In a recent feature by KVUE ABC, it has been noted that a particular trend is emerging – the re-appropriation of YouTube into a physical appearance rating platform for adolescents. The question of “am I ugly?” seems to be one that teenagers are asking anonymous audiences. The focus of this article is on young girls, specifically, with no mention of boys; the raise for concern stems from the consideration that self-esteem levels are volatile at this age, as well as the consideration that these girls are soliciting “words of truth” from strangers.
Before dissecting the article, it must be noted that the author presents a quote that creates some discomfort for the analysis of this article. Although the title makes the insinuation that it is to target YouTube specifically, a statement from the interviewed professor, Stella Lopez of the University of Texas at San Antonio, says otherwise: “When they open themselves up to social media, such as YouTube or Facebook, you are going to get a wide variance of responses. And responses may be very positive and encouraging or it could be very nasty.” Hinting at the use of Facebook to create “anonymous” queries has not been otherwise outlined in the article, and considering that, I will continue my argument from the standpoint of these questions of appearance being posed solely on YouTube.
Academic Rebekah Willett offers her observations on adolescent user of social network sites in her article “As Soon As You Get on Bebo You Just Go Mad: Young Consumers and the Discursive Construction of Teenagers Online.” She states that youth are able to express themselves and perform their identities through updating and customizing their profiles. On a similar thread, academic danah boyd offers the idea in her piece, “Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life,” that adolescents have moved into this particular space on account of the fact that they have “no where else.” It is to say that this particular online space that MySpace offers can be claimed as “their” own, much like how the mall was considered to be a hangout for adolescents in earlier years.
As opposed to using the Internet for the means of transitioning their offline social communities to online ones, these girls are in fact making use of the space afforded to them to disengage from offline communities. In effect, what is being observed is the mentality of creating one’s own space, as opposed to the group mentality of creating a collective space with individual elements. Granted, YouTube does allow articulate networks similar to Facebook of “friend/subscriber lists,” but the focus here is the articulation of adolescent females who primarily focus on receiving “feedback,” as opposed to the usual reciprocal behaviours found in network sites of both sending and receiving messages.
In some ways, it can be inferred that this particular behaviour of abandoning the communal public space in which one is easily recognized as, not necessarily an attempt, but rather, an echo to the notion of subculture and counter-hegemony (Hebdige 1979). It is to say that this action of creating another identity, one that is personal but at the same time anonymous, is one that is not considered the norm, and goes against the established cultural values now in place (of being identifiable, contacting only those you know, etc). That said, it should noted that subculture is neither inherently good nor bad; subculture simply goes against the norms in place.
To add, the use of YouTube (in opposition to Facebook) is a curious choice, but one that may be easily explained. Where Facebook concentrates solely on the articulated network, YouTube (as well as Pinterest and Tumblr) also disseminate the produced information to the larger network on hand, meaning that all users of the particular website have access despite not necessarily having a direct connection to the uploader. In effect, and in theory, there is an audience immediately available to “review” one’s body, whereas to create an anonymous or inauthentic account in Facebook would require an unrealistic amount of effort to garner an audience by friending random persons as a means of acquiring a sample group.
Coming back to boyd, where the allusion is made of MySpace to the mall, it could be considered that the “anonymous” account on YouTube is the teenage bedroom, and the YouTube audience merely acting as the mirror with its replies. Such an idea can easily find itself tying to Willett who considers the social network to permit for the construction of self, which in turn draws similarities to Canadian-born sociologist Erving Goffman’s notion of the “front stage.” In effect, the questions of “am I fat?” on YouTube are the backstage, where the real self is able to express his or herself.