Category Archives: youth culture

Technology and the World of Consumption

I had just finished giving a talk about youth culture to a room full of professionals who worked in the retail industry when a woman raised her hand to tell me a story. It was homecoming season and her daughter Mary was going to go to homecoming for the first time. What fascinated this mother was that her daughter’s approach to shopping was completely different than her own.

Using Google and a variety of online shopping sites, Mary researched dresses online, getting a sense for what styles she liked and reading information about what was considered stylish that year. Next, Mary and her friends went to the local department store as a small group, toting along their digital cameras (even though they’re banned). They tried on the dresses, taking pictures of each other in the ones that fit. Upon returning home, Mary uploaded the photos to her Facebook and asked her broader group of friends to comment on which they liked the best. Based on this feedback, she decided which dress to purchase, but didn’t tell anyone because she wanted her choice to be a surprise. Rather than returning to the store, Mary purchased the same dress online at a cheaper price based on the information on the tag that she had written down when she initially saw the dress. She went for the cheaper option because her mother had given her a set budget for homecoming shopping; this allowed her to spend the rest on accessories.

Mary’s mother was completely flabbergasted by the way in which her daughter moved seamlessly between the digital and physical worlds to consume clothing. More confusing to this mother, a professional in retail, was the way in which her daughter viewed her steps as completely natural.

In the 1980s, Alan Kay declared that, “technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born.” In other words, what is perceived as technology to adults is often ubiquitous if not invisible to youth. In telling this story, Mary’s mother was perplexed by the technology choices made by her daughter. Yet, most likely, Mary saw her steps in a practical way: research, test out, get feedback, purchase. Her choices were to maximize her options, make a choice that would be socially accepted, and purchase the dress at the cheapest price. Her steps were not about maximizing technology, but about using it to optimize what she did care about.

Examining e-commerce, many businesses have found that people use online sources to research what it is that they want to buy. Few people purchase cars online, but many more research their options there. Online shopping sites are assumed to support offline purchasing. Yet, for Mary and other teens that I’ve met, the opposite is also true: they are visiting stores to research what they want so that they can purchase it online at a cheaper venue. The stores allow them to touch, feel, and try on material goods, while the digital world helps them find the cheapest option without running from store to store.

Teens’ interest in shopping is not simply about consuming material goods. For many, sites of consumerism are the only venues available for hanging out with friends. Malls, outlets, and box stores regularly emerged as places where teens could meet each other to hang out. Because security often shoos teens who are loitering away, they get into the habit of window shopping, fondling items for sale as though they may purchase them, and trying on clothes just so that they can appear to be at the shop for a reason. When they have money, they often do buy something, but most teens who hang out in shopping venues have nothing to spend – they simply want a place to hang out with their friends.

Teens who spend a lot of time hanging out around shopping spaces begin to know what each store is selling and have a sense of how often they update their inventory. As Nick (16) explained, “we’ll go in the hat store and look at different kind of hats they got. It’s a lot to do, but sometimes it gets boring ’cause if you go there enough, you start, ‘Oh, I saw that last week. They got the same stuff.’ Sometimes it’s really boring to go in there and you see the same stuff over, and over, and over again.” New inventory makes the “task” of window shopping much more interesting.

While shopping to hang out is a popular American teen past time, it also has a reputation amongst some parents for being a venue for troubled kids to gather. In talking with parents, I often heard references to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, gangs, and “the wrong crowd” as reasons for why they did not allow their children to hang out at the local mall. After intense amounts of pressure from her daughter, one mother did begin allowing her 14-year old to go with her friends to an outdoor mall under one condition: she would sit in Starbucks and her daughter would have to check in every 20 minutes. Not surprisingly, the daughter was not thrilled, but consented because it was her only option. Still, many parents refuse to let their kids go to the mall to hang out.

Teens do lie to their parents to get around this restriction. One girl told me that she and her friends had their parents drop them off at the movie theater adjacent to the mall. She would research the movie ahead of time so that she could report back afterwards. She would walk into the theater with her friends and wait until her parents left before going to the mall to meet up with others who had less restrictive parents. She would make sure to be back at the theater before the movie finished. This practice is not new to this generation, but it still highlights how critical shopping venues are for social gatherings.

Online shops do not have the same hangout appeal and the majority of teens that I’ve met who visit them do so with a purpose. They go to buy something specific and usually with their parents consent because of the credit card requirements. Online shopping is primarily task-centric, while offline shopping is primarily social-centric.

All the same, some teens still value consumption as an end in itself. As Shean (17) explained, “I want to get my own job and start my own stuff and make my own money, a lot of it, so that I can buy whatever I want. I want to be one of those people that can just walk in and say I want that and that and that.” To Shean, all that matters is having the stuff because that’s what it means to “live luxurious.”

