is salacious, not being drawn into the stuff that is there to capture your attention. …

We’re actually living in an attention economy, and in order to be powerful in an attention economy, you have to realize that your attention matters, where you give your attention has consequences.

So if you give your attention to marketing, that has consequences. If you give your attention to fear, that has consequences. If you give your attention to celebrity, that has consequences. Be aware of where you give your attention in an attention economy.

In an attention economy, how is one attention monetized? So if the kids are watching a salacious YouTube video versus one that recognizes human dignity, who is that harming? How is that making more?

It’s not necessarily who is making more; it’s about the ways in which it’s setting emotion norms and assumptions. Everything that we pay attention to and that we share with the people around us says what the norms are in our society. So when you’re paying attention to something and you like it and you share it, it becomes something that is part of the circulation, becomes what’s part of normal culture. Is that OK?

And of course we see money being attached to that. We see people advertising against the things that have gotten the most attention. But it’s not just money. It’s also what affects you and the world around you, what you then have to deal with.

For example, if meanness and cruelty become part of everyday life, you end up with this dynamic where it comes back to you, where it becomes normal to be cruel in the classroom. … You’ve normalized this. …

And it ends up affecting everybody there with serious repercussions — emotional repercussions, success repercussions, self-worth repercussions. So you just can’t think about this as just being about the money and who wins monetarily off of this, but how these things all start to get normalized within society.

The Hunger Games has become a really central metaphor for me in all of this. Basically how do we get these teams, for sport and for the social good, whatever it is, to fight each other to the death on TV? It’s just interesting that that metaphor, that story has become so central.

The Hunger Games to me is hysterical because it’s such a satirical critique of how much the attention economy has come into play in everyday life and how young people, their individual self-worth, their individual identities no longer matter. It’s all about what can be entertainment for in many ways adults.

And this is why it’s so challenging. Adults are very hypocritical with their attitudes toward young people. They’re afraid of them; they’re afraid for them. They sit there, and they don’t want them to take risks because of safety concerns, and yet they want to send them off to war to take risks for us as a country. They don’t want them to do something that’s stupid because it might hurt their long-term futures, and they want them to be the backbone of the experimental economy by creating new businesses.

So we have these very conflicting narratives of what we think that young people should or shouldn’t be doing. And by and large, they’re just looking there and saying: “Hey, I’m just trying to get by. I’m trying to figure this out.” …

This goes back to your question of what I hope for young people. My hope for young people is not that they sort of tear it apart and say, “Oh, my gosh, it’s commercial.” Of course it’s commercial. We live in a commercial society. But instead that they tear back and say: “What can we do to change this? What do we like? What don’t we like? What are we willing to accept? What aren’t we willing to accept? And how do we make the changes we want to see in the society we want to live in?” Those are hard, lofty questions, but they require a level of activism, a level of engagement, a level of media literacy that we just don’t have today.

It seems to me the ones that become somewhat media-literate are the ones who end up becoming programmers. And then the sweet little Snapchat kids make a program where your face can dissolve, and they go on [The Colbert Report], and they’re the new rock stars in some way.

The community that I’m most fascinated by is in some ways the underbelly of the Internet, and that’s 4chan. And the reason why 4chan is interesting to me is because this is a community that in some way has the closest ethos to the hacker culture that I grew up with in the 1990s, except that instead of trying to hack the security economy, they’re actually trying to hack the attention economy. They’re trying to call into question what gets attention, by whom and for what purposes.

For example, every year Time magazine runs a top 100 most important [influential] people in the world, and it’s supposed to be voted on by the public. So a whole group of young people from 4chan decided, “No, no, no, we’re going to totally mess with this,: and they decided that they were going to go and they were going to put “moot” [Christopher Poole], who’s the founder for 4chan, to be at the top of this.

And the result of this was Time magazine was like, “You stupid kids, we are smarter than you; we can make this work.” And they thought that they had solved the problem, that they had minimized the hacking. Sure enough, when Time magazine printed the list, if you looked at the first initial of every name down the 100 list, the message was “Marblecake, also the game,” which is a total in joke within 4chan.

And it was a way of 4chan saying this is not democratic, this is not meritocratic. This is entirely made up for a magazine to capture attention to sell magazine subscriptions, to sell actual artifacts, and we’re going to mess with it.

This is this dynamic that we see over and over again with young people who are participating on the edges of the Internet. In many ways, the same outcast culture that we once knew in the 1990s has come back to play with the kinds of media economies that have become so part and parcel to the norms of society today.

