FEATURE STORY: DIGITAL TRENDS
What's Not to "Like"?
Michael Y. Simon, LMFT
Last week, the highly acclaimed Frontline series premiered Douglas Rushkoff's provocative show "Generation Like." A companion piece to "The Merchants of Cool," his earlier (and brilliant) exploration of teens and digital media, this program explores the ways in which social media are impacting our children and teens. The timing couldn't have been better. The premier was on the heels of the release of two important works about social media: danah boyd's eagerly awaited project, It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, and Alice Marwick's Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity & Branding in the Social Media Age.
These works, while they cover similar ground, focus on different aspects of social media use. Boyd's work is notable for its refusal to deal with the economic aspects of social media and how the logic of business informs the design and implementation of social media sites.
I recently completed a long article in response to boyd's new work, which is sharply critical of her approach. While the scope of that criticism is too extensive for this newsletter, some of my concerns are reflected in a recent interview I gave to a student reporter for the award-winning Acalanes High School newsletter, Blueprint. That interview is reproduced in its entirety, below. I hope you find it interesting!
Blueprint: How do you think the ability for social media users to "like," or express approval for other users' words or pictures has changed the way teenagers interact? Would you say that teenagers have closer relationships, or more distant ones as a result?
Michael: As far as I'm concerned, the most important thing to understand is that online, the normal developmental goals, tasks and aspirations of teens are constantly being monitored, manipulated and crafted by forces of the marketplace that are oriented towards making profit. This is just a fancy way of saying that in most places, activities online like hitting a “Like” button are tied to the activity of an advertiser, marketer or businessperson figuring out better ways to sell you things. The “Like” button is there primarily because companies that buy big data from Facebook want to know what consumers (especially teens) enjoy and will purchase. They want to know what motivates you and what thoughts, feelings and actions lead to a purchase. Mark Zuckerberg will tell you otherwise, but he's lying or disingenuous or both. This process is complicated and it begins when we're really young with companies working to get you to think certain brands are fun, helpful (and later), cool. The more a brand can be advertised in a way that is invisible and seamless to teens, the better. And that process involves watching very carefully what you “like,” what websites you visit, what you “click” on, how long you spend on a particular page, what pages lead to what other activity, etc.
Okay, having said that, the ability for social media users to express approval or “Like” other words, pictures or activities online is part of the normal process of teens developing their own identity. Teens have always expressed opinions about what they like, but never before in history have the choices and preferences that teens have been so viewable by so many people at the same time. Researcher danah boyd—who has written extensively about what teens do online—believes that this activity of identity formation, expressing of preference and sharing experience is something teens have always done. It used to be done at the mall, and now it's done online, through social media sites like Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Vine, etc. I really disagree with her on this. Teens may have always expressed (or hidden) their preferences from certain adults or certain peers, but they have never had this much access, in this pervasive a way, to seeing what other teens like, and seeing what celebrities and celebrity culture “likes,” e.g., what they buy, how they look, etc. And some very good research (like that done by Abigail Baird and others at Vassar and researchers at UCLA) has found that teens often experience a lot of anxiety when their choices don't match the choices of their peers. This research has also demonstrated that teens will switch their publicly-expressed preferences if they fear disapproval from people in their social group. When teens are connected to functional MRI imaging they demonstrate intense fear responses if they believe they are being watched or potentially negatively judged by teens they don't know. Writer Alain de Botton calls this worry status anxiety, or anxiety we feel that we're losing status or standing among our reference group. The problem is that in the digital world, the entire universe online is available to us as a “reference group” to figure out whether we're “in” or “out,” “hot” or “not.”
Teens have always imagined an audience when thinking about which risks to take and how and whether to express their selves. But now the audience is potentially enormous and the stakes are high. Teens that are prone to depression or anxiety, for example, can be devastated by not receiving “Likes” on a Facebook post or “thumbs-up” on YouTube for videos posted. Careers can be made by getting enough “Likes.” The whole phenomenon of MAGCON (“Meet and Greet Conference”) is astounding. Kid's with somewhat mediocre talents, but with enough “Likes” because they did something semi-interesting, outrageous, silly or provocative, travel the country, greeted by screaming teens like something out of a Beatles-era concert. Some of these kids are making huge amounts of money for being famous online. For kids who compare themselves to this, and take it too hard, it's easy to feel like a failure by the time you're 13 or 14. I think the whole phenomenon of “Likes” and the culture of attention can make individual teens more self-conscious, more anxious and more worried about the present and the future. It can make it hard to really figure out what you like and love, despite what others find popular. This has recently been explored in Douglas Rushkoff's PBS Frontline specials, “The Merchants of Cool” and “Generation Like;” he goes into it in much more depth than I can in my response. I think every teen should watch those two shows and they may find it will help them make up their own minds about some of these questions. Part of the problem is, though, that we don't always recognize the effects and impact of something while it's new and while it's happening. I think this is the case with social media.
The question of whether this causes teens to have more distant or closer relationships.... I can answer as a psychotherapist. Danah boyd has tackled this subject in Its Complicated and Amanda Lenhart and others at the Pew Internet and American Life Project (and other research projects like that) have conducted and published research on this question. But as far as I know, from the kids I work with, it can make their relationships both closer and more distant. Certain teens are more susceptible to the opinions or “Likes” of their friends and can cause them to watch more closely what others are saying about their online activities and choices. These relationships can feel more intense and closer, as opportunities to connect are multiplied. But so are the opportunities to be judged, shamed, parodied and rejected. The audiences for these negative experiences are also potentially huge, much larger than in the days prior to the Internet and social media. I've worked with many teens who eventually decided, round about late in their junior year, to just get off Facebook, stop Tweeting and posting. They just came to feel that the activity was a time suck and that they were getting too bent out of shape by wondering how many “Views” or “Likes” their latest post was going to get or getting too depressed about how great a life others seemed to be having based upon their fantastic looking posts.
Researchers like danah boyd (she spells her name with all lower case) have recently said that “teens” as a group do not primarily have negative experiences or feel more distant from their friends because of the opportunities for approval and disapproval online. But to me, that's like saying that although a medication has only killed 17 people out of a million and has a long list of side effects, its “safe and effective” because only 17 people have been seriously hurt and 23,000 have had significant side effects. I'm a therapist. I'm concerned about the teens that get hurt. If 27 teens in your school are getting more depressed and feeling “shut down” and distant because of their social media experiences, those are the 27 teens I care most about.
Blueprint: Are teenagers' self-confidence more at stake in a world where messages or photos are posted arguably solely to gain approval from peers?
Michael: Yes. I think this is exactly what I'm referring to when I talk about the pervasiveness of social media use and how easy it is to quickly ascertain how enormously large numbers of people that you know feel about a particular event (a message, photo, piece of music, artist or things like that). Now you can try to hide your preferences and many teens do. For example, you might participate in a One Direction fan blog but not post about them on your Facebook or Tumblr page because of a Tweet you sent out last year that got you slammed for liking Harry Styles. This is a “normal” thing for teens to do: be public about certain preferences only in certain places...and just hope that your separate worlds don't collide. And it is also normal for teens to have their self-confidence be a pretty shaky thing that shifts easily, depending upon who likes us. I referred to that earlier; that's called status anxiety, and its a worry about how much “the world” loves us, not whether our parents love us. When you live your world online and so much of what you say and do can be easily and flexibly shared (via phone or laptop, using all kinds of applications) the “world” that approves or disapproves of you and your preferences suddenly gets super large and the disapproval can be swift, harsh and permanently available for all to see. I think there is no doubt it amplifies what is at stake around a teen's self-confidence. But here's the deal: the online world is like water to a fish. I'm not sure that teens notice the fragility of their self-confidence because it's so at stake all the time. Teens also tend to feel more self-conscious and think that everyone is watching them or judging them. This isn't a criticism of teens, it's just a normal result of their stage of brain development, which isn't complete until the mid- to late-twenties. But in my view, in a culture of “Likes” and where how much attention you can get online and with digital media is a very valuable currency, yes, it ups the stakes for a teen, in terms of their self-confidence.
Blueprint: How would you say the notion of reciprocal "liking" or "following" (i.e. if one student likes another student's photo, that student reciprocates the "like" at another time) changes student relationships? Has this tradeoff, or "give and take" aspect of friendships always been around, or do you think it is an outgrowth, or more prominent, because of the growth of social media?