When it comes to teen culture, consumerism is still rampant, although shopping is primarily about socialization. Aside from how the mobile phone allows groups to coordinate, technology is not really altering the tradition of hanging out in consumer places. What it is altering is the ways in which teens research and purchase things that they know they want.

Blog entry is a Fieldnote for the Digital Youth Project

National School Boards Association pushes for SNS adoption in schools

While the Attorneys General are off demonizing social network sites, the National Schools Board Association has been collecting data on all of the good things that teenagers are doing with the sites, including learning about colleges, talking about homework, engaging in collaborative projects, and otherwise operating as active learners. To combat the myths generated by mass hysteria, they highlight that only .08% (note the point, this is less than 1%) of students have met someone in person through an online interaction without their parents’ permission. In short, they argue that not only is the Internet not nearly as dangerous as the public seems to believe, but it’s actually quite helpful for students and teachers should be encouraged to support their students in using it. They offer recommendations for how schools should directly engage with these sites and the practices of their students.

YAY! Go National School Boards Association! Thank you thank you thank you for not perpetuating the culture of fear. Please make the elected fearmongers hear you!

I strongly encourage everyone who holds power over teens – parents, teachers, school administrators, law enforcement, youth ministers, press, and politicians – to read this report. I’ve been saying these things for years, but they are more authoritative and, besides, they have numbers and people like numbers. My only qualm is that they don’t do a good job of talking about how important it is to socialize youth into a society where these publics have different structural issues, but still… everything they do offer is a step in the right direction. Yay!

So go read the report! And if you need more pro-school and tech energy when you’re done, check out this teacher tube video about why teachers need to pay attention to social media.

(Tx to everyone who sent me this!)

Israeli teen culture

I’m back in the States, but I’m not yet back on sturdy ground. It’s been a rough month and it’s going to take some time before I’m ready to re-engage properly. Thankfully, time in Israel really helped me do some well-needed thinking.

What I love most about leaving the United States is how it lets me re-consider the American norms that I take for granted living here day in and day out. All that’s on my brain these days is teenagers so I couldn’t help but watch Israeli teens. This wasn’t hard because teenagers were everywhere (and there was one living in the house in which I was staying). While I have to go looking for teens in American public settings, teens were often within view in public places in Israel.

Israeli teens do not have the same restrictions that American teens have. There don’t seem to be curfews, except those that are imposed by parents. (When I asked about whether cops hound teens, I was told that the cops in Israel have more important matters to attend to.)

I was totally fascinated by how many teens were wandering the streets, hanging out in parks, or BBQ-ing on the beach past midnight each night. They were on the beach, in the malls, and generally around all day and night. Adults tended to be nearby but the packs of teens were free to goof around with each other with little explicit control.

In Ra’anana (a suburb of Tel Aviv), there was a big park. Teens from across the town gathered there every night. At 1AM, the cinema in the park opened its doors for local teens to watch a movie for 10 shekels and free popcorn. The only restriction was that they had to have an ID that said they were from Ra’anana. There were all sorts of activities in the park – video games, a playground, etc. Late at night, you could see teens walking in groups from the park towards home (long after their parents were sleeping). They were just goofing around with their friends and no one seemed to mind.

Even though I saw teens everywhere, I saw little evidence of heavy drinking. (Of course, I didn’t see a lot of heavy drinking amongst adults either.) There were certainly hookahs and my nostrils gave me the sense that it wasn’t just tobacco that people were smoking. For the most part, teens seemed far more interested in goofing off with their friends.

Teens weren’t that visible in the settings where payment was necessary. For example, I didn’t see teens at the bars/cafes on the beach or in the clubs on the pier where the average age seemed to be mid-20s. My suspicion is that teens prefer the public spaces because they are free.

I have no idea how accurate my observations are but it was pleasantly refreshing to see teens everywhere out and about. And for that matter, adults. Venice Beach is eerie late at night and I don’t dare go down there except with a pack of male friends. And even then… Tel Aviv’s beaches were a different story. There were crowds everywhere until sunrise. Even on weekdays. Everything was well-lit, cafes all had outdoor seating, and wandering the promenades seemed to be a popular dating activity. God that was nice to see.

let the stalking begin

I regularly receive press releases from companies that i promptly delete as a new form of spam. Today, i received one that stopped me in my tracks:

You can now load software in your kids’ BlackBerry and/or cell phone that will be your watchdog (to prevent them from being approached by someone potentially trying to molest them)

How it works — the program will send the parents a text message when a foreign IM, text message or e-mail comes into their child’s phone or PDA (anyone not on an approved phone contact list).

