Generation Like: Social Media and the Search for Validation

Think about how often you find a table at a restaurant with everyone looking at their smartphone instead of conversing. Technology certainly has its advantages, but something is clearly wrong with this picture. The concept of identity creates a different perception for everyone. In today’s culture, much of what constitutes a person’s identity may be channeled through social media. The problem is that some people put so much time into their digital profile that their real-world life suffers.

Undergraduate students in my mass communication class this semester have found one way to combat this. They turn going out to eat into a game where all cell phones are stacked at the end of the table. The first person to reach for his phone pays for the meal. Simple enough, but it gets at the heart of a larger concern. Are we struggling to keep our real lives as interesting as our digital ones?

This week, media scholar Douglas Rushkoff, along with PBS, released an excellent documentary called Generation Like. The film details how current teens create online identities and also shows how they are monetized. Some YouTube celebrities like Tyler Oakley have been able to turn social media followers into dollars. Other users remain simply nothing more than super fans content with millions of followers that justify their hours online. Teenagers today are the first generation to grow up with a fully digitalized culture, and we are seeing more signs of that every day in how they define themselves.

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Keeping up with social media can be a full-time job. Watching some of the most prominent podcasts, video blogs, and Twitter feeds can make you wonder how they seem to follow everything. It’s simple: either they get paid for it or it is a guilty obsession. Younger generations use "likes," "retweets," and "reflags," (etc.) as forms of social currency, as stated in Rushkoff’s film. Social-media validation becomes part of their identity and perceived value. Maybe this is why so many restaurants and coffee shops are filled with people peering endlessly into their screens. Whether using your laptop or smartphone is for work, play, or a combination of the two, at some point we lose out on the real world in front of us.

Looking for validation is nothing new; however, social media users now have a much larger platform to search for it. Every like or retweet is viewed as a pat on the back and is taken seriously by many of today’s young media socialites. This has led to a major shift in the perception of not just endorsements but the nature of them as well. Over a decade ago, Rushkoff made another documentary called The Merchants of Cool that studied how companies learn about teens. At that point it was a laborious process; however, today, it’s as easy as logging into Facebook. Consumer and marketer are now one in the same.

Marketing strategies over the last ten to fifteen years have changed drastically. Social media users do all of the legwork for advertisers with every interaction they have. Ages ago this would have been seen as selling out, giving in to “the man,” and would not have been respected. Today’s teens don’t see obsessive social media use as negative; it is a way to become somebody larger than yourself. They embrace it. Selling out is a victory, not a compromise. In fact, teens in Generation Like were asked what "selling out" means to them. Not a single one saw it the same way past generations had, and none would not use it to describe successful media socialites.

There was a time when selling out was equated to giving in to a big corporate monster. Not anymore. It has become an integral part of a desired identity made up of endless digital validation. Take, for example, the current fascination with teen vampire narratives. For over 100 years of popular culture the vampire was seen as a scary manifestation of our every fear (Bram Stoker’s Dracula). Today, updated vampire stories such as Twilight and True Blood instead find young characters yearning to become that monster. What was once feared is now desired. The search for validation in today’s digitalized culture can be monstrous, in every sense of the word.