“New science on its corrosive, traumatizing effects”
Jennifer Senior in New York Magazine
20 January 2013
The article looks at high school as a particularly formative time in people’s lives - a point where selves are made and patterns are set for much of our adult personalities. The fear, the hierarchy, the micro-aggressions; “If you’re interested in how people become who they are, so much is going on in the adolescent years.”
The article talks a lot about high school social status, which reminds me of a question I was hashing over with some old friends the other evening: how the hell didn’t I get bullied? I mean, you did, right? It seems everyone I know now was a bit weird in high school and suffered the consequences along with that. I was definitely strange, and mostly fairly unhappy to boot. So I still wonder: how was I not a target?
My school had a toxic bullying culture. In Year 9 my class lost 4 or 5 students (out of only 24) as they moved schools to get the hell away from it all. C. not only left but changed her face - ears pinned, nose job - but she still couldn’t escape us on lacrosse pitch, this time playing for the weaker team. Ouch. We developed a culture of competitive anorexia - and fake anorexia, and wannabulimia - where it was a sign of status to be admitted to the Priory (like the slebs) rather than NHS treatment (like the plebs). Any fat on your thighs, or a 100m time over 15 seconds, or a grade below an A, and girls would talk loudly and publicly about what a disgusting failure they were, as a means of pre-emptively deflecting criticism. And because they really felt they were.
As I said, a toxic culture.
In a toxic culture, making other people feel bad is a way to shore up your own, fragile, self esteem. “At least I am not as unpopular as E., or as terminally uncool as K” - always, always the comparison and ranking. My school was a forerunner of the modern trend for hyper-measured and hyper-competitive childhoods: everyone, at all times, knew where they ranked academically (read out in class), athletically (pinned to notice boards for public scrutiny), musically (grades and orchestral achievements also announced), and socially (who was invited to what party).
I survived because I was the academic yardstick, and I knew it, and they knew I knew, and they knew I knew they knew - pretty much ad infinitum, because it was all about the mind games. In hindsight this must have sucked for everyone else - parents would ask their daughters, “What did Jessica get?”, and that would determine if their progeny’s 92 was a great achievement or not quite good enough. In an environment driven by enormous fear of failure, you do not antagonise the loudmouth who might just say what you secretly fear about yourself - “You don’t get it. You’re wrong. You’re a bit thick”. Not a nice way to have to survive - and I hope I never actually played that card on another student. (To my teachers: Sorry.) But high school is in many ways about learning to survive - and I did, so for that I cannot be but grateful.
Perhaps I was safe because essentially I had left high school even while I was still there. The interests and friends who occupied my time were substantially out-of-school ones. People wondered what I got up to - older boyfriends? blowjobs? heroin? - the truth being little or none of the rumours, of course. But being more worldly than your potential bullies can be easily achieved with the right reading list (existentialist novels, cult fiction, theory), and of course I hated conformity and despised social norms because that was the mode of teenagerdom I was following.
From there, what? - a bit of nihilistic attitude and then, bang! “I don’t care,” and “I’m not playing your game,” - and then I was free to get on with my own private dramas in relative peace. My school years still weren’t happy, but other people weren’t the problem.
I wasn’t sure how to end this post, so I looked up my old school and its alumna on Wikipedia. Lucy Prebble; her first play The Sugar Syndrome: “At the beginning, Dani (short for Danielle), a girl of seventeen, has just come home after spending some time in a clinic for eating disorders.” She follows this up with Enron, another study in upper-middle class skullduggery (and Diary of A Call Girl, on which no comment). Then Ella Hickson is talking about her generation with three plays on youth and family and damage - and Clemmie Moodie is a “3AM Girl”, i.e an award-winning gossip columnist on the Daily Mirror. Meanwhile I’m, what? An anthropologist of contemporary online chatter, performance, reputation and influence.
