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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.