Courtesy of PBS Frontline
What do we call the kids these days who thrive on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter?
How about Generation Like - a term coined by author, cyber-culture czar and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff.
The name of a recent documentary aired on PBS Frontline produced by Rushkoff himself, Generation Like is quite unlike any of their predecessors - Baby Boomers, Generation X, or even Generation Y (ie Millennials). Born with a tablet or smartphone perpetually attached to their digits, these post-millennials live in a very different world from the rest of us.
I am the Sum of My Social Media Impressions
Social media IS mainstream media. And to the 8 to 15 year olds, its perfectly fine to share whatever you're doing with the rest of the world. After all, everybody else is doing it too.
Today's teens are no longer shy and self-effacing. Well, at least when they are online. Armed with more computing power in their palms than an entire room of equipment 20 years ago, they are puffing themselves up online for everyone else to see.
Profile pictures, cover photos, selfies (especially selfies), food, outfit of the day.... the list goes on and on. The trick here is to generate as much social currency as possible - "likes", comments, shares or retweets.
Becoming the sum total of their social media impressions, what these kids "like" about brands, products and celebrities are also broadcasted to the world. It becomes a part of their identity.
What Facebook Knows
In this economy of "likes", social media kingpins like Facebook, Google and Twitter rules. And what they do know about us is staggering.
When a kid likes another kid's profile picture, Facebook knows. When a kid likes dozen of brands on Facebook, they know what he or she prefers. When a kid searches on YouTube for a brand, the company's API (Google) would enrich its database with what she wants.
These social networks would then zoom in to what the kid gets to see. So the more they like certain categories of stuff, the more they are shown brands, celebrities, and products belonging to that specific category or genre.
This increasingly narrows their scope and reduces serendipitous discovery. The more they consume, the more they will be pushed specific content to encourage further consumption.
As social networks start going IPO and becoming advertising and sales platforms, they have a huge commercial push to collect as much data as possible. When you like dozens of brands, social networks learn
about your preferences and your friends too. This is where the currency of likes turn into actual currency.
Mash-up of Culture and Commerce
As you'd imagine, companies cannot stand by the sidelines when the icons of this
generation are the like button, share button, retweet button, and reblog button. They are not only getting into the game, but are shaping popular culture while doing so.
A million people who likes a brand page is profound. They also represent an unprecedented opportunity for profit.
Many movie studios are already orchestrating this par excellence. Every piece of content - an interview, a teaser, behind-the-scenes stills, a full length trailer, a movie website - is engineered to generate clicks, shares and likes. Chances are, they know who their fans are too.
Often content isn't just produced by the companies, but by the kids themselves. They include anything from real-time video content broadcasted on Twitter, Instagram photos with the right #hashtags, or their own "commercials" featuring the beloved brand.
In the world of Generation Like, your consumer is your marketer.
Hyper Fans = Social Media Celebrities
When everybody is labelled as a consumer rather than an individual, the merchants of "like" now use "hyper consumers" to influence the masses. These alpha users could be beauty vloggers teaching you how to do your make-up to look like Gaga, bathroom singers who can carry a few tunes, or comedians with a wicked sense of humour.
In Generation Like, we're introduced to "super-fan" Tyler Oakley. His fame by association brought him over 3 million subscribers on YouTube, 800,000 fans on Facebook, 1.3 million followers on Instagram, and 2 million followers on Twitter.
Teens and kids like Tyler are becoming digital media channels themselves. And they are collaborating with other teen celebrities on YouTube, encouraging each other's fans to subscribe to one another.
This camaraderie is aided by celebrity content marketing companies like theAudience, which helps to "build meaningful connections between leading entertainers, global
brands, and highly engaged fans, through compelling, sharable content
that binds their lives together."
Sponsorship Savvy or Moral Bankruptcy?
If you're hot, brands want you. They will help to fund emerging online artists with sponsorships of products, services, and sometimes even cash.
Talented kids and teens can be walking billboards for sponsors. In the case of skateboarding stunt kid Steven Fernandez, the money earned can even be a way to pull them out of poverty.
Unfortunately, just doing tricks on a board ain't enough. To get more views and likes, Steven transformed into BabyScumbag, a mean, teasing, 13 year old sex-fiend. His YouTube channel's content became racier and raunchier when he realised that such videos grab a lot more eyeballs (and sponsorship dollars) compared to sliding down a couple of rails on a wooden wheeled board.
The sad truth is that if you don't get a zillion hits, you are ignored by sponsors. Doing stupid stunts to become famous, even though you may break your arm or expose yourself, seems to be worth it.
In fact, this rule is so rampant that even real-life Hollywood stars are playing the same game on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Gamification of Fans
In the words of TVGla - a digital marketing agency - you need to use the audience in the way you want the audience to use your product. In other words, you should insert your brand into the audience's life and create memes that the audience can also use to be your best marketer.
This phenomenon of gamifying one's fans is best exemplified by The Hunger Games. What's designed to look like a grassroots and community effort is actually meticulously engineered to engender sharing. In the words of the documentary, the goal here is to "create a controlled brush fire online".
Here, audiences become part of the marketing campaign itself. They are served lots of content tidbits that serve as fuel for the online fire. To incentivise them, they are provided with credits or points that can be redeemed for digital or virtual goods.
Companies like Kiip (founded by 22 year old Brian Wong) provides services allowing companies to gamify everything you do to get points, rewards and moments. This works on the psychological principle of "serendipity by design".
The gamification of everything sounds eerily like The Hunger Games itself, where hidden game masters set the rules that you need to follow, and where the only way to receive benefits from sponsors is to get as many people to like you as you can. Jar of miraculous healing ointment anyone?
The Death of Selling Out
Selling out is not selling out anymore. To the teens, it doesn't matter what you do as long as you get paid for doing something popular. In fact, many don't even know what selling out means anymore.
Indeed, there is less of a counter cultural direction these days. Everything seems to be converging towards the lowest common denominator of what excites and attracts attention, regardless of whether it was authentic or synthetic.
In other words, no more grunge rock. No more underground movements. No more spontaneous cultural revolutions.
In Rushkoff's analysis, everything these days is a manufactured product, engineered by "Big Corporations", using the teens themselves to be advertisers.
Teen Empowerment or Enslavement?
With social networks exerting such a great impact on Generation Like, teens feel that they get to speak directly to their favourite celebrities and actors like never before.
Getting these stars to retweet you is awesome. Its really cool too if they mentioned you. If a kid likes a celebrity or a brand who decides to follow them back, it makes them feel empowered and gives them a digital brag badge.
Unfortunately, while teens may feel empowered belonging to a social community, the truth of the matter is that they're ultimately alone.
The paradox of Generation Like is that while you may have thousands of "fans", there is a certain hollowness to all that frenzied online activity. At the end of the day, it may become a fruitless and endless quest for popularity with nothing enduring to show for it.
Do check out the documentary Generation Like and let me know if you agree with the producer's somewhat dystopian diagnosis. I'd love to hear your views!
Labels: Connected generation, contemporary, culture, digital lifestyle, Douglas Rushkoff, Generation C, Generation Like, Millennials, popular, social media, teenagers, youth, youtube