That’s interesting that there is an effective counterculture essentially, that it hasn’t been obliterated, but it’s just sort of outlaw and anonymous.

That’s what’s so funny about the Internet, because the Internet used to be dominated by the outcasts and the outlaws. It’s no longer just the terrain of the outcasts and the outlaws, but they’re still there, and they’re still causing trouble. And it’s really exciting to see those young activists trying to challenge things that are around them. But I think a lot of it requires understanding critically what’s going on in this ecosystem. …

Murray Milner Jr. wrote about how the one thing that young people have control over is status. They don’t have control over where they go to school, what classes they take, where they sleep at night, but they have control over who gets popularity and who gets attention within their peer group. And it becomes the thing that they become obsessed with because it’s the one thing that they have control over.

To the degree that we minimize the opportunity for young people to have agency, to have control over their lives, we see it playing out over things like status, over things like attention, over things like likes. If we’re concerned about the kinds of likes and attention and validation that we’re playing into, we need to actually start giving young people more control over their lives.

… Of course the irony is that Milner was writing I think in the ’80s. It’s just as relevant today. It’s just that the contours have changed. …

… There’s this running news story now that kids, teens especially, are leaving Facebook in order to go onto Twitter and Snapchat now, and I guess the running hypothesis is they’re doing it because of the persistence of Facebook data. Do you think it’s that, or do you think it’s what’s hip and what’s not?

Teens want a space of their own, and it’s not actually that much fun to hang out with your mom and your aunt and your kid sister. That’s awkward. So what we see is that for the longest time it was all about consolidation; it was all about everybody going to one genre of social media or one space of social media, and for that matter it was really about Facebook.

And now we’re seeing young people say, “Hey, I actually want to hang out with different friends in different spaces,” so rather than there being one space that’s all about everything, it’s all about “How do I find all the different places that fit my needs?”

Some young people are racing off to Twitter because that’s a place where they can hang out the way they want to. Some are off to Tumblr; some are using a collection of apps. But the thing you see when you look at what’s driving them is how do you hang out with the people that matter to them and not have to put up with the people that drive them crazy?

… How do you see the corporations behind these applications and platforms competing and chasing these audiences?

I think the challenge for social media companies is that they want massive audiences that they can monetize, and we see that in order for them to be successful commercial enterprises, they have to figure out how to get more users or monetize more per user in order to be successful.

So they try to go for numbers and they try to go for as much advertising as possible, and that makes it unappealing for young people. So [we] have [this] really awkward dynamic right now about how do we align monetization so that these systems can stick around and make them appealing for young people who don’t necessarily want to be hanging out with every sketchy marketer on the planet in order to be able to hang out with their friends? …

But the fact is that it costs money to run these systems. It costs a lot of money to run Facebook regardless of whether or not you have it as an advertising platform. So how you actually sustain these systems with millions of users when you’re not expecting them to pay, and there’s a really awkward tension there.

We often hear people who are anti-advertising say, “Oh, we should just make everybody pay for their participation.” That’s an inherently unequal dynamic, because what it means is that very few young people have access to the kinds of resources where they could regularly pay to participate in these kinds of environments, and then move on to free environments somewhere else with all sorts of other commercial implications.

So we see this odd dance where I don’t see stabilization coming into being long term. I see it as a constantly unstable, constantly changing environment.

Do folks at Facebook or other networks, do they call you in? You go to conferences where you hear them talking about “How are we going to keep the kids? What are we going to do?”

… The challenge for any one of these companies is that they sit there and they look at their numbers, and there’s no doubt that Facebook’s numbers are extraordinarily great. Where you see a decline is not in terms of young people functionally leaving. It’s the fact that they’ve become emotionally distant. …

It’s not clear to me that Facebook is disappearing, but it’s not clear to me that Facebook is going to be the place to hang out. It’s more that I see people shifting to a variety of different spaces for different purposes.

So they’ll still be on Facebook when they need access to everybody. But when they’re really focused on hanging out with their friends, they’ll jump over to Instagram, and that’s a different dynamic.

So I see these technology companies struggling to figure out how to balance those numbers, how to balance their monetization needs, how to balance making it a cool, fun spot, because keeping it cool is hard.

And that of course is not just the Internet. Find any club out there who’s managed to keep it cool for decades upon decades. These things ebb and flow, and you have to really rethink what your community space is.

The way they try to keep it cool now is by buying something, that is like Yahoo buys Tumblr, or Facebook buys Instagram, or somebody buys Pinterest.

