Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Social media and the perils of looking for 'likes'

By Douglas Rushkoff
February 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
On Thursday Facebook bowed to privacy concerns by making new users' privacy settings default to "Friends" instead of "Public." The new feature also walks existing users through privacy settings, letting them make changes if they so desire. Read on for more stats about Facebook, which turned 10 in February. On Thursday Facebook bowed to privacy concerns by making new users' privacy settings default to "Friends" instead of "Public." The new feature also walks existing users through privacy settings, letting them make changes if they so desire. Read on for more stats about Facebook, which turned 10 in February.
HIDE CAPTION
10 years of Facebook
10 years of Facebook
10 years of Facebook
10 years of Facebook
10 years of Facebook
10 years of Facebook
10 years of Facebook
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Douglas Rushkoff: Teenagers aim to get as many likes as possible
  • Likes have real value for teens but even more value for giant companies that profit, he says
  • Rushkoff: Getting liked on social media can be a route to getting your talents recognized
  • But he says behavior designed to gain more likes may not always be beneficial

Editor's note: Douglas Rushkoff writes a regular column for CNN.com. He is a media theorist, the author of the book, "Present Shock: When everything happens now" and correspondent on a Frontline documentary "Generation Like" being shown on PBS beginning February 18.

(CNN) -- Ask teens the object of social media, and they'll all tell you the same thing: to get "likes." Whether on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Tumblr, young users understand the coin of this realm, and are more than happy to do what is necessary to accumulate it. But is the currency value neutral, or does it come with an agenda of its own?

Living for likes makes a teen's social career a whole lot easier, in some respects. Now there's a number letting kids know how popular they are, how well a photo is resonating with their friends, or whether their video stands a chance of vaulting them into the professional world of singing, skateboarding or twerking.

What they may not understand, however, is that this game of likes is not taking place on a level playing field. It was constructed by companies whose multibillion-dollar stock valuations are depending on little more than generating traffic -- more likes, follows and favorites -- and then selling the data that can be gleaned from it.

Douglas Rushkoff
Douglas Rushkoff

In a sense, major parts of our economy (or at least the inflated valuations on the NASDAQ exchange) are now depending on the social media activity of kids. I'm not sure that's a pressure worth putting on them.

On the surface, it all looks pretty empowering. For the MTV generation, changing the channel via remote control was about as interactive as mainstream media got -- and that only brought a kid from one corporate media conglomerate's commercial programming to another's.

Clearly, the social media universe, with its countless Facebook pages, YouTube channels, Twitter feeds and Instagram photos, offers a whole lot more choice. Instead of watching a TV channel, today's teens get to watch each other. That in itself amounts to power, freedom and agency, right?

CNN i Facebook Turns Ten
'Likes,' 'pokes' and more: Facebook at 10
Twitter's top ten famous tweeters

Maybe. For while all these clicks and keystrokes and photos and videos may be free, they come with a price. Kids aren't paying with money, but with their attention and their hours of meticulous profile tweaking. They're paying with their likes, their favorites, and their follows. And they get paid back with a new path to popularity or even fame.

Sometimes, the exchange is explicit. Brands from soft drinks to automobiles ask kids to like an ad or promotion, all for the chance to be liked back or re-tweeted by the brand to its millions of followers. The teen gets more of those coveted likes. The companies get a real-time portrait of their potential customers and influencers, as well as all their friends.

And this isn't just some virtual game. Likes really do matter out here in the real world, too. New musicians and new writers alike must demonstrate that they have social media followings in order to find distribution and sponsors.

A new kind of talent agency, The Audience, has arisen to help young up-and-comers cultivate a social media presence, and then sell that network of followers to the appropriate advertisers.

It's actually a science. Thanks to the immense data pools created by social media users, a firm like The Audience can find the overlaps between fans of a certain pop star and those who have interacted with particular brands. That little venn diagram is marketer's gold. And, to be fair, The Audience is helping young musicians build careers in a landscape where there are no record labels left willing to develop talent -- and no one buying music, anymore, anyway. By pairing talent with sponsors, The Audience creates a new revenue stream for artists, or at least the ones with the most viewed selfies.

But it does create an oddly circular culture: Kids develop social media audiences in order to become "stars," which really just means having enough social media followers to sell out to a brand for sponsorship. Perhaps more amazingly, none of them seem to mind. When I asked kids what they thought about "selling out" for my PBS documentary on social media, none of them could even tell me what "selling out" meant. They thought it had something to do with there not being any tickets left for a concert.

The language barrier aside, young social media users today draw no distinction between art and commerce, culture and advertising. While kids engaged with social media have the ability to express themselves and their values to pretty much the rest of the developed world, they seem unaware of the extent to which these platforms shape the values they choose to express.

As I learned from a 13-year-old skateboarder who calls himself Baby Scumbag, you get fewer likes for making videos of board tricks than you do for getting gorgeous girls to pose for you in the near nude, or just doing crazy antics in the street. He's a massive success on YouTube, where his videos often generate more than a million views.

Another teenager, a girl from near San Diego, started making videos of herself singing, but is quickly learning that shots of her in her bedroom, or full body, or in a bathing suit, get her more attention. Her videos no longer include her vocals.

That's the part I don't think most teens grasp. Nor do most adults have enough of a handle on this whole social media universe to fully articulate our misgivings. We know something is amiss, but saying it out loud feels so, well, out of touch.

The reality here, however, is that it's our young social media users who are out of touch -- or at least painfully oblivious to the way the tools and platforms they're using in turn use them. They grew up with this stuff in their lives, and they accept these tools at face value, as features of the natural landscape. Not so. They were made by companies whose interests go far beyond helping kids express themselves and make friends. Our kids are not the customers here; they are both the product and the unwitting labor.

Our social media platforms are embedded with values that shape our perspectives and our behaviors. If we live in the social media landscape without an awareness of what it really wants from us, no one is really being empowered at all.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Douglas Rushkoff.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT