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'Generation Like': Assessing the social media fame game


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PASADENA, Calif. -- In the 1960s, youth culture was wary of selling out. In 2014, some teens and 20-somethings are more interested in cashing in through selling out online.

Author Douglas Rushkoff ("Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now"), who previously explored youth culture in the excellent 2001 "Frontline" documentary "Merchants of Cool," returns to do parents another favor by explaining the nuts and bolts of social media and how it gets its hooks into some kids and turns them into marketing machines.

In "Generation Like" (10 tonight, WQED-TV), Mr. Rushkoff shows how self-esteem is now tied into the approval of peers on social media sites such as Facebook, where kids compete to see how many "likes" a new photo or post can achieve. But this "like" culture isn't limited to peer approval.

'Frontline: Generation Like'
When: 10 tonight, WQED-TV.
Correspondent: Douglas Rushkoff.

Today's teens and 20-somethings live their lives online, sometimes oversharing and other times shilling for companies and getting varying degrees of compensation in return.

For one young woman in "Generation Like," her devotion to "The Hunger Games" leads her to become essentially a part of the marketing effort for the movies. Mr. Rushkoff said he's not sure teens understand the power gradient: They're creating content for corporations that don't necessarily have their best interest at heart.

"The purpose of the film is to kind of slow down and show the architecture of this so that people can make more conscious and willful decisions about how and what they do," Mr. Rushkoff said at a January PBS press conference. "For the young person watching this to say, 'OK. I could spend six hours a day retweeting things I get from "The Hunger Games" in order to get to be one of their top 1,000 "Hunger Games" people. I can go do that.' But at least I want the kid to understand what his or her role is in this scheme."

Tyler Oakley, 24, started recording videos of himself and posting them to YouTube in 2007, evolving into a vlogger devoted to pop culture (especially boy band One Direction) and later a social media star known for promoting products created by major corporations. Pepsi sent him to a Super Bowl to shill on its behalf.

Mr. Oakley said whether devotees of online stars approve of their sales pitches depends on how often they go on a promotional blitz and if there's a degree of trust between the online star and his or her audience.

"If they have always been authentic and if they're been transparent, then their fans are going to trust them," Mr. Oakley said. "I've seen many YouTubers and many influencers take any brand deal, and you can tell which ones were organic and which ones happened because they, perhaps, tweeted about it and the brand saw that and they thought this is a great organic partnership. That's happened a lot with me, and I've been fortunate for that. There are a lot of times when I see YouTubers, and I'm like, 'Girl, I see you're getting that paycheck,' and you can tell. You can always tell. And the viewer and the consumer is always going to be a lot more keen than you think."

But the notion that people can gain a following and notoriety with no discernible talent beyond a winning personality and the ability to talk into a camera may be as disconcerting as the idea of talentless reality stars (think: Kardashians) in whose footsteps they follow.

"These are kids that were born with 'American Idol,' " Mr. Rushkoff said. "They don't really draw a distinction between getting famous and being good at something. A lot of kids just say, 'I want to be famous. I want to be famous.' 'Doing what?' 'It doesn't really matter. Oh, I'll sing. I'll do this.' So they're more aware of how to do that, of how 'likes' work, how to create networks, how to build that, how to play this system, but I think they're less aware of what art is, of what genuinely good content is."

Why the hunger for fame? Mr. Oakley, who planned to go into communications after opting out of teaching after attempting to tutor while in college, said it's because society values fame. And because he has more "likes" than so many other kids, he's garnered more fame.

"Think about if parents have two kids," Mr. Oakley said. "One's a celebrity. One's a teacher. Who does my mom post about most on Facebook? Me or the rest of my siblings, who have normal jobs?"

But can online fame last? Or will young people who watch these videos find new ways to spend their free time as they mature, form families and get busier with life?

"My audience has grown with me," Mr. Oakley said. "A lot of my people have stayed with me for years. And there will always be a generation that's watching YouTube or consuming whatever these influencers are creating."

But when Mr. Oakley is 40, will teens 20 years from now want to watch a 40-year-old? That seems unlikely and it's probably why so many online stars are attempting to transition their fame to more mainstream (and potentially more lucrative) media outlets.

• YouTuber Lucas Cruikshank created the Fred Figglehorn character online and then brought it to TV with a series on Nickelodeon.

• Former Pittsburgher Justine Ezarik, who rose to online fame "lifecasting" as iJustine, reported on technology for the Spike TV video game show "GTTV."

• YouTubers Joey Graceffa and Meghan Caramena have been on CBS's "The Amazing Race" -- twice. They'll make their second appearance in an upcoming all-stars edition (debuting Sunday).

• Scenes from Bravo's upcoming "Online Dating Rituals of the American Male" (10 p.m. March 9) show YouTuber Davey Wavey among its cast.

• Mr. Oakley hosted an online aftershow for MTV's "Teen Wolf" last year on MTV.com.

Living one's life online does have its pitfalls. Mr. Oakley alienated some fans in January when he criticized One Direction star Liam Payne for a tweet that Mr. Oakley interpreted as support for the antigay star of A&E's "Duck Dynasty." Mr. Oakley, who is openly gay, received a fair share of negative feedback from One Direction fans (including death threats), lost Twitter followers and announced he was taking an Internet break. But if his bread and butter is making videos, how much time could he really afford to be away?

"My brand lives on," he said. "All of my content is still there. It's being consumed."

"Next question!" snapped his publicist. (Yes, online "stars" have controlling personal publicists, too.)

Oliver Luckett, founder and CEO of digital media company theAudience, said a social media personality can only afford to be offline for a few days.

"These are 24-hour careers," he said. "It's almost a burden, an addiction: 'I've got to be performing for my audience.' They're fed off the feelings that they get from acceptance."

Mr. Oakley resumed his online posts six days after his Internet break began with a video about fandom and setting ground rules for his fans, which included no death threats: "We don't do that here."


A version of this column first appeared in Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.

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