And for these little companies, that is what will sustain them, because they become economically unviable. And that’s what’s tricky. Like how were you going to sustain Tumblr? Tumblr doesn’t make any money. It’s extraordinarily popular, but it’s not financially viable, and the advertising there is very limited.

But the result of which is, who is paying for this content? Who’s paying to keep the servers up? Who’s paying for the employees, right? Those are hard questions in this environment.

Traditionally our understanding of media artifacts is that you purchase them. You would go and you would purchase a CD or a record or you would purchase a T-shirt, and that would be what would keep things financially viable. We haven’t found a really financially stable business model for huge chunks of Internet communities. It’s been 20 years, and we still have no clue.

But today when Snapchat gets acquired, isn’t that in some way a meta-equivalent of a local band getting a record contract? The big company sees what are the kids doing, where are they going, who’s cool, and it’s the new invitation to sell out on some level.

There’s no doubt that when a small company gets bought by a big company, a lot of people will complain that it’s about selling out. It’s also really tricky, though, when those really small companies become unsustainable and collapse, and plenty of companies like that have occurred, too.

Plenty of bands have disappeared because they couldn’t sell fun, they couldn’t keep it going, and they needed to go get real jobs. So how do you find that right balance between being able to sustain what you’re passionate about, the communities that you’re building, and making certain that it’s viable to keep doing it? There’s no easy answer to that.

So long as we have an economy that’s entirely commercial and there’s no narrative of philanthropy for backing some of these environments, there’s no narrative of government support — because that would be absolutely atrocious in an American context — we need to find ways to keep things sustainable, to distribute risk across enterprises, the result of which is that big companies are often in a better position to maintain online communities than small ones are, because the thing is that they can sell on one end of the company and sustain something that’s a loss at another end of the company. And this is where we see Yahoo making sense with Tumblr. They can go and monetize elsewhere, and they can figure out how to make Tumblr viable and maybe long-term financially sustainable.

But this is always a trick, because companies have to be very, very careful when they’re dealing with online communities, because you push it too far, and people will go running away, because what they really want is not actually to engage with the commercial dynamics. They want to engage with them just enough to make sure that the space is self-sustainable.

Do you feel that the nature of the Net versus more controlled broadcast media environments, or the nature of the attention economy makes it more prone to this race to the bottom of humiliation and lewdness than TV would have been or [was] in past eras?

… A lot of the reason that the Internet has a lot of ugly sides to it is that anybody can speak, and the result of which is that we see people who we never would have heard of say magical things that are enlightening, and we see people desperate for attention saying absolutely crass stuff just to get attention. So you see unbelievable crud alongside unbelievable enlightening user-generated content. And that tension is something that we take for granted with the Internet.

I don’t think that most of the Internet is a race to the bottom. In fact, I would say that the media industries are doing that for us and are pushing that race to the bottom faster than the Internet is, in part because the Internet has taken away the advertising revenue from the media industries, because it’s actually a lot more financially sound to advertise in an environment where you know who you’re talking to and where you can measure whether or not they’re responding to you. …

But it’s more salacious if we take the media as a whole then, not worrying about Internet versus regular. It’s more salacious and more dark in that way now than it was 20, 30 years ago. Why is that?

… It used to be that there were three channels on TV that were competing for one another, and they could keep a certain level of highbrow content because they were not necessarily trying to destroy one another.

When we’ve got 1,000 channels on TV, what are you going to get flicking through the channel clicker? Anything that captures your attention as fast as possible.

The same thing ends up happening online. If there’s three to four websites that you always go to, it’s a very different kind of dynamic than about capturing your attention through mounds and mounds and mounds of it.

And that’s where it’s like the more that we have, the more that we have different kinds of content, the more that we see people desperate to create that content to make that their sustainable living, the more that we see anything possible and we figure out how to monetize it, to capture attention, to pool people in, because it’s all about the eyeballs. …

And when your social life is occurring in that very same space?

… Entertainment has been about eyeballs for the longest time, for decades now. Your social life has been about places you can go. When you have no place that you can go, which is the typical teenager, you end up in spaces that are highly commercial because they’re the only things that are seen as safe, making you stay at home.

So we’ve done this weird conflation where you’re safe because you’re at home even though you’re on the Internet, but we’ll put you in a very commercial environment because it’s the only thing that’s actually going to be able to sustain for free from home.

Think about it. Most of our adult spaces that we think of as social spaces, they function on a totally different substance, mainly alcohol. That’s what allows them to be financially viable. You think about bars, you think about clubs, it’s all about making certain that people are wasted.

