My first experiences with the internet were with Yahoo! chat rooms, message boards, and ICQ. I would spend a lot of time sitting in front of a desktop computer to be able to communicate with others around the world. I kept a lot of my “online life” to myself, not even telling my closest friends how I spent my time in front of the computer. This came to mind as I was watching “Generation Like” (Koughan, 2014) and seeing teenagers talk with each other about what their Facebook profile picture should be. Out in public, I’ve noticed people sharing something on their smartphone screen with the person sitting next to them, or teaching each other how to use mobile apps.
I learned how to use and communicate on the Internet by taking it into my own hands. I felt empowered because I was exploring this whole new world on my own, and almost had a secret life online. It struck me that one girl in “Generation Like” said she felt empowered by gaining fame-by-association through being recognized as one of the biggest fans of the franchise (Koughan, 2014). She has done this by participating in all of The Hunger Games marketing initiatives. (Whether she recognized them as that is another issue.) While the world of The Hunger Games has been opened up to her, it sounds as if that IS her world. Expansive as that world may be on Tumblr, Twitter, and the Hunger Games website, the fact remains that she is, ultimately, not just doing what she does on these channels for herself. She is being used as a marketing tool.
I first signed up for Facebook, then called “The Facebook” and only open to college students, as a Grand Valley freshman in 2004. I’d also had a MySpace for a while before that.
Before joining Facebook, I was more often than not connecting with people I didn’t know “in real life.” Web 2.0 was very new in 2004, and I was amazed at its capabilities for connecting people. I was happy to have Facebook as a way to keep in touch with my best friends from high school, who were all far away at other colleges. It also helped me get to know my new college classmates and peers in my dorm. Of course, the reach of Facebook and social media has grown exponentially since then.
Tyler Oakley, a YouTube sensation who is featured in “Generation Like,” says people can relate to him because he’s “just one of them” (Koughan, 2014). But, as the film pointed out, he’s not. Brands have seen him as an influencer and have chosen him as a marketing channel. His YouTube videos are not just Tyler being Tyler; they’re Tyler being Tyler sponsored by (insert brand name here).
The teens in “Generation Like” did not understand selling out as a negative concept, and as Jason Calacanis, founder of Inside.com, pointed out, “Selling out is not selling out anymore; it’s like getting the brass ring” (Koughan, 2014). These online celebrities are highly admired and celebrated, and they feel successful because their sponsorships have helped them get to where they are.
I must admit it makes me uneasy, though I also wonder how bad it can be if these “celebrities” are truly happy. I just don’t think I could be okay with being a sellout myself.
However, “Generation Like” defined the concept of likes, retweets, followers, and other forms of engagement as “social currency” (Koughan, 2014). There’s an excitement about celebrities, or just large numbers of people, “noticing” you through social media. The teens in the film were talking about how many likes a boy’s profile photo got compared with a girl’s. Though I might not care about accumulating likes quite as much as these teenagers do, I do believe in the power of this social currency, as I often find myself feeling empowered by being on the receiving end myself.
In recent years, I have been trying to be more thoughtful about what I post on social media, and I am not one to go fishing for likes or retweets. I approach my social media channels as places to express myself as authentically as possible, and with Twitter and LinkedIn, a venue for increasing my credibility as a professional. I see likes and retweets as indicators I’m on the right track, rather than as a measurement of my social value.
There are so many ways social media can be helpful to students and professionals in building their careers and personas, but as we’ve also seen too many times, there are also many ways social media can do harm.
I am very interested in how technology affects us individually and socially, and so “Generation Like” was a great resource. I encourage others to make time to watch this documentary and think about their own use of the internet and social media, and how it has changed or might change over time.
Koughan, F. (Producer). (2014). Generation Like [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/generation-like/credits/