From 1997–99—just before social media erupted on the scene—I studied American teenagers and reported the results in Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids (2004). Fifteen years later, I did a follow-up study to see what changes have occurred in teenage culture. I will highlight some of the finding and their implications in a series of short essays. This first focuses on how digital technology and social media have accentuated the “struggle” for attention and social visibility.
You can read all the essays in this series here.
With the widespread adoption of mobile phones and tablets, social media (e.g., Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and Snapchat) have become a central feature of contemporary society. Teenagers were eager adopters of the new media. This has changed their culture and behavior: Social visibility through social media became more important and face-to-face interaction less so. Such media have tended to increase the size of social networks and hence made social visibility more difficult. In a village or small school everyone is known and has a status. In much larger settings many people are socially invisible; they become “nobodies.”
Teenagers have multiple motivations for their use of social media, but a concern about their status with other peers is certainly central—and social visibility is a prerequisite to such status. A college student from Colorado reports: “At my high school [social media were] a very big deal. Certain students were either Twitter or Instagram “famous” because they had a lot of followers. The amount of favorites or likes … received could determine their popularity.”
A different college student describes her high-school experience:
There were the star athletes, the dance team captain, the talented singer, the class comedian, the guy who threw parties every weekend, the girl who was arrested twice, and the girl who sent racy photos to the entire JV lacrosse team. Those who stood out from the crowd, no matter how they got the attention, were those deemed popular [italics added].
The Colorado student indicates that teenagers are well aware of social visibility as a prerequisite for status:
It was … easy for the popular crowd to advertise what they were doing at all times because they could simply post a picture or tweet and everyone would automatically know about it. Students who weren’t friends with the popular crowd knew [of] their activities, drama, and friends…. The things that people would post on twitter and Instagram tended to be topics for gossip.
A student from Southwest Virginia is explicit about the importance of technology and social media in the concerns about visibility:
[T]he more outgoing students invested more time … in keeping in touch with their friends, social networking, and focusing on building relationships…. Electronic communication played a crucial role in this constant communication.… [I]t was utilized more often than face-to- face interaction. In an average class, a “popular” student seemed to check their phone or send text messages about once every five to ten minutes.
A student from New Jersey gives a similar account:
Instagram was definitely the most important reason to have an iPhone, with Twitter at a close second. The “popular” clique was the most active on social media.… [T]hey had to prove … how much fun they were having at all times. Partying with excessive amounts of alcohol was their favorite hobby to broadcast. Their parties would be small and exclusive and half of the time at the party would be spent taking pictures to post on Instagram. Four girls would each post the same picture within minutes of each other [and] numerous other pictures that showed how “drunk-and-in-love-with-each-other” they were. The captions would always be very boastful, such as “My friends are better than your friends”. Soon the entire news feed would be consumed with pictures solely from this one party.
The struggle for visibility is not limited to teenagers. We see this struggle for visibility in “reality TV,” when people subject themselves to all kinds of stressful situations and share their romantic conflicts, their addictions, the neglect of their children, and other behaviors that put them in a bad light. Couples take videos of themselves having sex and post these online. Making visible intimate, weird, or bad behavior is a way to become known; anything seems preferable to being an unknown “nobody.”
A parallel phenomenon seems to be occurring in politics. With more than a dozen Republicans candidates running for president, the real struggle is to grab the most attention—and the winner so far is Donald Trump, who has no political experience or qualifications, but a long history of highly visible behaviors running from unorthodox to scandalous.
Other aspects of the new teenage culture that give us insight into broader changes will be described in subsequent essays. You can read all the essays in this series here.
Murray Milner, Jr. is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Senior Fellow at IASC. His most recent books are Elites: A General Model (2015), and Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids: Teenagers is an Era of Consumerism, Standardized Tests, and Social Media, 2nd Edition (2015) from which this essay is drawn.