Last night I watched a Frontline episode called Generation Like. The episode followed several teens that were learning how to use social media and learning how to create content that brought them popularity. Switching from interesting to depressing, the show walked us through how teens were training themselves and each other to learn what type of content drove social sharing online.
From a business standpoint, the episode focused on how teens were building audiences for their content, then leveraging those audiences to secure payments (typically in the form of sponsorships) from brands. Often it was in the form of products that would then be used in their videos, but sometimes cash was involved as well. The story that I thought was quite telling (and also depressing) was of a 13 year-old skateboarder that was trying to create videos of his skateboarding that would be popular enough for him to make money off them so he could help his impoverished family. He started out making videos just of him performing skateboarding tricks and stunts, but found that those only generated enough views on YouTube to land him sponsorships from companies in the form of skateboarding gear and clothes. So he had to find a way to get more views for his videos (because more views means more money). He started (again, 13 year-old boy) adding older girls to his videos, showing him dancing provocatively with them and performing sexual poses, basically videos that had little or nothing to do with skateboarding. He would also make videos where he went around doing all sorts of silly stunts with complete strangers. These videos had far greater reach than just his skateboarding videos, which meant he could make money off them, versus just getting product for his skateboarding videos. The kid then talked about a friend of his that was a far better skateboarder than he was, but the friend admitted that he couldn’t get high views for his videos (even though his tricks and skills were better) because his videos didn’t include the sexual overtones and raunchy humor that were making his less talented friend’s videos more popular.
These teens are getting a crash course in a basic reality of this social media age: If you build an audience for your content, that opens doors for you. It’s no different from how I leveraged this blog’s readership and my Twitter following to help land a book deal. When I was talking to publishers about Think Like a Rock Star, they wanted to know about my online audience. Every readership and following stat I could show them pointed to a greater online reach and the ability to more easily move people toward a piece of content.
But aside from the business implications, the episode also touched on how the teens wanted and even needed to see their content be Liked online. Teens would dissect each other’s Facebook pages and question why one girl’s cover photo got hundreds of Likes compared to the others. At one point a small group of teens were analyzing each other’s Facebook content and they all agreed that when the girls posted selfies that these would get more Likes than when the guys did.
The race for Likes is a race for validation. Just as the teens do it in their circles, their parents are as well. Everyone reading this blog knows that in general, if you have bigger numbers (more followers, more Likes), your content is typically viewed as being more trustworthy. As I was talking to Daniel about last night on Facebook, the best content doesn’t always get the most exposure, it’s typically the content that’s shared via the largest platform that spreads further. We want to see bigger numbers associated with ourselves and our content because it helps to validate that we are helping others, and quite honestly, we need the external validation that the numbers provide on some level to enhance our own sense of self-worth.
Yet our need for numbers to provide external validation isn’t a social media condition, it’s a human condition. This is a popularity contest that’s been around much longer than Facebook has. When I was in 9th grade I attended an extremely small country school that didn’t have a student body large enough to go past the 9th grade, so it ended there. My ‘graduating’ class in the 9th grade had 9 students and only 6 of them went on to the 10th grade. Moving onto the 10th grade meant literally changing schools, and where I lived, there was only one option, transferring to the much bigger high school in a nearby city. While the school itself offered a much better education, for a shy introvert it was at first a nightmare. I went from having 8 classmates in the 9th grade, to having 175 in my first year of high school in the 10th grade. What’s worse, the kids at the high school had already made their friends in the 9th grade, so everyone had established friendships and even cliques by the time I arrived in the 10th grade as a complete outsider. In fact my 10th grade in high school was definitely one of the most miserable of my life. But by midway or so through 11th grade, I started making friends, and got to be a bit popular with classmates. I remember that in 10th grade I bought an annual, which students would get to sign for each other. I hated my 10th grade annual because I only had a handful of signatures from classmates, but I loved my 11th grade annual. By then I had made friends and I got a lot of signatures. Those signatures were my ‘numbers’ and external validation that I was no longer an outsider. I still to this day remember asking someone to sign my annual and they said ‘Wow Mack, you have so many signatures already!’, and I remember how proud I was of those signatures.
Looking back, I realize now that everyone else was doing the same thing I was, they were seeking signatures from each other, the more the better. If you went to sign someone’s annual and they already had a ton of signatures, that mostly meant that they were popular, and that everyone wanted to sign their annual. Nevermind that most of the signatures were a result of me asking them to sign it (follow me on Twitter and I will follow you back, so both our numbers go up). Ironically, I see the same thing happening today. Often I will have a stranger tweet me ‘Hey Mack I followed you, will you follow me back?’ The need to raise our numbers, and the sense of self-worth we tie to the numbers, is always there.
With any luck, either from enlightenment or simply tired legs, we learn to stop chasing numbers and external validation. We begin to realize that we don’t need others to tell us things about ourselves, that we should be confident in our own abilities and value. I’m not completely there yet, but since those days as an insecure 10th grader I am relying less on strangers to tell me things about myself that I already know. I hope you are as well.
Pic via Flickr user LeoHidalgo