Teenagers at an Alicia Keys concert wave their phones in the air. Photo:Getty
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Stop worrying: teenagers are not internet-addled cyborgs with overdeveloped thumbs

. . .  in fact, they are probably better at navigating a world of smartphones and social networks than we crusties aged 20 and over.

Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity and
Branding in the Social Media Age

Alice Marwick
Yale University Press, 320pp, £17.99

It's Complicated: the Social Lives of Networked Teens
danah boyd
Yale University Press, 296pp, £17.99

A month or two ago, I was getting a pre-booked taxi home from a television show when the driver started chatting to me about Twitter. “I’m on there,” he said. “Guess how many followers I have.”

If I’m honest, the question made me uncomfortable, the way that being asked to guess his weight, inside leg or salary would have done. I felt in some way I was being asked how much I thought he was worth.

But I needn’t have worried. He wasn’t in the least upset when I made what I thought was a reasonable guess – a couple of hundred – and he corrected me: more than 40,000 (having over 3,000 puts you in the top 1 per cent of Twitter accounts). How had he achieved this? For several months he had been conducting an online romance with another tweeter, who lived in the US. They had many mutual followers, he said, who enjoyed watching their budding romance . . . and who clearly had a high tolerance for pictures of moist-eyed Labradors, judging by what I saw of her account when I got home.

What he didn’t mention was that both he and his online amour followed as many accounts as they had followers, 40,000 in his case, 50,000 in hers. In other words, they actively sought out people to follow, in the hope they’d be followed in return, making their Twitter experience worse in the process. Who can possibly keep up with what 50,000 people are saying, 24 hours a day?

This taxi driver is what Alice Marwick would describe as a “micro-celebrity”: keen to court the kind of attention that the more conventionally famous get, using the same strategies – making public those parts of his life most of us try to keep private; providing a compelling “personal journey”, in this case of his long-distance romance; and providing regular fixes of news in the form of updates – but targeting a much smaller pool of fans. (On the internet, as someone once said, everyone is famous to 15 people.)

In Status Update, Marwick reports on her  findings from years of fieldwork on the San Francisco tech scene. She documents many of its peculiarities: the obsessive approach to work, the boundless belief in the need just to “want it enough”, the blithe assumption that what works for twentysomething, middle-class white guys can scale to everyone else in the world.

But most of all she identifies an interest in status, and in creating ever more precise metrics of how successful a person is deemed to be. Think of all the main social networks and how they implicitly confirm how big a deal you are. Twitter has followers and retweet counts; Facebook has friends, Instagram has likes, Reddit has karma and upvotes, Tumblr has reblogs, the BuzzFeed community has badges. On some dating sites it is possible to see where you are in the ranking of most popular users. That said, for the companies involved, this is useful information: OkCupid has to “throttle” traffic to its hottest women, otherwise they get overwhelmed with offers and leave in a miasma  of dick pics and disappointment.

What unites many of those who are heavily invested in social networks, Marwick argues, is “a sense of life as an ongoing performance”. (I’ve been guilty of this: for a while, the un-Instagrammed lunch wasn’t worth having.) Social networks’ constant demands for updates encourage us to become spectators of our own lives. Think of all those people holding up smartphones to get their own blurry photo of the Mona Lisa, say, when there’s a perfectly focused postcard available in the gift shop.

What’s even more alarming is how developments in technology allow community norms to be policed even more aggressively. Talk to teachers about bullying and they will point out that in the old days, a bullied teenager at least could escape by going home. Now, they carry the haters around in their pocket or bag with them all the time.

Nonetheless, as Marwick’s former research collaborator danah boyd will tell you, we shouldn’t give in to wholesale hand-wringing about The Goggle-Eyed Youth just yet. That’s not shonky typing by me, by the way: boyd spells her name without capitals. She doesn’t like capitalising the first-person pronoun, either, but clearly has lost the fight over that one with her copy editor.

It’s Complicated takes its title from Facebook’s intermediate “relationship status” option, a solution to an etiquette problem that it created in the first place. Boyd’s slim academic study makes a compelling case that today’s teenagers are more adept at navigating this kind of dilemma of the social media age than we old crusties aged 20 and over. She opens the book with a description of the scene at a school football game in Nashville where all the teenagers are sitting together, chatting animatedly. The adults, meanwhile, are buried face down in their smartphones. In other words, she deduces, young people aren’t addicted to technology; they just want to hang out with their friends, and social networks provide a more convenient, less restricted way to do that than the real world. She meets teenagers who live miles from their schoolfriends, some who are not allowed out for fear of accidents or paedophiles, and others who are afraid to “be themselves” offline (for instance, gay or transgender teens in religious or conservative towns). Boyd argues that if parents found ways to give their children unsupervised time with their friends in the 3D world, they might discover that their “gadget addiction” would evaporate.

Although some of her recounting of moral panics feels well worn, it bears repeating: it is not more dangerous now to be a child than it has ever been. In fact, in the developed world, it’s far safer. You won’t have to work in the fields, or down a mine, or up a chimney. Your parents are unlikely to drink and drive. They will probably insist on a seat belt. And as for the idea that online predators are lurking in every chatroom, it’s a sad fact that a child is most likely to be abused by a male relative. It’s just more comforting to think of “molesters” being some alien group, easily defined and isolated from their prey, rather than otherwise ordinary men (and sometimes women) you wouldn’t look at twice in the street.

The strength of It’s Complicated is that it foregrounds the voices of teenagers. Many sound far more savvy about the real (as opposed to perceived) pitfalls of life online than most older commentators. Take the idea of “context collapse” – the way that, say, Twitter usually functions like a pub (fast-moving, conversational, intimate), but also a public square. Anything you say there is public and your tweets can be embedded in another site without any need for you to give permission or even know what is happening. This tension was behind some of the early “trolling” prosecutions: an offensive statement was made to a self-selecting group (Twitter followers, Facebook friends) where it would have provoked little comment, but it was subsequently picked up more widely, leading to outrage. Context collapse has ruined many reputations, and even put people in jail.

Part of the problem is the demand that social media makes for “authenticity”, which carries an obvious problem that both Marwick and boyd identify. Who has one, singular self? In the offline world, most of us are adept at modulating our language and tone for our audience; you don’t talk to your toddler the way you talk to your lover, or your boss, unless you have some larger problem I can’t help you with. Online, however, that is harder.

Why? First, because it’s easier to compare your expressions in different contexts; to see the inconsistency between how you are with your friends on Facebook, with potential employers on LinkedIn, with your Sherlock fanfic group on Tumblr. Worse, everything you say is permanent. Rather than all these moments being lost, like tears in the rain, the best you can hope for is that they eventually drop down your Google results.

Marwick points out the downside of this phenomenon for micro-celebrities: they are expected to put every part of their lives out there for public consumption, yet it is almost impossible to maintain relationships (personal or professional) without some degree of privacy. But any attempt to dissemble is a contravention of the Micro-celebs’ Charter and they are duly damned for it. No wonder many seem to be relieved when their time in the micro-spotlight is over.

No wonder, too, that the social media age has prompted full-blown celebrities to become more, rather than less, controlling of their public image. Some even have an employee compose their “personal” tweets. Most have learned that the best defence against intrusion is relentless blandness.

Teenagers have a different answer to the problem of context collapse. They seek out networks that restore impermanence, or anonymity, to communication. So, instead of sending a sext that might be forwarded around their peers, they are turning to Snapchat, where a photo “self-destructs” three to eight seconds after the recipient opens it (the service also tells you if they’ve sneakily taken a screenshot). Or they share their worries on Whisper, a totally anonymous network full of posts such as “Despite all my sex ed, we never use a condom, only pull out method” and “My dad is gay and I’m embarrassed to tell people”. For this reason, boyd concludes, the kids will be all right – or rather, no worse than before, because all that new technology has done is give the same old problems a shiny new brushed-aluminium coating. A theme of both books is that, despite much burbling about how “disruptive technologies” democratise society and give everyone the opportunity to succeed, rich people continue to do very nicely, thank you very much.

Is that what we want to hear? Probably not, because social and economic deprivation will never be as thrilling a bogeyman as the prospect of a generation of internet-addled cyborgs with overdeveloped thumbs and no attention span. But as both boyd and Marwick acknowledge, very little changes in human nature, and it is always easier to blame our gadgets than ourselves.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.