In 2014, I decided to improve my English and took several courses in a college that I could reach on my electric bike from my new South Park home - in the downtown San Diego. This essay was one of the first I submitted for the Critical Thinking course by a visiting professor from UCSD. It is about the young generation and social media. The subject was assigned. Nowadays, I would have written it differently, less feisty and suggesting other forms of manipulation - I appreciate Frontline and disrespect Facebook! Though, we were asked to produce just a report-like critique piece. But that was a stage of my history in English language presented as found while I was clearing for good my Google drive, with a bit of formatting.
Professor Jason Parker
29 November 2014
It has become common today, among people who consider themselves to be rather independent observers than willing participators of mainstream culture, to criticize the very existence of social networks and the ways they change our culture. Facebook, as the biggest network that connects people over the internet, is the easiest target for all kinds of criticism, from usability requests to frustration over its increasing commercialization; or from concerns that people spend too much time communicating through networks on their portable devices to various threats that social media will eventually manipulate the minds of most people.
In this essay, I will first present two examples of such criticism: one is the claim by Malcolm Gladwell, who was included in the list of most influential people in 2005 as “U.S.'s leading pop sociologist” by Time magazine (Ratnesar), that social media are unsuitable for serious social activism and can only make “the existing social order more efficient” (part 6, par. 4). The other opinion is passionately expressed by a Jonathan Franzen, who was featured on the cover of the same magazine in 2010 as "Great American Novelist" (Fehrman), and who sees the issues with social networks from the perspective of technoconsumerism. He further claims that the word “like” used by Facebook to facilitate individual responses to content became merely an “assertion of consumer choice” and that together with the whole technological advancement it drives narcissistically inclined individuals away from real love into desperation (par. 9). I will then explore how these concepts of activism and technological consumerism are presented in Douglas Rushkoff’s documentary “Generation Like” and analyze a few of the more remarkable of the many logical fallacies in his argument.
Gladwell in his article “Small Change” denies that “social media have reinvented social activism” and doubts that it makes it “easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns” (part 2, par. 1). He complains that the real meaning of social activism a strong-tie phenomenon is forgotten (part 3, par. 3; part 2, par. 3).
The platforms of social media are built around weak ties, he continues (part 4, par. 1), as they connect not real friends but acquaintances. Although he acknowledges that there is “strength in weak ties” as a source of information, he maintains that “weak ties seldom lead to highrisk activism” such as civil rights movements (part 4, par. 3). Disregarding abilities of the group to generate ideas and ignoring possibilities for people to organize any way they choose behind networks, he argues:
they can’t think strategically; they are chronically prone to conflict and error (part 5, par. 45). Gladwell is sure that
if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment you have to be a hierarchy (part 5, par. 8) and the messy social networks cannot provide the required discipline.
Franzen, on the other hand, although denying his “anthropomorphizing projection”, and misinterpreting the word “sexy”, which is sometimes used to promote electronic products as attractive accessories, assumes that people perceive communication through mobile devices as establishing some sort of “erotic relationship” with the gadgets (par. 34), because
the beloved object asks for nothing and gives everything, instantly (par. 5). He claims, describing abstract notions and things as human beings again, that
the ultimate goal of technology . . . is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes . . . with a world so responsive to
our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self and that
the world of consumerism is therefore troubled by real love (par. 67). Buttons with labels such as “like”, “follow”, “subscribe” just add another meaning to these words for the users in addition to multiple already existing our natural language is developing. Franzen seems to confuse various meanings of one of these words, “like”, from minor acceptance to almost love or an inferior kind of it, which he uses interchangeably in his argument, equivocally molding them to his current purpose and feeling. Towards the conclusion, he equates the perfectly human avoidance of pain to consumerism, and goes as far as describing the life of people who like stuff and avoid love-drama as merely “taking up space on the planet” (par. 20).
