Teen identity in the culture of self-promotion…

Alissa Quart-2

To the worm in horse radish, the whole world is horse radish, runs the old Yiddish proverb.  The same might be said of Americans and popular culture.  Since it’s all we know, it’s quite often invisible.


Unfortunately, few Christians have made a sustained effort to understand popular culture and the impact it has on all of us, teens and adults alike.  Thirteen years ago, PBS Frontline produced “Merchants of Cool,” an examination of how marketers manipulate teen culture.  That documentary was recently updated by “Generation Like,” which just aired on February 18, 2014.


“Generation Like” examines the question, “What happens when the traditional teenage quest for identity and connection occurs online?”  In addition to the new documentary, linked below, Frontline interviewed several observers of popular culture, including Alissa Quart, the author of Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers.


By way of understanding teen culture, Alissa Quart offers several insightful comments.


On the intense drive to market to teens


So children [do] have a lot of disposable income.  Also, the fact is that most of the money they have is just discretionary.


… For one thing, companies focus on marketing to teenagers because they hope they’ll adopt early, which means that they’ll form a brand loyalty with a product and it will continue [through] the rest of their lives.


So a smart company is not just thinking, I want to market to this 15-year-old in front of me, but they think, I want to market to the 32-year-old they’ll become.


On how teens have become volunteer marketers


When I was researching my book [Branded], I would talk to kids who were engaged in peer-to-peer marketing, which meant that they were recruiting their fellow students to buy various stuff. So it’s not just that kids are falling prey to the companies. They’re falling prey to the student that’s very persuasive.


Now we look at social media. Adolescents and teens are selling without any prompting. Back in, this was 1999 or 2000, they were being, if not paid, [then] given swag or gear by companies to sell to their friends.


Now it’s more like, “Oh, I just love this,” “like,” as you would put it, “generation like.” They don’t even need to be recruited for the street teams that used to exist.


On how ‘cool’ has become a culture of self-promotion


The obsession with popularity always existed …


But it’s … not only the world of teenagers. The adult world is [rife] with people who like what other people like, right? I’m on Facebook, and I’m liking what my friends like, and part of this is that we’re living somewhat in a culture of self-promotion. And I don’t think teenagers are ignoring that. I think they’re understanding that as well as adults do.


It’s I think a side effect of living in such a data-rich and socially networked universe, where narcissism is not a condition; it’s a strategy, … strategy toward betterment, toward improvement, creating community, which sounds ironic, like how can narcissism help us create community? But it’s sort of like the person with the most aggressive data stream wins, who posts the most, who likes the most, who’s most present and ubiquitous.


I think cool used to be identified with scarcity, the jazz singer who turns his back to the audience. Now cool has become omnipresent. So there’s been a real shift in what cool is.


On the dark side of the ‘culture of likes’


Like everything, I feel like the contemporary “like” culture is one of paradox. For one thing, people are probably consuming a lot more culture than they might have in the past because they have so much access to it.


They’re constructing themselves from bits and pieces, like I said, so they’re sort of like magpies, and wasn’t that the basis of punk rock, that pastiche? People are created of bits and pieces, you know, so maybe this is a part of a new creation of self that’s happening with adolescence. …


The dark side is that they’re creating a lot of data that is being taken from them that they’re not profiting from. They’re creating a trail of identifying marks for their future employers or health insurers that they don’t necessarily have control over.


So in a way it’s more ominous than it was in the ’90s, because they’re not just buying stuff; they’re leaving a trail of who they were when they were 15 for the rest of time, for every corporation and every employer that they’ll ever come across.


On the disappearance of ‘hidden dairies’ and the rise of a culture of performance


Yeah, and instead of diaries, now there’s blogging and videos. I wonder if it’s sort of like the depersonalized self. You know, people are no longer selves for themselves. They’re selves for others.  But the paradox here is that that sort of narcissism is a strategy in the sense that people are promoting themselves constantly, and even teenagers are promoting themselves constantly. …


So I started to really see change. Simultaneously it’s like a loss of privacy but a rise of kind of a professional narcissism around people who are teenagers. That’s a strange combination. It’s a paradox, but it kind of connects. It’s like me, me, me. I’ll give you anything as long as you’re paying attention to me.


What I think you’re seeing now is teenagers living out in social space rather than living in private space. They’ll be living in blogs and vlogs; they’ll be sharing and liking …

So that’s the double-edged sword for me about that kind of constant expression of self. You have a lack of privacy and people performing. It’s not a dress rehearsal; it’s a performance, it’s a theater piece. …

On living in a competitive attention economy…


We’re living in an attention economy, right, where everyone is fighting for a teeny place to be heard.


I think teenagers now are as adults as well. The thing is we’re fetishizing the teenager, but I think teenagers and adults collect followers compulsively. How many Twitter followers do I have? How many Facebook followers do I have? And [we] judge one another based on that, so it becomes a new standard of popularity.



Alissa Quart is a journalist and author of several books on youth culture.  Her interview, “From Gen X to Z: Teens and the New Cool,” was part of the PBS Frontline special “Generation Like.”  The 2001 “Merchants of Cool” is still available and may be linked here. 



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One Response to “Teen identity in the culture of self-promotion…”

  1. “It’s like me, me, me. I’ll give you anything as long as you’re paying attention to me.” For me, this is the telling quote.