The concept was thought of by Bob Lotter, a software publisher in Orange County, because he was so alarmed to learn that 56% of kids receive unwanted cell or PDA solicitations (which they don’t tell their parents about). (Sixty percent have been approached.) Lotter has also created a homepage for parents on resources they need to track strangers.

It was a peculiar press release because the company (a known PR agency) did not include any links and i can’t find much about Bob Lotter other than he seems to be connected to the scientology world.

I’ve been waiting for mobile stalking software for a while. We already have GPS-driven stalking software that will let parents figure out where their kids are. (Kids have figured out how to circumnavigate this by sending their phone off with their friends.) And i’ve met plenty of parents who obsessively scour the phone bill to see who their kids are talking to and for how long. But i’m quite impressed with this new level of parental stalking software.

I’m also absolutely fascinated by the assumption that “your kid” will have a Blackberry and that this software will prevent your kid from being approached by a molester (at first, i thought that the advert was going to be for mace). This software is not about protecting children from strangers that they meet face-to-face – it’s about giving parents control over who their kids talk with rather than teaching them how to navigate people. Of course, i can’t wait until mobile text message spamming kicks in. Kids will be getting hundreds of messages from people that they don’t know and thus their parents will be notified and notified and notified. There’s nothing like a bit of spam to make this a complete mess.

Anyhow, this just infuriates me and i can’t even offer a proper analysis except to scrunch my face in disgust. As i’ve written about before, the stats on predators is pretty clear: it’s people that children know not strangers. I kinda suspect that the #1 child molester (the parent) is not going to be on the list of people blocked.

Surveillance destroys parent-child relationships – technology does not solve relationship issues. And yet, we keep building technology. Why? Fear sells. These people will inevitably make money off of parent’s fears. Le sigh.

Just The Facts About Online Youth Victimization

Last week, i had the honor of joining three amazing (quant) social scientists on an Internet Caucus panel in DC. David Finkelhor (Director of Crimes Against Children Research Center), Amanda Lenhart (PEW), and Michele Ybarra (President of Internet Solutions for Kids) all presented quantitative data while i batted qualitative cleanup. I have to admit that i was concerned about this panel because folks throw the 1/7 number (formerly 1/5) all the time to fearmonger. I was very pleasantly shocked to find that all of us were completely on the same page and that most of the press coverage of Michele and David’s work has been terrible in representing the implications of their findings. I was very pleased with how this panel played out and ecstatic that the Internet Caucus chose to put the video up online (even if it requires Real – props to anyone who converts it to MP4 or uploads it to YouTube):

panel video and audio

PDF transcript

You don’t have to listen to me but i’d strongly encourage you to listen to the other three. They do a fantastic job of presenting solid data that debunks the myths that the press has been propegating for quite some time. For example, David highlights that putting up real information online has no correllation to sexual predation. It’s a great panel so enjoy!!

Update: Loud props to Michael Herzog for turning this into a playlist on YouTube:

Update 2: There is now a PDF transcript of the panel.

MySpace + SecondLife / Ponies!1 = BarbieGirls

Over at Wired, Annalee Newitz’s post entitled MySpace + SecondLife / Ponies!1 = BarbieGirls describes one of the scariest side effects of all of the predator panic. A new site called BarbieGirls has launched for young girls to socialize with other young girls. To handle parental concerns, the site informs parents:

We also monitor chat to help ensure it stays safe and appropriate. Barbie Girls administrators frequently review reports of chatting in the environment and adjust the word filters as needed to block or allow new words or phrases. This monitoring is strictly for the purpose of maintaining a safe chat environment – chat reports are not used in any other way, and we do not save or store any private information.

What does it mean that an entire generation is growing up to believe that the only way to be safe is to be constantly surveilled? ::shudder:: I’m rather concerned about the longterm implications of all of this monitoring and control. Aren’t we supposed to be raising a generation of creatives? Le sigh.

“Generation Me”

Over the last couple of weeks, i’ve been telling loads of folks to go read Jean Twenge’s Generation Me and i realized i should probably share it with all y’all. Unlike most books on generations, this is a social psych analaysis of different behavioral characteristics over the decades. Translation: there’s a shitload of data here. The book is a bit too pop psychology for my tastes, but it makes it very accessible.