Rushkoff’s participatory documentary for Frontline portrays young people as misled consumers or popularity seekers through almost the same narrow lens of “technoconsumerism” without improving on its clarity or correcting its distortion. Its general tone is quite similar to Franzen’s criticism, and lacks the deep and broad examination necessary for any attempt to define a large group of people. Rushkoff used the same word “like” for his purposes with yet a different set of meanings. However, he does not come close to looking at the social networks as tools for activism, developing human relationships, independent news generation, artistic expression, etc. Similar to Gladwell though, he treats human connections online as weak ties only. The author of the film uses the phrase “generation like” throughout the narrative starting with the title as having a deep meaning, stamping all young people of the United States with the same word “like”, which obviously symbolizes his disapproval for their online activities. However, this definition is mainly based on logical fallacies, primarily on sweeping and hasty generalization.
First, to justify the title, the film presents a few extreme examples of modern teenage behaviour - a girlfan of a movie voluntarily helps the producing company to spread the message; a poor skater-kid posts provocative videos online to make money; a popular young Youtube reviewer takes money from companies to comment on their products; a young musician hires a PR company to manage his social profiles - and wants us to presume that they represent their generation, that there is something radically new in their wish to be recognized and successful just because they use the new technology. The filmmaker does not look into the particular conditions that cause these kids to behave this way, or he disregards the circumstances as insignificant, as in the case of the poor kid who wants to help his family. Rushkoff does not provide the viewer with any serious research data or statistics in addition to these few examples.
Second, he does not consider the fact that by the beginning of 2014, the year the film was published, over three million teenagers gradually left the uncool Facebook, signifying a new trend. Therefore, any label that ties the young avant garde the representatives of the new technospirit to this site is hardly suitable to define this generation. Although this big network uses the word “like” on its button, this fact is extraneous to defining young people, since many adults use it too. Moreover, “liking” on Facebook plays only a secondary role in the argument of the author himself. The biggest video sharing site Youtube also offers a “dislike” button, and the number of views is a much more significant factor for the success on this network. Therefore, Rushkoff’s classification criterion is arbitrary and irrelevant.
The “Generation Like” definition by Rushkoff is remarkable for being rooted in multiple logical fallacies. Another one is the false cause: a presumption that the existence and popularity of like buttons on the internet caused a whole generation of people to differ greatly from others. As Franzen previously did, Rushkoff implies that an entirely new type of human behaviour emerged after and was presumably caused by introduction of certain technological innovations. The film strongly suggests that young people,
becoming master manipulators of social media themselves, like the hidden game masters, are exploited and corrupted by businesses that monitor and encourage liking and sharing on the social sites, and that all interactions of teenagers online can be reduced to this “game of likes,” which “feels empowering and it feels like a social community, but ultimately, kids are out there alone,” in accordance with Franzen’s theme of desperation and fake feelings (“Generation Like”).
Analyzing new applications for classical marketing techniques, Rushkoff claims that even the most transparent new methods of consumer research are bad just because
all that transparency takes a lot of planning. He appeals to tradition, against novelty, and fails or refuses to recognize that the principles did not change. Rather, due to development of faster and more trackable ways to share information, the old reliable methods of product placing on the market are enhanced by utilization of the same technological advancements all members of the society are using, including teenagers.
Hopefully, Frontline journalists will keep to higher standards of argumentation in the future.
- Fehrman, Craig. "The Franzen Cover and a Brief History of Time."
T h e M i l l i o n s . 16 August, 2010.
- Franzen, Jonathan. “Liking is for cowards. Go for What Hurts.”
T h e N e w Y o r k T i m e s . 28 May, 2011.
- "Generation Like." Koughan, Frank , and Douglas Rushkoff.
F r o n t l i n e . PBS. 18 February 2014. Streaming video, 10 November 2014.
- Gladwell, Malcolm. “Small Change.” Gladwell.com.
4 October, 2010. Web. 27 October 2014.
- Pressman, Aaron . “More than 3 million teens flee Facebook.”
T h e E x c h a n g e . January 16, 2014.
- Ratnesar, Romesh. “Scientists & Thinkers Malcolm Gladwell.”
T i m e . 18 April, 2005.