This week one recommended viewing assignment stood out to me more than the others: The PBS 2014 Frontline Documentary: Generation Like. I would like to tell you about my experience, thoughts, and the questions that arose while watching the video alone and then with my children.
I was immediately interested in this documentary because it attempted to answer two questions that I have been wondering about for a while. The first question it posed was What are technologies doing to our kids that we need to make them aware of?
The second question that I had been wondering about was how exactly is our participation on social media connected to making money. I was interested in this documentary both as a teacher and a parent.
PBS Correspondent Douglas Rushkoff expertly describes how social media is affecting teens and culture today according to his research. He compares his current findings to those of his 2001 documentary The Merchants of Cool: The Persuaders. There is a sharp contrast to the world of 2001 and the world only thirteen years later.
The recurring theme in this video is that of master manipulation. Throughout the presentation a comparison is made between the big business of getting kids to like products and the book and movie series The Hunger Games. It is as if teens must get others to like them in order to survive. There is also a powerful reference to the destructive social condition described by George Orwell. “Serendipity by design, it’s almost Orwellian. But maybe it was inevitable. Afterall this generation has grown up in the arena of likes.” Again, there is the comparison to The Hunger Games as well.
Douglas Rushkoff also demonstrates how likes turn into cash. He provides two examples of digital marketing agencies whose purpose is to orchestrate exactly that: The Audience and TVG LA. The purpose of these companies is to assist celebrities and hopefuls to develop a greater audience on every possible platform. Their fame is orchestrated by using data from their social media as well as advertising principles to increase their likeability. They are also connected to their followers favourite products. This is, of course, where the money comes in. More about this here. This did, in fact, help me to better understand how this all works.
“The more views I get, the more comments I get, the more money I get.”
After watching the documentary initially, I decided it would be beneficial to watch it with my children and talk to them about their reaction to it. Both my children are on social media in different ways and for different reasons. My twelve year old daughter uses Instagram and Snapchat to connect with friends. My nine year old son uses both these apps for the same reason. In addition, he Youtubes about Minecraft and is very focused on developing a followership. They both play Minecraft and connect with others through Minecraft servers and chat. So how did my children react to the documentary? See the highlights of our informal interview below. I interviewed them both together after watching the video. It was nearing bedtime so I was admittedly rushing them somewhat.
Nine year old boy: C
Twelve year old girl: K
What did you learn from this video?
Both: None of it was really new to me.
What are the good things about social media for you and what skills have you gained from it?
K: I’m being exposed to a lot of different things through social media, both good and bad, it has made me more knowledgeable, I can google anything I want to know. I would not have read as many books as i have if not for technology (eBooks). I think with Selfies you can show your identity.
What do you like about social media?
C: I really want to show my face on YouTube to get more likes. (His father and I have not allowed him to do so yet). It’s a good feeling (when someone watches a video you have created). My goal is to get over 20 subscribers (by his tenth bday). Most of (my followers) are my classmates. You feel more confident. The best youtubers seem to forget that they’re recording and just have fun. So their followers have fun too.
Do you think you will keep YouTubing? Yes, I think I will be still YouTubing in a year or more. I don’t think I will do it as an adult but it will give me a boost.
How will these skills help you in your future?
As an adult I want to be an engineer/architect/scientist/entrepreneur.
What are the good things about social media for you? What skills have you gained from it?
You get acting skills (vlogs, skits,), editing skills, confidence.
It takes a lot of time to get followers. You have to be really likable or already have a lot of friends.
Do you think Youtubers who make money from promoting brands are “selling out”? (I had to explain what selling out meant).
Both: I think you should make money doing what you love, it’s ok to promote brands if you like them but don’t lie.
What are the dangers and risks of social media?
K: I’m careful not to let creepy people follow me. I keep all my social media private.
I was somewhat surprised that they felt they hadn’t learned anything new from this video. I wish that I had had more time to ask further questions. I will likely pursue it again in a day or two to see if they can tell me some more of their thoughts.
Some of their views on developing a following of strangers on social media worry me a little. Of course, I realize I have a desire to do the same on this very blog. And I remember wanting to be as famous as Madonna when I was a child. Is it different in this day and age? Are the risks and dangers greater? I wonder.
“Young people want validation and attention. That’s not new. it’s just that the platform is larger now. And there are more people competing for attention so it’s also harder now”
My daughter is also a huge fan of The Hunger Games so I would like to ask her more about her thoughts about the theme of manipulation for entertainment, consumerism and control.
I know my children are young and they are still developing deeper understandings about these complex issues. So we need to keep talking.
Also, I realize that Douglas Rushkoff has his own biases that inevitably come out in this documentary. Any reflective researcher or journalist is aware of their own biases. And I have learned to look at the biases of what is being said in any situation; to look for the questions that are not being asked, the perspectives that are not being considered. So, I wonder, is this documentary slanted to Mr. Rushkoff’s perspective? Is is overdramatized? Are teens being used in a similar manner as depicted in the Hunger Games? Is it really so terrible to have the ability to announce to the world that you like this brand or that one? Are teenagers really selling out or being used by big business? Or are they smart enough to see beyond the manipulation tactics? Are these companies involved in making money from Likes actually as open and transparent as they claim, or is Mr. Rushkoff correct in comparing them to the Wizard of Oz, hiding behind the curtain, trying to fool us with their magic and slight of hand?
Of course, I will continue to talk to my children about all these questions. I believe, as a parent, I have the greatest potential to shape the minds of my children, if I choose to, even in their future teenage years. This is the world we live in. So I don’t feel as though I have a choice but to educate them, help them question the world around them, and trust them to follow the positive values I hope I have instilled in them.
What do you think?