Is being drunk better or worse than seeing advertisements? We have a problem with alcoholism in this country, too. Large amounts of alcohol have correlations with violence and a large variety of other things. We can think about car crashes; we can think about all of these other connections to it. But yet as adults we accept alcohol both because we enjoy it and because it’s become de facto in society that we don’t think about it. …

When I was a kid there were drives to the mall, which was delivering us to the marketers but in a physical way. Now we drive them to Facebook or the Internet, but on the Net they’re just not going to the stores of others; they’re also being asked to perform, at least if they want to get popular.

No, they’re not being asked to perform. There are some young people who want to perform and see this as a platform with which they can actually compete with the advertisers for attention, and they become their own little enterprises.

But that’s not the majority of them. And it’s important to never put the young people who are capturing massive attention, disputing industries, to say that this is anywhere near mainstream.

Think about Tavi [Gevinson], who’s the young fashion blogger who managed to totally disrupt the fashion industry by her blogging [and subsequently her online magazine Rookie] because she basically tore to shreds not only everything [editor] Anna Wintour was doing, but she did it in such a way that she was capturing an audience that actually competed with what Vogue was able to put together. And the result of which was Fashion Week came around, and Anna Wintour invited Tavi to come and be a part of it. But she’s an exceptional case. …

That doesn’t mean young people aren’t contributing content. Of course young people are contributing content as a part of this ecosystem, but they’re not necessarily contributing it for the advertisers. They’re contributing it because they want to hang out with their friends, and they’ve just accepted that the advertisers are going to look in while they’re trying to hang out with their friends.

And that hanging out now is through metrics and clicks rather than from other things.

That people are observing them through metrics and clicks, but they’re just trying to hang out with their friends and be left alone, and they’re much more concerned with the fact that their parents are always looking over their shoulders than they are the marketers, which yeah, they’re looking at the numbers, but they’re otherwise leaving them alone.

Parents are much more invasive, and they’re much more a day-to-day experience than it is the marketers. Yeah, you see a lot of advertisements, you see them everywhere, but at least you’re allowed to be there, whereas Mom tells you you can’t be there.

Mom cares about you, though, and the marketer doesn’t.

Mom thinks that you should be focused on homework and adult-driven, adult-oriented outcomes rather than socializing with your peers. The marketer doesn’t care what you’re doing as long as they can make sense of it.

I don’t know if it’s care or not care. Should everything for kids be driven by whether or not an adult values their norms? Keeping kids socially ostracized doesn’t help them grow up either.

What do we do? What’s the fix?

In some ways the questions you’re asking are about how do you untangle a capitalist society? It’s not actually about young people. Young people are just accepting what’s in front of them because they have no other choice. They have no agency, they have no power, and they want to be free of the things that they deal with on a daily basis.

Adults, on the other hand, are who you need to turn to if you want to challenge the capitalist society. And so how much is it that adults have perpetuated it? Even when they’re critical of it, they’re perpetuating it.

I remember it was in Silicon Valley in Palo Alto, [Calif.], and I was at this lecture situation, and it was all of these adults from middle-, upper-class Silicon Valley sitting there critiquing, “Oh, my gosh, these are commercial enterprises” — these were all Myspace days — and they were like: “This is terrible. This is all highly, highly commercial.”

And I started asking them: “Where do you work? Where does your partner work?” Almost all of them worked in the Internet economy in some way. It’s like, how do you make your money? How do you afford your expensive house in Palo Alto? You all do it because you get money off of advertising, and then you’re critical because kids are actually seeing all this advertising.

We have these ugly interconnections in this whole environment. So we can sit here and be like, how do we get young people away from commercial society? But adults are depending on that same commercial society in order to put food on the table. So it’s like, how do we untangle that as a whole?

And this is to me why those issues of class matter so much, because usually that critique of the advertising economy is a critique from the middle/upper class, and the idea is that if we just go back to a world in which we pay for things, everything will be great.

I actually am very deeply concerned about the lack of access and the lack of opportunities that working-class youth have in this country. … As we look at these spaces, how do we make certain that working-class kids get opportunities to be a part of a global society as well? And right now I don’t see any path out other than these commercial actors.

I would love for there to be nongovernmental agencies. I would love to see foundations support the creation of meaningful publics. I would love to see people who made millions suddenly do this as a philanthropic approach. I don’t see the big philanthropic entities figuring out how to make sure that we have a meaningful public.

If we’re actually going to get there, we’re not going to get there by sitting and critiquing young people’s access to these spaces. We need to accept that they’re participating in this because they’re just trying to be a part of everyday life. …

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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