Guildford. You might leave, but you never escape.
hi my name is andrea and we just might become best friends
Notes On A Visual Generation, part ii
[part i here]
1. a huge visual coherence to her stream. though it’s all reblogged - and mostly popular stuff, images that have been shared 30,000 times - it all has exactly the same colour palette. Instagramesque as all fuck - slightly muted like an overcast day.
2. a lot of photos that aren’t exactly ‘of’ much (or otherwise I really can’t read them). an unmade bed, a row of nondescript shoes. they acquire their semiotic value purely in relation to the other images as part of a fragmentary whole.
3. emotions often shared through handwritten images / handwriting on photos, with age-old themes: love, loneliness, unrequited love. [good to know some things haven’t changed shit in a decade!]
4. links to facebook profile: it’s all #IRL, maybe no (or fewer) distinctions between internet people and face-to-face friends. (and why? if you’re all chatting on skype in the evenings…)
5. profile says “straight”. everyone mentions their sexuality in these blogs, and my read - I may be wrong - is that this is saying hetero is no longer normative.
Read a couple of good long-form pieces recently about teenage girls online - the whole nexus of growing up and working out who you are in a digital culture voraciously set to consume youth, fashion, cool, and of course sexuality.
Here they are:
Sets out the progression from cute kid - to girl consciously being cute - to teen girl playing with looking sexy before she’s quite aware of how it’s being read - to being picked up by other blogs (Hipster Runoff) for having a prominent ‘personal brand’ - to having a lofi documentary made about 24 hours in your hipster life.
along the way bebe talks about her life being home schooled, her isolation, her philosophy on life and the internet and her strange family situation. the best moments are when bebe talks candidly about her unusual life, which is focused on her internet presence, or makes comments that shows us she knows exactly how ridiculous it is. bebe says “I understand that life is bleak and you can either kill yourself or donate yourself to social commentary. I’m just a brand. I’m just shit. All of my content regarding my personality is available.”…
obviously, society’s problem is not teenage girls. rather, what society views its problems to be often become fully embodied by the teenage girl. in other words, the teenage girl has become a mirror, in which we see everything we believe to be bad about our culture and ourselves—excess materiality, a desire for fame, vapidity and so on. as a young woman it can be close to impossible to avoid taking on these qualities when our society values our beauty over our intellect and the services we can provide rather than our contributions.
Significant also that the article’s author is artist Ann Hirsch, who’s done some pretty big performative projects about “internet cewebrity”, gaining 1.5 million YouTube views for her Scandalishious dancing girl vids.
Hirsh’s essay was spurred in part by this rather uncomfortable review by (who else?) Vice of the Bebe Zeva documentary.
Bebe Zeva’s photoblog is called Fated To Be Hated, which says it all.
2. Rolling Stone on Kiki Kannibal: The Girl Who Played With Fire
Another story from MySpace to Stickam video stream to online shop - and cyberbullying spilling over into the real world, and stalkers, and paedophiles - and a really nasty sub-Perez Hilton site called Stickydrama.com created by an adult man seeking to cash in on teen drama, internet celebrities, and all their sexy naked pics.
It’s particularly interesting to read Stickydrama.com as a compare-and-contrast with Fandom Wank. They initially seem to be similar meta-blogs reporting on activity within particular scenes’ social mediaspheres - and, subtitled Mock Mock Mockity-mock-mock - both would seem to be equally savage.
Except that Fandom Wank ends up working as a disciplinary mechanism for the fandom community, shooting down hostile and malicious behaviour and reaffirming social norms of decent behaviour. It’s basically the Internet Police, but with enough autocritique (and indeed postgrad social scientists onboard) to keep its own actions in check and largely clear of anything that can be called bullying.
Why Fandom Wank is constructive and most other scene blogs wildly destructive, I’m not sure. I’d moot it was something to do with fandom being highly female-dominated - but I went to an all-girls’ school, so bitch puh-lease! So maybe it’s something to do with fandom culture being anti-commercial - fanfiction, fansubs, shared vids, and somehow managing to build something creative strong enough to escape the vortex of capitalist consumption in a way that Scene Girls putting together new outfits somehow never quite does?
3. danah boyd on Publicity and the culture of celebritization
As information swirls all around us, we have begun to build an attention economy where the value of a piece of content is driven by how much attention it can attract and sustain. It’s all about eyeballs, especially when advertising is involved. Countless social media consultants are swarming around Web2.0, trying to help organizations increase their status and profitability in the attention economy. But the attention economy doesn’t just affect the monetization of web properties; it’s increasingly shaping how people interact with one another.
Teens’ desire for attention is not new. Teens have always looked for attention and validation from others – parents, peers, and high-status individuals. And just as many in business argue that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, there are plenty of teens who believe that there’s no such thing as bad attention. The notion of an “attention whore” predates the internet. Likewise, the notion that a child might “act out” is recognized as being a call for attention. And it’s important to highlight that the gendered aspects of these tropes are reinforced online.
So what happens when a teen who is predisposed to seeking attention gets access to the tools of the attention economy? Needless to say, we see both exciting and horrifying events play out. We see teens like Tavi Gevinson propel her interest in fashion into a full-blown career before the age of 14. And we see countless teens replicating the trainwreck activities of Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, and other celebrities. When teens leverage social media to propel themselves into the spotlight, they fully (and with reckless abandon) engage in a set of practices that Terri Senft and Alice Marwick talk about as micro-celebrity. They work to manage their impressions, cultivate attention, and interact in ways that will increase their fame and social status.
Epigraph: Hipster Runoff on Where have all the Myspacers gone?
Whenever ur internet identity is so strongly linked to a social network’s brand
U run the risk of being buried alive
underneath the sands of internet time
in the digital graveyard
Their stylized, mannered projections of self are as invented as any in a novel. There are regional differences, of course, to the mannerisms but there are certain common tics: Okayyyyyyyyy. Ahhhhhhh. Everything is extreme: So-and-so “is obsessed with.” So-and-so “just had the longest day EVERRRRRR.” They are in a perpetual high pitch of pleasure or a high pitch of crisis or sometimes just a high pitch of high pitch. Holden Caulfield might have called it “phoniness.”
A 14-year-old I talked to about this sent me a message that pretty much sums it up: “I write more enthusiastically on Facebook than I actually am in real life. Like if I see something remotely funny I might say ‘HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHA,’ when really there is no expression on my face.”
One of the other great adolescent poses of Facebook is irony at all times. So if you say, “can’t wait for the Lady Gaga concert,” you might add “lol” or you might say “Hey you are at camp and I’m in England, but I just wanted to let you know that I miss youuuu hahaha” to make it clear that you are not really looking forward to anything or expressing an actual emotion in a way that might be overly earnest or embarrassing.
Many, especially slightly older teenagers, seem to like to parody the Facebook norms even as they embrace them. The idea is that you are pretending to speak in the common language of Facebook, and are in fact speaking in that common language, but are aware of how unoriginal you are being; so when you write “omg” you are ironically commenting on the use of “omg,” but when other people write “omg” they are seriously saying “oh my God.” This very delicate balancing act is artful, in its way. Your character is now employing the clichés of the genre, but with satire, or maybe that would be satirrrrrrrrrre.
Market researchers doing semantic analysis of teenagers’ online expression may well need to be aware of this effect. Teens’ conversations may score highly for emotional content, but that doesn’t exactly mean there’s much feeling there.
(Interestingly this is very different to how I communicated online as a teen, which was all-lowercase with a kind of emotional blankness plagiarised from early Brett Easton Ellis novels. I hope that kind of teenage sociolect hasn’t completely been superseded by the kind of American typographic hysteria described above; I’ve still a soft spot for portentous ellipses that gesture at something further unspoken and unspecific like a black-clad shoulder shrug…)
((Where’s the smiley for ‘ever-so-slightly tongue in cheek’ when you need it?))