In “Generation Me,” Twenge outlines key characteristics of the current generation of teens/20-somethings that differentiate them from previous generations. For example, she goes through the data on narcissism and self-esteem, looking at how the self-esteem movement in the 1980s is directly correlated with the narcissism we see now. Some of what she points out is painfully present in our current conversation of Virginia Tech:

“Unfortunately, narcissism can lead to outcomes far worse than grade grubbing. Several studies have found that narcissists lash out aggressively when they are insulted or rejected. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the teenage gunmen at Columbine High School, made statements remarkably similar to items on the most popular narcissism questionnaire. On a videotape made before the shootings, Harris picked up a gun, made a shooting noise, and said “Isn’t it fun to get the respect we’re going to deserve?” (Chillingly similar to the narcissism item “I insist upon getting the respect that is due me.”) … Abusive husbands who threaten to kill their wives – and tragically sometimes do – are the ultimate narcissists. They see everyone and everything in terms of fulfilling their needs, and become very angry and aggressive when things don’t go exactly their way. Many workplace shootings occur after an employee is fired and decides that he’ll “show” everyone how powerful he is.” (Twenge 2006, 70-71)

I’ve been running around the country interviewing teens and this is the first book on generations that i’ve found that hits the mark dead-on. Eerily so. Much of it is quite bothersome. Twenge does an amazing job at outlining how our schools have become completely useless at educating because it’s more important to make students feel good than to be critical of their work. When i was in Iowa, i had a mother explain to me that teachers couldn’t give bad grades to rich students at the local high school because the country club moms would pressure the schools to fire such overly critical teachers.

Twenge unpacks the problems with the “You can be anything you want!” value, looking critically at how this sets up unrealistic expectations that result in all sorts of social chaos.

Anyhow, i’ll leave it at that and hope that i’ve whet your appetite just a whee bit. This is a must read if you’re a parent, a teacher, a marketer, a designer, a politician or otherwise interested in the under-25 crowd. (And if you’re not, how on earth can you stand this blog these days?) So, please, go read Generation Me and report back here what you think.


I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with conversations about ‘cyberbullying.’ I fear that by emphasizing ‘cyber’ the term clouds what’s really going on. Don’t get me wrong – the internet, like all technologies before it, has altered the dynamics of bullying, but why didn’t my generation speak of ‘telebullying’? Three-way calling allowed people to bully from home with others virtually present for the attacks. Of course, I know the answer to that… bullying over the internet is not just a technological advance of bullying, but an advance that makes the attacks visible to adults while using a medium that confounds adults.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that bullying that takes place in mediated publics (blogs, social network sites, etc.) and through private messaging in a surveilled computer (IM, email, etc.) is visible to adults in ways that note-passing, bathroom-wall-scribbling, and phone bullying just aren’t. Most kids are smart enough to do physical bullying outside of the view of adults, but a huge amount of physical bullying takes place at school where adults are nearby: recess, bathroom, school bus, under the bleachers at games, school carpark, etc.

In some senses, I’m glad that adults can see what terrible things take place amongst peer groups, but I’m unbelievably frustrated by how most of those adults emphasize the CYBER rather than the BULLYING. It’s as if the internet is the cause of the bullying. The internet does not cause bullying, but it does MIRROR and MAGNIFY bullying.

Although I don’t know of any data on this, I would bet that 99% of cyberbullying is committed by someone the victim knows offline. (The exceptions would be those who have an active online social life amongst strangers in environments like WoW or the blogosphere; because of stranger danger, this is increasingly rare.) I have yet to run into Jekyll & Hyde story where a bully is friendly in person (except when in front of adults), but a devil online. (Note: this comes back to the adult-centric view of bullying. Just because kids appear to be sweet to one another in front of you doesn’t mean that they are when out of your sight.) What happens is that the internet becomes yet-another medium for bullying.

This is what I mean by mirroring… For most teens, the internet mirrors the dynamics that take place offline. Bullies offline are bullies online. Troubled kids offline are troubled kids online. Yet, because adults typically only see the online exposures, they think that they are just bullies or troubled online. This is where we’re fooling ourselves. If you see a troubled kid or a bully online, bet your bottom dollar that an offline intervention is needed. The internet is not the problem – it’s the mirror.

One of the things that makes mediated bullying insidious is that it doesn’t end when the school bell rings. I remember this from the phone calls. The trick was to answer the phone before your mom did so that she didn’t realize what was going on (because it’s mega embarrassing to have your parents involved with being tormented by peers and if you didn’t get to the phone first, they would sucker up to your mom so that you couldn’t tell how cruel they were being). Given the amount of time spent on the internet, it sucks to be constantly tormented there – it’s like having the phone never stop ringing.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only way in which the internet magnifies bullying. Those four properties that I talk a lot about – persistence, searchability, replicability, invisible audiences – change the dynamics of bullying too. Bullying graffiti gets cleaned up in a day; it’s a lot harder to clean up online spewage. The properties that I talk about change the rules of scale. There aren’t that many venues where you can bully someone offline in front of a large audience without attracting adults; it’s a lot easier to do it online. The properties of bits (primarily replicability) make it a lot harder to tell what is ‘real’. How do you know if that IM conversation really happened or if it was doctored before being passed on?

Now that Facebook has hit high school, things like the News Feed pass on more than who dumped who – rumors and bullying fly far faster and farther than news of Barack being on the site. With each new technology, there is bullying… This isn’t going to stop with social network sites. Already I’m seeing the mobile phone operate as the best bullying tool ever. My favorite technique to watch is the text bombing tactic. If you know that someone only has 1000 text messages per month, send them 2000. Because most carriers don’t let people block specific numbers for texting, there’s no way to stop the $.10 fees that build up. This means that the target of bullying is going to literally have to pay or change their phone number. (Parent-to-parent calls rarely stop bullying so ratting out the bully typically does little to stop the tormenting.)

So, are we going to call the next wave ‘mobullying’? When are we going to recognize that the main issue is bullying and, rather than focus on the rapidly shifting technology, focus on the bullying itself? Like it or not, the technology is going to keep magnifying bullying in new and unexpected ways. Focusing on the technology will not make the bullying actually go away, although the more we push it underground, the less visible it is to adults. (For example, private profiles have made a lot of previously visible bullying now invisible.)

All this said, I’m not so convinced that bullying will go away. More depressingly, I think that it will continue to get worse. The more we as a society focus on hyper-individualism (and free speech above respect), the more we see youth believe that they have the right to torment anyone they wish. The less youth are socialized into adult society, the worse bullying gets. The less present parents are (jail, addiction, _workaholism_), the more bullying operates as a tactic for attention. The more we emphasize that mean-spirited attacks win air time on reality TV (and are the acceptable manner of judgment for American Idol), the more we set the standard for bullying. We’re living in a culture where bullying gets tacit validation in so many ways. We adults create child bullies through our actions – perhaps we need to think about the standards we set rather than the technology? I’m regularly horrified by my professional colleagues who are at work at 7PM even though they have young children at home who will be in bed by 9PM… those children are acting out for a reason and i think it’s hypocritical to talk about the problems with technology when we don’t talk about the problems with adult presence.

Personally, I think that energy should be placed into teaching youth to manage bullies and bullying (of all forms). I was lucky to figure some of this out on my own, although I will never forget the night that 20+ peers surrounded me and another girl at a football game to watch the fight that was brewing. She hit me twice; I just stood there. She screamed at me, called me all sorts of names. I just stood there. We were once close friends, but I knew where her anger came from. I was 14 and something in me told me that responding would only make things worse. That night was hell, but she never spoke to me again.

What are the tactics that we can teach kids to handle bullying? How can we help them process what’s going on? How can we help them strategize how to handle the bullies rather than run away? What would happen if we put our energies into helping those who are attacked lessen the impact of the blows? This is relevant to more than just kids. But mean kids grow up to be trolls and attackers and adult bullies.

relationship performance in networked publics

My research is part of the Digital Youth Research project (funded by the MacArthur Foundation). To highlight our findings, some of my teammates put together a digikids research blog where we post findings from the field and link to interesting things concerning digital youth. It’s a *fantastic* blog for anyone who is interested in this topic (read it!).

This week, i posted a field snippet based on my research. I’ve re-posted it below for those who don’t like clicking links.


Crushes, flirting, and dating are a key aspect of teens’ lives. While these nascent relationships often end almost as quickly as they begin, they play a significant role in how teens see themselves and others. Because MySpace is a hangout space for teenagers, aspects of their flirtation with and dismissal of potential partners takes place on the site. Given the public nature of these expressions, we can get a glimpse into the trials and tribulations of teen love. Furthermore, we can examine how technology supports pre-existing practices while complicating other aspects of relationship management. Not all of what takes place is pretty – the language, norms, and attitudes of teens can be shocking to adults, but they are a very real component of teen communication. In this fieldnote, i document one example of how love and breakups appear online.

When I met Michael (17) and Amy (16), they were together. Their relationship was also visible on both of their profiles. Amy wrote about how Michael “has my heart” and Michael’s profile photo was of the couple embracing. His About Me section began with “I love my girlfriend AMY.” They were in each other’s Top 8 and they performed their love throughout the comments. A week later, Michael’s profile proclaimed “I hate my stupid bitch ex girlfriend.” His headline had also been changed to: “Michael is no longer fucking with stupid bitches.” The photos were gone, the friendship deleted, and the comments erased. Amy had also obliterated the relationship thoughout her profile. He was removed from her friend list and the list of guys she called heroes. What appeared in the place of his name was “boyfriend” with a link to a new boy: Scott.

While Michael had written Amy into his bio, Scott proclaimed his love for Amy even louder. He had changed his name on his profile: “Scott + Amy” and his profile photo depicted the happy couple smooching. He had written two blogs: “I have fallen in love with Amy” and “Rawr! Amy is Awesome” Upon inspection, one contained a love poem written about Amy and the other contained a prose version of his feelings; Amy responded to these blogs with comments professing her love and other friends added approving words. Loving messages from the new couple peppered each other’s profile. Scott wrote “I Love You” 200 times on Amy’s profile, followed by “here is the translation… i love you too baby..”

Interestingly, the next few comments on Amy’s page came from friends, asking “what happened with you and Michael?” She responded to these by posting to each friend’s comment section with some variation of “alotta bullshit.” Third party references to Michael littered Amy’s comments section but Michael himself was no longer present. Amy’s new love had usurped him.

While relationship drama is not restricted to teenagers, the performative nature of teens’ relationships tends to make this drama quite visible. One advantage of having a girlfriend/boyfriend is that it is personally validating. In a relationship, many people feel as though they are desirable and attractive; the rush of a new relationship can be invigorating. This feeling of self-worth offers people an incentive to seek out partners.

Relationships are often discussed as intimate affairs, but society also encourages people to make the fact of their relationship public. Western rituals around weddings – the public ceremony, the visible ring, the newspaper announcement – showcase how serious relationships become public expressions. Yet, even before a relationship reaches that level of seriousness, people make their relationships publicly visible. This practices has numerous advantages. First off, by making a relationship public, people can signal to other single individuals that they are taken (and so is their partner). This wards off potential suitors but it also encourages outsiders to validate their worthiness. More importantly, as Hannah Arendt notes, “the presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves” (1). Through the public performance of a relationship, the individuals in the relationship can gain security and confidence in the significance of their togetherness.

Western society regularly pushes people to couple up and make their relationships public. Consider Valentine’s Day. For many, this is an extremely stressful holiday because it’s an institutionalized way of saying that single people are less worthy than those who have paired up. During this day above all others, the streets are filled with couples arm-in-arm engaged in public displays of affection (“PDA”). While the wine and fancy dinners are primarily an adult activity, Valentine’s Day is just as salient in high schools as it is on the streets. Mr. C, a young math teacher in Oakland, California was shocked to find that the ratio of balloons to students exceeded one (2). Candy, presents, stuffed animals, cards, and the like pervaded the school, making it utterly impossible to teach. Who had received what gifts from whom mattered far more than geometry.

For teenagers, the performance of a relationship has an additional axis. Many teens have little mobility or freedom to actually go on dates. Quite often, teenage relationships consist entirely of mediated conversations (phone, IM, MySpace), school interactions, and the discussion of the relationship amidst one’s peers in both public and private settings. The rare opportunity to meet up with one’s girlfriend/boyfriend is treasured and for many teens, it is worth risking getting into trouble just to be able to connect with that person in meatspace. While physical interactions are deeply desired, they are typically quite rare. Likewise, while the 1950s Hollywood image of teen dating involves soda shops, drive-in movie theaters, and other public encounters, this is not available to many teens. Although the mall and move theater are still desired outtings for teen couples, many have far greater access to networked publics like MySpace than they do to unmediated publics. Thus, it’s natural that the primary plumage display takes place in these forums.

The properties of networked publics – primarily persistence – extend the reach of relationship performances. If posted on a MySpace profile, verbalized adoration can be read by all of that person’s friends. Perhaps this perceived magnification of audience increases the “realness” of the relationship? Or perhaps it simply increases the likelihood of being validated for being with an attractive partner. Relationships are filled with public commentary about love and adoration. While adults often mark “in a relationship” and leave it at that, teens are far more likely to fill their profiles with odes to the one that they adore.

Teens are aware of how these expressions are witnessed by those around them. Consider, for example, the comments section. Teens recognize that what they write in a comment is visible to all of that person’s friends. This prompts loving significant others to publicly display their affection in a digital form, full of candy-coated words. On the flip side, because teens have the ability to voice their perspective to the broader peer group, there is a great incentive to make certain that one’s view is understood without the he said/she said dynamics. By breaking up through MySpace comments, the heartbreaker is attempting to assert their view for everyone else to see so that they cannot be accused of saying something else in private, different from what they believe that they did say.

Of course, while digital expressions are persistent, they can be obliterated in a matter of clicks by a heartbroken lover. By deleting a significant other from one’s friend list, all of the comments evaporate. Every loving message disappears off of the page of both partners, along with every negative comment. Is the goal of deletion to remove the memory of the now ex? Is it effective? The traces of these relationships remain, often because of the comments of third parties who reference the now ex.

