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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.

Teenagers at an Alicia Keys concert wave their phones in the air. Photo:Getty
Teenagers at an Alicia Keys concert wave their phones in the air. Photo:Getty

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.