Re-appropriating Connections and Networks on YouTube

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.

Social Media: Helping Us Connect with Friends and Reminding Us Repeatedly that We’re Ugly (Maybe)

You are an 18, 19, or 20-something year-old and you are an active social media participant. You have your own Facebook profile to check up on your friends, find out about upcoming events, and update your photos and statuses. But, admit it: a large part of the reason you have a Facebook is because everyone else has one and you don’t want them to forget your existence while they’re online. But what is the exposure to the content your friends post doing to you? How does it influence what you post and how you feel about yourself offline?

If you’re a teenage girl, your Facebook newsfeed could be sending you into a horrible, depressing spiral of negative body-image and nonstop competition among friends for the best body. In her article, Social networks have young women competing against each other for the best body, Amanda Enayati references one teen user, Amanda Coleman, who decided to leave Facebook because she was sick of being bombarded with images of her friends looking perfect and feeling the pressures to look as good. Coleman said that Facebook acted as a gateway-social-network that led some of the girls in her college sorority to become members of pro-eating-disorder sites. Apparently, images that these girls saw of their friends looking perfect on Facebook made them feel “not good enough” themselves. As a result, they turned to these pro-eating-disorder communities online “where users encourage one another in anorexic and bulimic behavior” since, in the minds of the sorority girls, “what they had the most control over was their weight.” Coleman says her sorority friends flew down “a slippery slope” from “normal” social networking sites to ones centered around encouraging eating disorders.

Additionally, Coleman seemed to think that feelings of body-hate among her teen friends were “contagious,” even among those who previously had a positive body image. This teen viewed her friends as being powerless against the forces of Facebook, unable to fight off the negative body-image-effect it seemed to have on them. But as Rebekah Willett states in her essay, “‘As soon as you can get on Bebo you just go mad’: young consumers and the discursive construction of teenagers online,”  there is a “tension” between the depiction of “young people as acted on by societal forces and seeing them as independent actors in their own right.” These teen girls believe each other girl on Facebook is more perfect than them and feel they must try to post similarly perfect pictures. Meanwhile, they perceive themselves (or, at least, Coleman does,) as being completely unable to resist the pressures to post these perfect images and fall to negative consequences as a result (perhaps turning to an eating disorder). In this way, certain teen girls seem unable to avoid feeling negative about themselves by using Facebook.

In Willett’s essay, she discusses the social networking site Bebo, a social networking and blogging site popular in the mid-2000s. She states that young users enjoyed Bebo partly because it was easy to personalize. She says, “Young people appear keen to project an image of themselves through particular ‘lifestyle choices’ and have a desire to keep their image up to date as a reflection of their current self.” Much of what Willett describes about Bebo can be applied to Facebook. Enayati might call the constantly updated photos and information that make up a teen’s profile part of “the encyclopedia of beauty and status and comparisons” that Facebook has become.

Fascinatingly, though, this “encyclopedia” is not very diverse at all. It is made up largely of people taking part in the same activities and, according to Enayati’s article, of teen girls who all believe they have to look the same exact way as each other. As teen social media users, we are often eager to upload pictures of ourselves taking part in experiences with friends to show off our active social lives, but we all end up looking the same as each other and posting about the same kinds of events. Social media definitely exerts a pressure on its user to “have the best body” that might have not existed as strongly before. Previously, teen girls may have been able to avoid seeing the best looking girl in their community and, thus, avoid feeling badly about their own bodies. This is more difficult to do when these girls are showing up over and over again on your Facebook newsfeed. As Willett asserts, “adolesence is marked by an interest in peers…as a references point for personal preferences.” We cannot help but partly base our own decisions about our appearance according to our peers’ appearances. However, this is not as extreme as Enayati suggests. While some teen girls are pressured into dangerous behaviors, like eating-disorders, in an attempt to control their appearance, this is definitely not the norm.

The article includes advice to parents from Dina Borzekowski, who “believes parents need to be more aware of the messages reaching their children and adolescents” She says, “How many parents can really say they’ve seen the YouTube videos their teen has seen in the last two to three days? Parents need to be able to tell their kids to put their smartphones away.” But simply monitoring what kids and teens interact with on social media sites will not solve anything and keeping them from going on these sites after they’ve already used them will not take away the pressures they feel. As danah boyd concludes in her essay, “Why Youth ❤ Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life,” parents are meant to be “guides” and “not policeman” to their children on social media sites. Girls who fall into eating disorders or other dangerous behaviors after seeing their friends’ seemingly flawless photos on Facebook probably do not enter into these behaviors solely because of social media. Parents should guide their children to have healthy body-images long before they become active on social media.