When relationships end, it is customary to avoid the now ex for at least a period of time. Co-presence in school is to be ignored, phone calls are not to be returned, and events where the other one is likely to appear are to be avoided. The networked nature of social network sites makes it difficult to uphold this separation. While it is easy to block the ex from one’s own page, they are likely to appear in the comments section of mutual friends. Mutual friends are often the complicating factor during a breakup, prompting an all-too-problematic view that these friends must choose sides. Such a choice can easily be viewed on MySpace because the mutual friend cannot actually maintain both connections if a nasty breakup requires that s/he choose sides.

Relationships are a regular part of teen life. The activities around flirting, dating, and breaking up take place wherever teens spend time and teens adapt these practices for the technologies and environments in which they spend the bulk of their time. Because networked publics provide a space for teens to gather and share their lives, it is not surprising that the intimate acts that must be made visible take place here. While the online publicness of teen relationships horrifies many adults, it is central to most teens.

(1) Arendt, Hannah. 1998. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (2nd Edition).
(2) Mr. C. “St. Valentine’s Radio.” Understanding (blog). February 14, 2007.

fame, narcissism and MySpace

When adults aren’t dismissing MySpace as the land-o-predators, they’re often accusing it of producing narcissistic children. I find it hard to bite my tongue in these situations, but i know that few adults are willing to take the blame for producing narcissistic children. The issue of narcissism and fame is back in public circulation with a vengeance (thanks in part to Britney Spears for having a public meltdown). While the mainstream press is having a field day with blaming celebrities and teens for being narcissistic, more solid research on narcissism is emerging.

For those who are into pop science coverage of academic work, i’d encourage you to start with Jake Halpern’s “Fame Junkies” (tx Anastasia). For simplicity sake, let’s list a few of the key findings that have emerged over the years concerning narcissism.

  • While many personality traits stay stable across time, it appears as though levels of narcissism (as tested by the NPI) decrease as people grow older. In other words, while adolescents are more narcissistic than adults, you were also more narcissistic when you were younger than you are now.
  • The scores of adolescents on the NPI continue to rise. In other words, it appears as though young people today are more narcissistic than older people were when they were younger.
  • There appears to be a correlation between narcissism and self-esteem based education. In other words, all of that school crap about how everyone is good and likable has produced a generation of narcissists.
  • Celebrity does not make people narcissists but narcissistic people seek fame.
  • Reality TV stars score higher on the NPI than other celebrities.

OK… given these different findings (some of which are still up for debate in academic circles), what should we make of teens’ participation on social network sites in relation to narcissism?

My view is that we have trained our children to be narcissistic and that this is having all sorts of terrifying repercussions; to deal with this, we’re blaming the manifestations instead of addressing the root causes and the mythmaking that we do to maintain social hierarchies. Let’s unpack that for a moment.

American individualism (and self-esteem education) have allowed us to uphold a myth of meritocracy. We sell young people the idea that anyone can succeed, anyone can be president. We ignore the fact that working class kids get working class jobs. This, of course, has been exacerbated in recent years. There used to be meaningful working class labor that young people were excited to be a part of. It was primarily masculine labor and it was rewarded through set hierarchies and unions helped maintain that structure. The unions crumpled in the 1980s and by the time the 1987 recession hit, there was a teenage wasteland No longer were young people being socialized into meaningful working class labor; the only path out was the “lottery” (aka becoming a famous rock star, athlete, etc.).

Since the late 80s, the lottery system has become more magnificent and corporatized. While there’s nothing meritocratic about reality TV or the Spice Girls, the myth of meritocracy remains. Over and over, working class kids tell me that they’re a better singer than anyone on American Idol and that this is why they’re going to get to be on the show. This makes me sigh. Do i burst their bubble by explaining that American Idol is another version of Jerry Springer where hegemonic society can mock wannabes? Or does their dream have value?

So, we have a generation growing up being told that they can be anyone, magnifying the level of narcissism. Narcissists seek fame and Hollywood dangles fame like a carrot on a stick. Meanwhile, technology emerges that challenges broadcast’s control over distribution. It just takes a few Internet success stories for fame-seeking narcissists to begin projecting themselves into the web in the hopes of being seen and being validated. While the important baseline of peer-validation still dominates, the hopes of becoming famous are still part of the narrative. Unfortunately, it’s kinda like watching wannabe actors work as waiters in Hollywood. They think that they’ll be found there because one day long ago someone was and so they go to work everyday in a menial service job with a dream.

