Last night I watched the Frontline documentary Generation Like. I really enjoyed it. It discusses how kids and teens (and adults) try to market themselves online on social media in return for recognition and popularity from others in the form of “likes.” The documentary focuses especially on the symbiotic relationship between kids on social media and the companies and brands they support. Kids “like”, or tweet about, or reblog things about the Hunger Games, and are therefore marketing for the Hunger Games. But, the Hunger Games is primarily marketed to these same kids. The kids, through social media, are both the marketers and the marketed-to demographic.
The gist of the documentary was that kids are doing a job, that is usually paid, for imaginary internet points, or some free merchandise, or a retweet from their favorite actors. My fiancé’s reaction to this was to say “so what?” The kids like their fan tumblr pages, the chance at winning a contest to have a skype call with Lady Gaga, or becoming a well-known youtuber in exchange for promoting a soda. They get what they want, the companies get cheap advertising, everyone wins! I figured that he was right, as long as the kids realize what they’re doing.
So, I went to the source. My nearly 13 year old sister, Becky, a self-proclaimed fan girl. Her Instagram page is completely dedicated to Doctor Who, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and The Hunger Games. I pointed out to her that by posting all the pictures to her 260 followers, she is helping those franchises to market their products to other kids like her. She was surprised! She said, “Wow! I’ve never thought about it that way.” Since kids like Becky don’t think about how they are doing these companies a surface, is it fair to use them in this way? I certainly don’t know, but I’m sure it isn’t going away any time soon.
So what does any of this have to do with education? Well, it is important for teachers to know what kids are up to. We shouldn’t be scared of technology that came after us. I tend to avoid tumblr and twitter and Instagram in favor of Facebook, but I should at least try to understand these newer forms of social media, if only to stay in the loop. [Note: I type this as I watch Frozen with my sister, since I need to know what everyone is talking about all the time.]
Understanding how kids and corporations interact through social media can also help us to clue the kids into the system. We can let our students know that they are advertising for their favorite companies and brands. Maybe they won’t care, maybe it’ll make them try to leverage the situation for a better deal, or maybe it’ll make them a little more suspicious of the fan-culture of today’s teens.
And finally, we can of course use this knowledge the same way the kids are: to advertise ourselves. We can learn from the people who have a lot of likes, and use that information to help us have good web-presence ourselves. It can help us to grow as educators by widening our professional network. It can also help our web-presence for our students, having interesting class websites and blogs, using youtube to help teach, and generally using, instead of avoiding, social media in a productive way.