The Search for #Attention, #Audience and #Instafame

For the last year, our research team has been lurking and creeping young people’s online digital lives. It kind of creeps me out to admit that, but the truth is, we haven’t had to snoop or employ any underhanded strategies or tactics to do this. All we did was type the word “selfie” into Google search and watched as millions of links and images answered our query. 

While much of this selfie inventory shows a playful cross section of cats, dogs, and photo-shopped history, great swaths of these images indicate a pre-occupation with bathing suits, near nakedness and hairless bodies (essentially, explicit and provocative displays of sexuality). How and why these images found their way into the world’s largest search engine are important questions to consider. Equally concerning is:

a) whether these individuals know they’re about as Public as public can be, and

b) do they understand these images will live in infamy – rising and falling in and out of favour (read: Google’s algorithm) based on searchers’ whims and the frequency of viewers’ clicks.

You can’t help but notice the overwhelming number of young people in these images. Yet static images – what you’re seeing here http://bit.ly/1qom3Oc  – represent a fraction of the very public personas being shared by young people.  Selfie GIFs, short four-second videos, have quickly become the “killer app” for a generation of young people desperate to create distance between their digital selves and the digital personas of their Facebooked parents. GIFs are fun, easy to shoot, and a great way for a young person to inject themselves into the pop culture zeitgeist. 

Attention Seeking Disorder or the New Communication Norm?

Selfies are also a stepping stone to a whole other world – a social world that allows us to connect through media in this new attention-economy. In our research, we discovered the selfie is perhaps the best promotional tool to come along since the branding iron (now digital chip). Selfies have allowed a generation of youth - enabled by technology, driven by the promise of fame and un-encumbered by concerns of privacy - to build their own brand and put their best feature forward. Many youth have amassed huge, million plus followings – using self-taught social media skills. They are part of a new kind of fame – one that is defined, not by talent, but by selfie provocation, clever hashtag branding and the size and rabid-ness of your following. This trend clearly gives new meaning to the concept of celebrity.

These young people don’t need PR agencies or image consultants to curate an identity. They can use their brand new mobile phone, or at worst, their parent’s hand-me-down iPhone, to do that themselves. For youth with lots of time on their hands, and who have chosen not to use privacy settings, populating the digital sphere with thousands of selfies is the new “hope and a prayer” tactic on the fast track to fame (or epic time-suck ….depending on your perspective). 

In our focus groups we discovered a selfie is much more than just a fun whimsical shot in a strategic location or a tool for self-promotion. A selfie is also a proxy for feelings. Many youth use selfies to vent anger and frustration, as an expression of loneliness, or to attract attention. Of course many of us experience these emotions every day, but few adults would choose to post these feelings in such a public way. Spend time on social media sites like Gifboom, Instagram and Vine and you’ll see thousands of selfie youth chronicling the full spectrum of emotions and emotional upheaval.

Research Goal

Our research looks at a growing population of youth who are seeking fame by appropriating social media tools and applying marketing know-how learned at the heels of pop culture celebrity (Kardashians), the Disney star system (Miley Cyrus, Amanda Bynes and Demi Lovato) and YouTuber personalities (http://bit.ly/1csbkHU) (Justin Bieber, Felix Kjellberg, Jenna Mourey).

We review current patterns of behaviour (why so many selfies?), the growing trend of youth trading acknowledgement for monetary gain (if I give you a shoutout, how much ($$) do I get in return?) and the oft repeated themes and patterns displayed in this emerging, youthful selfie culture (shirtless boys and girls in their undies). This research also provides an interpretive guide to emerging selfie language (hashtag decoder), a social media primer (the real tools of democracy: shares, likes, comments, favourites & followers) and attempts to assess the behaviour, technological tools, and monetary incentives of fame building (in other words – building your own personal brand for fun and profit).

At the core of this analysis are concepts of privacy, self-reflection and self worth and we looked to experts in the fields of youth media, technology and adolescent development to help make sense of some of these trends. We also asked middle and secondary school users of these technologies recruited in our exploratory research groups in Toronto to weigh in on the discussion.

Not your run-of-the-mill Academic Research Report

This research has taken the form of a multi-media resource and website. We’ve also cross-referenced much of the analysis though the project’s Tumblr blog and Twitter feed. We hope it offers an easy-to understand, comprehensive educational tool for parents, educators and adults, who, with the shift to shrinking screens, are often unaware of the energy, time and tools (follows, likes, shout-outs) that go into this cultural phenomenon of fame-building.

We’d like this website and resource to help create awareness of the trends we’ve seen emerging and ultimately create a conversation in our community. It’s a complicated mix of culture, technology and human emotion driving these trends and there is no single answer. At the intersection of these forces are youth, so the stakes are high.