In the Land of Like and Fav: Teens on Social Media Might Break the World

A mini-doc on Instagram fame asks how just much validation these kids need anyway.

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Feb 20 2014, 10:10pm
Image: Jorislouwes/Flickr CC

Social media "fame" is a clown show. While companies like Upworthy and Buzzfeed try to keep a finger on the pulse of viral content, and take a business-minded approach to discovering how it originates and spreads—in order to better snare thousands of retweets, shares, and likes—the process can still feel like predicting earthquakes. Amassing followers and increasing visibility is still less a science and largely a game of hit or miss.

Today's studies will often center around whether social media validation is "authentic or inauthentic". Drawing that distinction is crucial in observing the meaning making, and the developed strengths and weaknesses of a generation fed to an unprecedented degree by their phones.

Instafame is a portrait of the Instagram-famous Long Islander Shawn Megira. The brief documentary highlights a study that found 31 percent of 14-18 year-olds believe they’ll be famous one day, and explores the meaning of Shawn's photo-posting. After a friend helped him cultivate over 50,000 followers on the snapshot-sharing platform, 15-year-old Shawn is living testament to the power of such a belief, even if "being famous"  has come to mean something entirely different from what my mom would have considered fame in the 70s. Maybe this is what Andy Warhol meant though.

Megira's mastery of the game-like platform has as much to do with pictures of him being cute, as it has to do with strategy, and his alignment with other users that are far bigger than him. In answering hypothetically what he'd do if Instagram were to disappear, Megira says he'd just continue living his life as if nothing happened. One look at his profile seems to bolster the sentiment—Shawn mostly posts laid-back selfies. His life wouldn't really have to change except losing the steady deluge of thumbs-ups and adoration from thousands of young girls who want to have his babies. Does that matter?

That steady stream of validation obviously develops narcissistic and entitled forms of living, Instafame's interviewees warn. Thoroughly covered in Jean Twenge's, The Narcissism Epidemic, is the notion of a society that might collapse under the weight of over-praised young adults, and increasingly, people fostered with an unwavering sense of entitlement due to being liked on the Internet. Today, an article in New York Magazine, about escalating neediness due to social media use, highlighted Ford's 2014 consumer trends report that "62 percent of adults worldwide...report better self-esteem after positive social-media feedback."

On Sunday, coding evangelist Douglas Rushkoff hosted a PBS Frontline episode, exploring the use of social media by today's teens, titled "Generation Like." Joining a group of kids as they sat together at a dining table workshopping their social media profiles, Rushkoff soon recognized a heightened level of sophistication the teens have over their counterparts from ten years ago. But some self-consciousness quickly presented itself as one boy from the group became jealous when seeing that one of the girls' profile pictures had received hundreds of likes.

Translated into real life, kids gain validation and bragging rights from the metrics that define their internet success. Some might have a less challenging time looking for a seat in the cafeteria, or finding a girl to make babies with, while others smartly leverage their audiences in order to nab real money.

Admittedly, my own job has a great deal to do with gaining followers, and widening the audience to this site. While I justify that because the content I share, of my colleagues and my own, is undoubtedly amazing, useful, and completely worthy of a zillion pageviews, I can't help but bite through my fingernails when we don't continue to beat previous records. Like Megira said, if it all disappears tomorrow, he'll simply continue living his life. But I don't know if it'll be so simple for me.