The use of social media by young people has brought new worries for parents and educators. Sexting, cyberbullies, identity thieves — the internet, we sometimes fear, is a shadowy place with danger lurking behind every click.
What if the most ominous threat of social media is the opposite, not that it seduces children into a cesspool of vice but that it disciplines them into a bland culture of caution and conformity? In her essay “Instagrim,” Donna Freitas describes the results of her study of the “professionalization of social media” and its effects on young users. She finds that Facebook and Instragram have become arenas for cultivating a reputation and preserving an all-important personal brand.
“I think of myself, my name, as a brand,” said one young woman . . . . “So I like to stay active on my social-media platforms, but I choose, I select when I share … I have a reputation, and I need to protect it. So I don’t share things that are private, things that are going on in my romantic relationships. I’m very selective. I’m a curator.”
Freitas finds students repeatedly invoking the language of business and marketing to describe their online lives. They compare posting on social media to doing homework or having a job. The branding model encourages them to think of the self as a product that must be displayed and sold.
Of course, social media platforms themselves have responded to the pressure of incessant curation:
This pressure has driven some [young people] to new platforms, where they can let off steam. They gushed about Snapchat, where posts disappear in seconds, and about pseudonymous profiles on Tumblr, Twitter, and Yik Yak. Students long to play around online, to be creative and even inappropriate, and the freedom to do so lies in anonymity.
This tension between surveillance and secrecy also shapes the educational technology business. From England, Laura Pinkerton criticizes the “gamification” of classrooms. Benignly promoted as a way to make learning fun, this trend promotes game-playing software as a way to teach and monitor students (low-tech games on boards or playgrounds presumably don’t count). Here again, the conservative moralist critique may be the first one that springs to mind: kids these days want everything to be a video game!
Pinkerton, however, sees a deeper problem:
“Gamification” in schools teaches children that they should expect their every move to be watched, rated and possibly shared publicly. It makes a lack of privacy appear normal and prepares young people to accept mass surveillance in their adult lives.
The games that she studied allow teachers to watch everything that a student does in the game. It’s a kind of training for the social media environment where everyone has to cultivate their public face. Pinkerton cites ClassDojo, which would be worthy of skepticism simply for its use of the insufferable martial-arts lingo that dominates tech culture. ClassDojo allows students’ behavior to be recorded and tracked, all in the interest of creating a “positive classroom culture,” as the company’s website puts it. “A shy student raising her hand? Share a +1 for ‘participating’ — or even ‘bravery!’ — to help your students make good choices.” Good choices, maybe, but also, as Pinkerton sees it, a message to value the approval of authority “more than internal motivations such as curiosity, passion, and drive.”
These authors call for critical thinking about privacy and public life, about surveillance and the self. We want our students to make what we think are “good choices.” What about choices that are surprising, unexpected, creative, and original? Those will require more than the careful cultivation of a personal brand.