The most shocking part of "Generation Like," PBS's new Frontline documentary about youth media culture, occurs when a bunch of teenagers confess they don't know what the term "sell-out" means. This term, so vital to the identities of at least three generations that had come before them, didn't register as something negative. In fact, it didn't register at all. If you hear a loud crunching noise at around 10pm tonight, don't worry. It's just a bunch of old people wringing their hands in unison.
The documentary, which airs tonight on PBS at 10pm ET and will be available online, explores the push and pull of modern marketing, which is pretty indistinguishable from internet culture. This, of course, is no coincidence. The show looks at everything from corporate sponsorship of YouTube stars like Baby Scumbag and Tyler Oakley to the average teen who's fretting about the number of likes his Facebook profile picture might be receiving.
We're all brands now, and this is meant to be terrifying. And it probably is. But the entire documentary is also liberally soaked with a kind of romanticization of the past; a struggle to understand how America could've produced such a nauseatingly earnest generation of tech-savvy sell-outs. Boomers, Gen Xers and even older Millennials are meant to be shouting, HAVE YOU NO SHAME, at their screens — without recognizing that perhaps the answer is both "no" and "shame about what?"
Douglas Rushkoff, host of the program and author of last year's Present Shock, introduces us to a young woman who says she's been working 4-5 hours per day liking and retweeting various forms of social media for the Hunger Games. "It makes me feel like a worker, but in the end it's all worth it because I get more sparks," she tells us.
Her "sparks" are social currency, a bit like the pumpkin points lampooned five years ago by The Onion — the same Onion started by a bunch of snarky Gen Xers in Madison and would evolve into a major media outlet now dependent upon likes and retweets to stay afloat. What does this young woman get from her hours of clicks? Sparks. What do sparks get her? Recognition as a serious Hunger Games fan. And that's really all she wants out of that relationship.
This young woman isn't ignorant to the realities of this exchange. For the most part, she understands what's going on. And that's the interesting part. She knows what her efforts are providing both to her and the studio behind the Hunger Games movies. She just doesn't really seem to care.
The question for the olds in the audience then is twofold: 1) Why should she care? and 2) Is this deceptive or manipulative when it's facilitated by an enormous media company?
"I do a lot of like brand integrations whenever it works, but I try to keep it minimal," YouTube star Tyler Oakley says to a room full of marketing professionals. "They can always tell if a YouTuber is like pushing something. So I try to keep it transparent and honest because they know it's my job and they know that I have to pay bills. They get that, so it's all good."
It's that matter-of-fact attitude that's so foreign to many of us over the age of 25 who are watching at home. "Selling out" has simply become "paying the bills." It almost feels like they're cheating. Who do these young punks think they are to just skip that step where you wallow in a pit of self-deception, rationalization, and guilt?
When I was in high school I saw Rushkoff's 2001 Frontline documentary "Merchants of Cool" probably three or four times. Everyone from my left-leaning Sociology teacher to my right-leaning Health teacher wanted to show us kids how the world of marketing worked. There were unseen forces trying to persuade you, to cajole you, to make you buy things. For my liberal teachers, it was an indictment of our wasteful and manipulative consumer culture. For my conservative teachers, it was another example of how sex and violence were corroding American culture from the inside.
But for me it just served to make me feel smart. I grasped at a kind of faux-intelligence about how things "really worked" in that smug way that a teenager so desperately wants to feel like he knows everything — like I'd had a peek behind the curtain. Without a doubt, this new documentary will serve a similar purpose for a handful of kids today.
"When we made the Frontline documentary 'Merchants of Cool' back in 2001 the media environment was quite different," Rushkoff explains. "MTV was the mighty behemoth growing rich exploiting kids' desire to be cool. Corporations were chasing teens down, taking teen culture and selling it back to them."
"Today's teens, like this group of high school friends in Montclair, New Jersey, don't need to be chased down. They're putting themselves out there online for anyone to see. They tell the world what they think is cool, starting with their own online profiles."
Rushkoff is absolutely right. But rather than having to wait a generation for people to ask "what were you so worried about?" the kids in the documentary are already doing that.
At best, "Generation Like" serves as a kind of snapshot of the second decade of the 21st century. But just as the techno-reactionary protests of 1970s culture commentators like Alvin Toffler now seem quaint, one can't help but imagine a world two decades hence that's even more awash in likes and retweets. The children of today's teens will likely laugh at how unsophisticated and relatively unintrusive our social media appeared.
Much like 2001's "Merchants of Cool," this new Frontline documentary will be shown to teens in any number of high school classes. But also like "Merchants of Cool," "Generation Like" will be examined by budding marketing professionals, teaching aspiring YouTube stars and Marketing majors alike how the online marketing sausage gets made. Some kids will see it as a warning, still more will see it as a blueprint for success.
Sure, everything is the worst. But it always has been. There's almost something refreshing about the way that many of these kids approach the seemingly insidious aspects of 21st century marketing. They seem less racked with guilt over the shitty realities of the world. They aren't bothering to shout LET'S GET THIS DYSTOPIA STARTED, like I did at the screen. Because they don't even see it as a dystopia. But as always, only time will tell if they're right.