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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The industrial strategy acknowledges a fundamental truth about growth

It's time for the government to recognise that private businesses need help to thrive. 

When Theresa May created a new Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy after taking office last summer, plenty of eyebrows were raised. Industrial strategy, it was widely remarked, was something attempted by the Labour governments of the 1960s and 70s – and it had dismally failed. British Leyland, Concorde and Delorean were the dead proof that governments were useless at "picking winners" and shouldn’t attempt to. What was the new Prime Minister thinking? 

A few commentators did observe that the concept of industrial strategy had in fact been revived at the end of the Labour government and in the early years of the Coalition. Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson had successfully revived the motor industry in 2009-10 and initiated a new offshore wind manufacturing sector; Vince Cable and David Willetts had identified key manufacturing growth sectors and established new support systems for innovation. But they also pointed out that this had been largely abandoned by the next Business Minister, Sajid Javid, and was never embraced by David Cameron or George Osborne. 

So what did May mean? We are about to find out, when the government publishes its green paper on industrial strategy today. 

Among economic and business commentators, it has been widely assumed that this will again largely be about government support to manufacturing industry, particularly in the field of research and development. This is after all where the orthodox theory of "market failure" acknowledges that government intervention may be warranted. 

But this expectation is wrong. Under Business secretary Greg Clark, the government is taking a much wider approach. In fact the green paper will start from two far-reaching observations about the British economy.

First, take the UK’s low rate of productivity. This is not primarily a problem of the major firms in our remaining manufacturing industries. It is instead rooted in the small and medium-sized businesses in the service sectors, which employ 84 per cent of the British workforce. These are characterised by systematic under-investment in new technologies. 

Second, this is compounded by the huge disparity in productivity across the UK’s nations and regions. While London has the highest output per head of any region in Western Europe, more than a quarter of the UK’s regions rank among the lowest. Only if productivity is raised everywhere can it be raised in the UK as a whole. And only if productivity is raised, can wages be increased. So this is crucial to any attempt to help those "left behind" or "just about managing". 

The green paper will therefore make it clear, as IPPR has argued, that industrial strategy is not just about galvanising R&D and brand new innovation – though this is certainly important. It is about stimulating the much more widespread adoption of new technologies in all businesses - the service sector too. And it is not just about high-tech companies in the UK’s golden triangle between London, Cambridge and Oxford. It must happen in every region and nation of the country

In other words, the government looks likely to accept a vital truth - that industrial strategy is not a single strand of policy, but an approach to economic policy in general. It involves a fundamental recognition that firms and markets left to their own devices do not necessarily generate the optimum results for society as a whole.

Firms under-invest; they do not always adopt the most efficient technologies; they cannot on their own achieve the benefits of clustering together in regional centres; their investors’ horizons may be too short termist; they need infrastructure, skills, planning and other public policies to be aligned; they need to be encouraged to locate outside the existing growth centres. 

In other words, industrial strategy acknowledges that wealth is co-produced by the private and public sectors working together, and successful economies need both.

The chief theoretician of this understanding in recent years has been the economist Mariana Mazzucato, who has argued that the best way of driving investment in innovation is for government to set "missions" to address major social challenges. Just as the US moonshot programme generated innovation in a wide range of sectors, so modern missions such as decarbonisation, meeting the health and social care needs of an ageing population and the housing shortage can galvanise a new wave today. The government can use both "demand-side" policies (such as energy policy and procurement) and "supply-side" policies (such as in infrastructure and skills) to promote private sector investment.

In Britain industrial strategy has always been thought to be a left of centre economic idea, because it requires an active role for government. The Telegraph and Mail will no doubt tell Mrs May this week that it is all very misguided. But this is not how the rest of the world sees it. The most successful economies – Germany, Japan, South Korea, the Scandinavians – all work on the basis of public-private partnership to maximise productivity and achieve better distributed growth. All of them have higher productivity, and lower regional disparities, than the UK.

Yet there remain real question marks hanging over the government’s approach. Will the Chancellor cough up? A strategy with no money will be stillborn at birth. In particular, will sufficient resources and powers be given to regional institutions to support long-term economic growth outside London? Shifting the geographic pattern of investment will ultimately be the key test of the strategy’s success. 

The Business secretary is known to favour "deals" with industry to deliver the strategy, in the manner of the "devolution deals" with local government he developed in his previous Cabinet role. But will these be properly transparent, as the agreement which kept Nissan in Britain in the autumn was not? Will they simply favour the best business lobbyists, or can they represent a real compact of mutual obligations between public and private sectors?

The government has already acknowledged that it needs to recruit overseas negotiators to do new trade deals. It could usefully employ some outside experts to help with industrial strategy too. A good test of its commitment to strengthening public sector capacity is whether the government continue with its crazy sell-off of the Green Investment Bank

Ultimately, the key question may be whether the strategy will outlast Clark, who is probably the only Heseltinian member of the Cabinet beyond Mrs May who really believes in it. Labour’s Shadow Minister Clive Lewis, who has been talking intelligently about industrial strategy and has recently launched his own consultation, is no doubt already sharpening his critique. 

For the Prime Minister, the rationale for industrial strategy is clear. As it goes through the trauma of Brexit, the British economy will need to be seriously strengthened. We are about to see whether she can deliver it. 

Michael Jacobs is the Director of the IPPR Commission on Economic Justice and co-editor of Rethinking Capitalism: Economics and Policy for Sustainable and Inclusive Growth (Wiley Blackwell 2016).