Perhaps i should rally behind people’s dreams, but i tend to find them quite disturbing. It is these kinds of dreams that uphold the American myths that get us into such trouble. They also uphold hegemony and the powerful feed on their dreams, offering nothing in return. We can talk about reality TV as an amazing opportunity for anyone to act, but realistically, it’s nothing more than Hollywood’s effort to bust the actors’ guild and related unions. Feed on people’s desire for fame, pay them next to nothing and voila profit margin!

Unfortunately, union busting is the least of my worries when it comes to dream parasites. When i was trying to unpack the role of crystal meth in domestic violence, i started realizing that the meth offered a panacea when the fantasy bubble burst. Needless to say, this resulted in a spiral into hell for many once-dreamers. The next step was even more nauseating. When i started seeing how people in rural America recovered from meth, i found one common solution: born-again Christianity. The fervor for fame which was suppressed by meth re-emerged in zealous religiosity. Christianity promised an even less visible salvation: God’s grace. While blind faith is at the root of both fame-seeking and Christianity, Christianity offers a much more viable explanation for failures: God is teaching you a lesson… be patient, worship God, repent, and when you reach heaven you will understand.

While i have little issue with the core tenants of Christianity or religion in general, i am disgusted by the Christian Industrial Complex. In short, i believe that there is nothing Christian about the major institutions behind modern day organized American Christianity. Decades ago, the Salvation Army actively engaged in union-busting in order to maintain the status-quo. Today, the Christian Industrial Complex has risen into power in both politics and corporate life, but their underlying mission is the same: justify poor people’s industrial slavery so that the rich and powerful can become more rich and powerful. Ah, the modernization of the Protestant Ethic.

Let’s pop the stack and return to fame-seeking and massively networked society. Often, you hear Internet people modify Andy Warhol’s famous quote to note that on the Internet, everyone will be famous amongst 15. I find this very curious, because aren’t both time and audience needed to be famous? Is one really famous for 15 minutes? Or amongst 15? Or is it just about the perceived rewards around fame?

Why is it that people want to be famous? When i ask teens about their desire to be famous, it all boils down to one thing: freedom. If you’re famous, you don’t have to work. If you’re famous, you can buy anything you want. If you’re famous, your parents can’t tell you what to do. If you’re famous, you can have interesting friends and go to interesting parties. If you’re famous, you’re free! This is another bubble that i wonder whether or not i should burst. Anyone who has worked with celebrities knows that fame comes with a price and that price is unimaginable to those who don’t have to pay it.

How does this view of fame play into narcissism? If you think you’re all that, you don’t want to be told what to do or how to do it… You think you’re above all of that. When you’re parents are telling you that you have to clean your room and that you’re not allowed out, they’re cramping your style. How can you be anyone you want to be if you can’t even leave the house? Fame appears to be a freedom from all of that.

The question remains… does micro-fame (such as the attention one gets from being very cool on MySpace) feed into the desires of narcissists to get attention? On a certain level, yes. The attention feels good, it feeds the ego. But the thing about micro-celebrities is that they’re not free from attack. One of the reasons that celebrities go batty is that fame feeds into their narcissism, further heightening their sense of self-worth as more and more people tell them that they’re all that. They never see criticism, their narcissism is never called into check. This isn’t true with micro-fame and this is especially not true online when celebrities face their fans (and haters) directly. Net celebrities feel the exhaustion of attention and nagging much quicker than Hollywood celebrities. It’s a lot easier to burn out quicker and before reaching that mass scale of fame. Perhaps this keeps some of the desire for fame in check? Perhaps not. I honestly don’t know.

What i do know is that MySpace provides a platform for people to seek attention. It does not inherently provide attention and this is why even if people wanted 90M viewers to their blog, they’re likely to only get 6. MySpace may help some people feel the rush of attention, but it does not create the desire for attention. The desire for attention runs much deeper and has more to do with how we as a society value people than with what technology we provide them.

I am most certainly worried about the level of narcissism that exists today. I am worried by how we feed our children meritocratic myths and dreams of being anyone just so that current powers can maintain their supremacy at a direct cost to those who are supplying the dreams. I am worried that our “solutions” to the burst bubble are physically, psychologically, and culturally devastating, filled with hate and toxic waste. I am worried that Paris Hilton is a more meaningful role model to most American girls than Mother Theresa ever was. But i am not inherently worried about social network technology or video cameras or magazines. I’m worried by how society leverages different media to perpetuate disturbing ideals and pray on people’s desire for freedom and attention. Eliminating MySpace will not stop the narcissistic crisis that we’re facing; it will simply allow us to play ostrich as we continue to damage our children with unrealistic views of the world.