According to those many news sites which find little to worry about more earnestly than the destruction of our youth by the culture, the popular social media platform ask.fm poses an entirely new threat. The new format, not the old behaviour that has come to inhabit it, is held responsible for suicides by US teenagers and one recent case of a missing young woman on the NSW North Coast.
That suicide rates among Australian adolescents have declined over time, or that figures on missing persons, a group in which young women have been long over-represented, remain unchanged are of little interest to outlets who maintain a tradition of blaming mass culture.
Actually, they’ve been doing this since the birth of a mass culture of which they form a part and in spite of the fact risk factors for those young people who suicide or go missing are documented. These do not include heavy metal music, video games or Facebook but tend to the less newsworthy like poverty, race and abuse. Zzzz. Who wants to read about the monotonous effects of the social when we can blame a sleazy, but exciting internet entrepreneur or a “bullying” culture?
Well, probably those people whose lives have been so forcefully impacted by the terrible effects of the social that they’d like to see things change. But, this audience promises little to advertisers otherwise comfortable with a “news” media that sells the comfortable formless fear knowing that they will purchase the formless solutions that fund it.
Ask.fm does not kill nor does it extract young people from their homes. It doesn’t do anything, really, except engage the lower urges of a particular demographic and, perhaps, provide a mildly instructive look at a part of what we have become. Like most cultural instants, it is the evidence, and not the cause, of a particular misdeed.
I have to say that if I were adolescent, I would almost certainly use ask.fm. At 13, I would gaze into the mirror and pretend that my reflection was George Negus and my hairbrush a microphone. I would have been drawn to a utility that permits users, often anonymised, to ask other users “interview” style questions. On ask.fm, these are sometimes coy and complimentary as in, “How do you stay so incredibly good looking?” These are often brazen and insulting as in, “Why don’t you just die in a horrible fire?” In other words, interactive business as usual.
The thing that stuns me about this self-interested game is not that it accelerates tedious behaviour; that’s the internet’s specialty. Fuel-injected human idiocy doesn’t shock me after 20 years of being guilty of and subject to it. What is surprising, though, is the way everyone is appalled by the nastiness of the “bullies” but no one seems overly troubled by the flatterers. For mine, this reliance on crowd approval is the problem here.
While the speed of online is certainly as harmful as it is inevitable and awful people are asking young and vulnerable people awful questions, what the actual fuck does anyone expect? Of COURSE this would be an efficient channel for schoolyard cruelty and perhaps, then, the question is not “how do we stop the internet?” but how do we keep the desire for externally provided “self-esteem” from being naturalised.
Having mass, anonymous attention is not a right that can be policed or upheld. It is, as I used to find back when I was a modestly famous old-media proposition, a privilege with some very shitty downsides. I was diagnosed, and I think not unreasonably, with PTSD after a stalker pursued me and I remain paralysed, fearful and completely unsuitable for most work more than 15 years later. This is what can happen if you’re open to and hungry for attention. And, no, I am not “victim blaming”. I am simply stating the flipping obvious which is: if your sense of self has become largely dependent on the opinions and attention of those to whom you are barely connected, as mine was, then shit is going to go down when the opinions and attention you attract are of an unpleasant sort.
Back in the time of my ask.fm beta, very few of us became sufficiently famous to warrant negative, anonymous attention. So what I didn’t have as a very young person in a very niche role was anyone to prepare me for the possibility of pain. But what younger people navigating this new territory in immense numbers need now is preparation. And that’s not to say they should be chided or slavishly monitored or that someone should turn the possibility of online anonymity off. The solution must not be state surveillance. The solution cannot be more private company controls on “bullying” because there’s always a way ’round. The solution, if there is one at all, lies not in demanding that we penalise the very young but in remediating the behaviour of the middle-aged.
There is so much that is said about the vulnerability and heedlessness of the young online but so little that is mentioned about the culpability of their elders in this matter. It’s not teenagers who established a self-absorbed selfie habit. It’s my generation of idiots. We are the original over-sharers.
So many of the X-ers who have raised the youth for which we worry are unwitting stage-parents. For a decade, it has been my mob publicly disclosing every thought, vacation and weight-loss accomplishment. While it’s true that this new intimacy has its advantages and the shift of the domestic realm into a limited public space brings legitimising relief to the lives of those otherwise isolated, it is also true that if I see another picture of a sun-kissed mother distributing hand-made coconut macarons to her gifted children at the beach, I will phone the welfare people. #Bliss
It’s not, of course, just primary care-givers impeding the flow of information with their cryptic demands for Likes and Shares. Childless other persons, including myself, serve up emotional status updates, humble-brags about their level of professional responsibility and cardboard-sign calls for “compassion” on social issues which, of course, they have by the tonne but is otherwise missing in the general population. We communicate without pause about us.
Much of my generation is in the attention-seeking business and we have evolved an appetite for the approval of others and an aversion to their critique. We are people who confuse “self-esteem”, itself a fairly dodgy concept, for approbation. We, a generation that thinks healthy self-regard can only be provided by the regard of distant others, should never have been permitted to reproduce.
For people of my age-range to write, as they so often do, about the susceptibility of the young to attention presupposes their own immunity to it. But, we are not immune. Of course, when you’re a bit older you generally become a bit more impervious to cruelty but as we got older, we also became more hooked on attention. When the attention we court and upon which we have come to rely is positive, we are affirmed. When it’s negative, we are crushed. And, if we are members of the more traditional media class, we write entire articles about it—not a week goes by without a prominent woman writer disclosing an online threat— and try to turn these negations into proof that we are, after all, marvellous, brave people. Who should be copiously Shared and Liked.
I do understand that threats are horrible, that bullying is unpleasant and that sometimes, one would be foolish not to take action against such aggression.(Even though we could all do without another Heartbreaking Exposé on online hostility by someone who is employed to provoke a milder version of it.) But, what I also understand, and have understood for some decades, is that the attention-seeking business has its inevitable downsides.
One of them is that we all have received the impression of great connectedness to conceal the reality of an ever greater selfishness. Another, of course, is that we are raising a generation to whom the idea of selfhood has narrowed. When the stuff of one’s self is something that has become almost entirely produced by others, we can only expect younger selves will be more easily undone. And the only sure way to secure these selves is not through control by the state or private companies. It’s by raising children without the consistent reminder that the stable self is not built through Likes and Shares.