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
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1310 GMT (2110 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 16, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
August 17, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 2146 GMT (0546 HKT)
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2226 GMT (0626 HKT)
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2357 GMT (0757 HKT)
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 2024 GMT (0424 HKT)
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
August 15, 2014 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2035 GMT (0435 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 2308 GMT (0708 HKT)
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1525 GMT (2325 HKT)
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT