a book, a podcast, and a documentary
Let’s get two things out of the way. First, this takes a circuitous route. Be patient, you’ll connect the dots. Second, every generation, after they reach a certain age (over 40) complains about the younger generations, especially the one most recently coming of age, that is today’s Millennials (here on referred to as the Mills). I can’t say the Mills are stupider, they’re not, in fact they may be the most sophisticated generation to date. I can’t say they’re clueless or more ill-mannered than older generations, although younger people tend to be less diplomatic—certain finesse comes only with experience. I can’t say their education has been wanting. With the dramatic changes in science, and inevitably, the educational adjustments needed to keep up with those changes, there’s always lag time. If it is lacking, it can’t be their fault. But there is something going on that needs closer attention, and it, too, is not the fault of the Mills.
It’s the misguided reference to our new communication interfaces as social media. Although the programmers of these sites/apps were originally aiming for a social purpose. They were, after all, lonely geeks desperately looking for a way to connect with others. Computers and the internet were their life. Social media was, in turn, their clumsy attempt at sociality. Of course, any communication between humans is to some degree social, but not all is equal. Letter writing has a social element. Yet, written language is very limited. We’re missing vocal inflection and pitch cues that modulate and clarify meaning. Think of how many times something you wrote was misunderstood, especially sarcasm, because on the page or the screen important subtleties are missing. And texting is an even more compressed version of writing that’s evermore restricted in its ability to communicate—think of it as low resolution—not enough pixels to provide adequate detail.
The success of the telephone is due to its advantages over written language. It gives us a stronger connection than writing. We can hear someone, recognize their voice, get the rhythm of their speech, grasp their meaning through vocal expression. It gives us realtime communication that also allows for immediate questioning and clarification if needed. Spoken language gives us more information. Even grammatical mistakes can be easily overlooked because intention is more clearly understood. But the phone has its limits too. Much of our communication is visual. The phone is missing facial expression and body language.
Video-phoning takes one more step towards improving communication, and therefore, making the interaction more social. Now we have both the visual and auditory signals not found in written communication. Yet still, there are missing elements. There’s a barrier in between that’s filtering out some of the total package of data. The direct face-to-face is blunted. The engagement of all our senses, scent and touch, and finer bits of data are lost in the transmission process. Because of these considerations, fully social interactions are, by nature, in the flesh—in the same space, at the same time. Everything else is merely quasi-social. Mobile social media is little more than digital grunting—useful, convenient, but barely social.
There’s no denying the influence and power of these new, at-the-speed-of-light communication tools. There’s no denying it’s taking on a major role in communal interaction. And there’s no denying that anything this powerful must have some powerful effects. It raises questions.
- What is at the root of its power?
- How popular would these media interfaces be if they weren’t ostensibly free?
- What is it costing us?
- Are we being sold smoke and mirrors?
- How is it molding society?
- What benefits have we yet to recognized?
Some of its power is in the way it’s gone viral. But there’s something else hidden under the surface. Mass media over the last 100 years has grown exponentially, starting from books and newspapers, to magazines, radio, television, cable, satellite, internet, and cellular wireless. Through all this growth, advertising, the driving force for all except books, has been diluted. (Would you read more books if they were free, but full of ads? Would you go to see more movies if they were free, but interrupted every few minutes with commercials? How about free concerts with sponsored messages between each piece?) This burst of media, and the consequential dilution of advertising efficacy, has caused a crisis. Commerce is scrambling to maintain its grip as advertising dollars get spread ever thinner over more outlets. Multinational corporations are desperate for eyeballs, and desperate to make their ad dollars actually work. What else explains how a daffy texting application, with a nonexistent business plan and zero revenue, could have been “valued” before it went public at over TEN BILLION dollars just because they had millions and millions of users, aka eyeballs? If your head doesn’t hurt thinking about that, numbness has set in. And if it also doesn’t put a little twinge of fear in your stomach, you need to give it a second thought. Part of the viral growth is due to exaggerated self-promotion, knowing that more eyes will pump up its imagined value. Then the inflated value is bolstered by outsized media attention, and the resultant, “I gotta do it too or I’ll be left behind” fallacy. No, you don’t; no, you won’t. Because it’s not, as we’ve all been lead to believe, social media, at least, not any more. In reality it’s been co-opted by business and turned into commercial media. You are being used, exploited, monitored, tracked, analyzed, and monetized, all the while believing that you’re “updating your status,” or “keeping in touch.” Yup, you’re keeping in touch with Big Brother Multinationals.
Now, pretend you had to pay a monthly membership/subscription fee. Would you be so eager to use those services? Would you use them at all? What would they be worth to you if you had to pay for them? Do you think they would have grown so big, so fast if they charged subscription fees? Would you find any one of them useful enough to put much of your time and energy into it?
The cost? The cost is your privacy. The cost is built into the price of every national brand you buy. It’s scrambling your brain with unwanted, unneeded, unhealthy distractions and unfettered advertisements poking at your eyes. The Mills are the big target, and the most at risk. As they attempt to build a manufactured ego, based on an artificial on-screen self-projection, and share trivial, vacuous content, they become involuntary targets and unpaid shrills for brand names. The most viewed, the very, very few who go viral, get snagged by corporate sponsors. They get their egos splashed across the commercial media marketplace and vaulted into cyber-stardom. As soon as their view numbers drop, and they are destined to fizzle away after the next hot one comes along, so will their fame—egos busted, unearned income stream busted.
There’s no doubt that we are being sold a bill of goods under the guise of free rewards, special moments, status building. Ask, and ask again, “What am I getting out of this?” It’s molding society into the likeness of consumer automatons using our social nature and childish egocentrism as a hook. It’s preying on the illusion of virtual celebrity. It promises hopes and dreams with no intention of delivering. It talks about its transparency, how it puts everything out in the open, while its inner workings are blanketed and opaque.
The real benefits, if any, may not be evident for years, at least not until the dust settles. Meanwhile, prudence calls for keeping our eyes open. What am I getting out of this? What are the Mills getting out of it?
The Mills have taken to commercial media in a big way. While their parents are also using these interfaces, and are, bizarrely, possibly more hooked and more abusive, rude, and antisocial with their usage, the Mills may be getting something out of it that older generations aren’t. What they’re getting isn’t much, and they’re likely to leave it all behind in a few years, but for them texting is a modern, high-tech version of passing notes in class behind teacher’s back. It’s to make an end run around creeping parents and compensate for the lack of real, direct social contact. It also appears that the Mills are more aware than their elders that commercial media is not a surrogate for real social life, despite appearances. They understand it’s a poor substitute for actual socializing—hanging out with friends, free from parents, or teachers, or coaches. Just to be with their peers, talking, joking, and wasting time jostling for social position—the authentic means of forming a social identity which they are driven to assemble for themselves, by themselves. They are also keenly aware of the public nature of the new media. They battle to find a balance between what to reveal and what to obscure, or leave out altogether. While many elders believe the Mills are too open online, the real problem is not that they are voluntarily giving up too much of their privacy, rather, it’s how the media moguls are collecting and monetizing, quite unethically, that information and leveraging it to manipulate them (and us) in return. No matter how savvy the Mills are, the allure of commercial media has taken on an overblown role in their lives, but then, youth is prone to hyperbole. They’ll get over it, with some luck. Will their parents?
There has been large amounts of publicity on the negative side of the Mills and their usage of commercial media, but all that talk needs perspective. Much of the condemnation of the Mills behavior is coming from a generation who has forgotten what it’s like to be an adolescent; who grew up in, not a marginally different world as previous generations have, but an extensively different world. Every generation thinks it’s special, none more than the Boomers, but none in the history of civilization have experienced anything like the digital/information/globalization transformation which the Mills are currently negotiating. The book, It’s Complicated, by Danah Boyd, draws on several years of investigation and hundreds of interviews to examine and put into perspective how the younger generation is dealing with our latest communications technology. Her conclusions are illuminating on their own, and yet more so in contrast to the Frontline documentary Generation Like, which shows a decisively critical view.
My saccharine hope is that the Mills break the mold, that they won’t forget, that they’ll see through marketing hype, reject wasteful consumerism, and let the data collection backfire on the multinationals. There is a possibility that they won’t betray their ideals, as their parents have betrayed them. There may be a shred of hope that they won’t become neo-neoconservative old phonies. Then, maybe, we can dismiss the Boomer’s old adage, “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.”
Read the book, It’s Complicated, Danah Boyd, Yale University Press, 2014
Listen to the podcast interview with [Danah Boyd on Science Friday]
Watch the flip side of the story on the Frontline documentary [Generation Like]
SIDE TRACK : A search for “the cost of free media,” turned up, to my surprise, only articles on the cost to business, not the cost to you and me, the social cost. As if business were the only thing that matters. Still, it uncovers the costs that get built into the price of products, but more importantly, it also discloses the real nature of free media : a furtive scheme to manipulate you into consuming things you wouldn’t otherwise voluntarily. In other words, turn you into a gullible buying machine.
Read how marketers calculate how to control you using your own content, or steering you with theirs :
This one brags about a “43% return on investment” from followers. Flip that figure; it’s a 57% cost of advertising. No business can operate spending that much on advertising : [The Dark Side of Free]