Michael: I think it can be both a positive means of supporting a peer or maintaining a new or important ongoing relationship AND a way of naturalizing the process of being ever-more fake, ever-more shallow and ever-more audience conscious about what you do. It all depends upon the context and the particular person. In my experience, teens are deep, thoughtful and very, very caring, unless they've been deeply hurt. They want and need to connect in meaningful ways. Even a “deep” and caring teen will reciprocate a “Like” or “Follow” just as a time-saving measure. It's just easier to do it then to get all analytic about whether or not to press the button. So, social media use and “Liking” doesn't impact all teens in the same way. But it's true that I'm mostly concerned about the ways it impacts particular teens in negative ways. The “give and take” aspect of being friends, as you call it, has always included telling little lies. Lie:“Oh totally, those shoes are killer!” Reality: “Oh geez, not so much....” Lie: “Yeah, we'll always be together, don't you think?” Reality: “Probably when we get closer to graduating I think I might want to pull away some, and definitely don't want to stay together after we leave for college.” We lie for all kinds of complicated reasons, but often to try to preserve a relationship. That's the main reason teens lie to their parents, as a matter of fact. We lie in all kinds of ways online. Some of that is for safety reasons. Some of it is to be liked or liked back. Some of it is to try on or reinforce or explore certain qualities in ourselves. Social media doesn't cause this behavior. But it sure does support it! It's super easy to be anonymous online. It's super easy and super fast to “connect” with someone online. How long does it take to type “Happy Birthday!!! You're awesome!!!” on a friend's Facebook wall? Maybe you don't like the person all that much, and wouldn't make them a handmade card or present, but the speed with which you can post that sentiment or “Like” their latest picture makes it easy to simulate real connection. But most teens I know understand the difference between really connecting with someone they care deeply about and ticking the “Like” or “Follow” button.
Blueprint: Do you think teenagers are stronger or weaker because of social media? Is individuality at stake or more pronounced and celebrated than ever?
Michael: By now you could probably guess my answer: It all depends on the individual teenager. Some teens are stronger and some are weaker. Danah boyd was one teenager who became a media superstar because of her ability to write about and study social media AND because she grew up online and was in some ways saved by the kinds of opportunities and communities she found or created online. She is one example of someone who became stronger because of social media, although the forms of social media in which she participated were different than today. If you show me 10 teenagers who have stronger identities, stronger senses of self, more opportunities and more self-confidence, I'll show you 10 teenagers who feel more scared, more worried, weaker and in trouble because of their experiences on social media.
In “Generation Like,” Douglas Rushkoff refers to the movie Hunger Games, which is essentially about teens, forced by adults to battle each other as a form of public entertainment. He is drawing a parallel between this film and the world of social media, the “attention economy,” and the world of social media. Many teenagers love being online and find it relaxing, fun and empowering. But not all teens. Some teens feel that they're engaged in a battle for limited attention from the world of their peers and the wider world, and when they “lose,” its fatal. This might sound really dramatic, but remember, I'm a therapist. I see the kids who are losing or who feel they've lost the battle of being loved by the world—a world represented to them relentlessly through social media.
I'm not quite sure what you mean by “individuality” being celebrated or pronounced because of social media. I think that the online world offers enormous opportunities for expressing individuality and creativity. But it isn't a “neutral” place. Your individuality and creativity is being watched by others, including advertisers and marketers. They are always, everywhere, looking for opportunities to “monetize” your activities. Steven Fernandez is a 13-year-old skateboarder from Compton. He started out posting videos of himself skating on YouTube. But when he started getting a lot of likes, and businesspeople found him, he started getting lots of free clothes, money and corporate sponsorship. His videos went viral—not of him skateboarding, but of him and his friends goofing around “Jackass” style. He's now pretty “famous” online, appears with bikini-clad women and calls himself “Baby Scumbag.” Is that individuality? Or is it him getting “Loved” by the world online and subtly pushed into looking like every other adult baller, motivated by fame, money and material things? Some of your readers might know him or think of that example and wonder, “Damn, how can I get some of that for myself?” And others might think, “That's not individuality, it's stupid. It's about the point of view that says there is only one way of being successful in this life...and its about money or celebrity.” So, it all depends. Social media isn't evil. It does tend to emphasize (for some teens more than others) the aspects of getting attention, quickly (and not deeply) relating to others and making it easier to not take responsibility for how you impact others. In my view this doesn't mean we should get rid of “Likes” or social media in general. That just won't ever happen. But teens need to be really aware of how much they can get played by adults online—not so much by predators or bullies, even those people exist—but by organizations, software and other technologies aimed at the heart of the teenager as a consumer and purchaser or goods. Teens are...humans are...more than consumers. We have to be, or we're in big trouble on this planet.