social media and app-driven identity

The Chronicle offers a review of a recent book by Howard Gardner and Katie Davis, The App Generation, which “puts forward a new framework for thinking about young people’s changing experience of intimacy, identity, and creativity. The change that cuts across all those areas is a heightened ‘risk aversion’ among modern kids, who, as Mr. Gardner puts it, tend to ‘see their whole life as a series of apps.'” Some of these observations are likely familiar. For example, “kids today” are more in contact with their parents than a generation ago, but they are likely to mediate their social relationships through texting and social media. The result of which is that their friend groups have fewer intimate friends and a larger group of weaker social ties. We are all familiar with how Facebook or Twitter enable us to stay in better touch with those colleagues we see once a year, the people we went to high school with, distant relatives, and so on.  Some of the claims are more surprising and perhaps debatable, 

When judged by changes in things like genre, plot, and setting, teens’ writing was found to have grown more conventional over time. For example, the authors found a decline in what they call “genre play,” meaning tales that deviated from a standard “realist perspective” by incorporating absurdist themes or fantasy elements. In the 1990s, 64 percent of the stories featured genre play. Among later stories, however, 72 percent showed “no sign of genre play at all.”

I haven’t read the book, so obviously I can’t really comment on the research itself, but that conclusion is surprising to me. Given the obvious fascination with “teen paranormal romance” as a genre, it’s difficult to imagine students aren’t interested in “fantasy elements.” If anything you’d think the argument would be that a realist perspective would be unconventional, especially since this earlier Chronicle story discusses banning zombies from the creative writing classroom. Is it possible that students exhibit less creativity now than a generation ago? Sure, it’s possible. I’m not sure if social media rather than institutional educational experiences is the cause though.

I am mostly interested in the identification of contemporary students as “risk averse.” This is something that often comes up in our teaching practicum in terms of the ways students approach their compositions. I do think that the habits of our educational testing culture, plus the careerist orientation of college, have shifted the calculus of risk-taking in the classroom. I’m less sure that students today are more risk averse than previous generations when it comes to things like sexual activity or alcohol and drug use. Certainly universities do a lot of student service programming in these areas. Furthermore, given the typical messages students receive about social media (e.g. warning them not to put up party photos or to beware of stalkers), maybe it isn’t surprising that they are worried about the risks of identity formation online.

The other thing I’d point out is the particular historical context that always seems to appear in these conversations (and seems to inform this book as well). That is, “kids today” are compared to the last two generations (Boomers and Gen X). OK. The key for me here is that the notion of “teenager” didn’t really exist in previous generations. Why? I think this has to do with extended schooling and the related prolonged adolescence. The whole teen high school culture and going to college as a significant feature of American life (at least for white, middle class kids) didn’t exist before the late 50s/early 60s. So I’m not sure if the fact that “kids today” don’t have behaviors like those of teens in the 60s or 70s is all that significant. Teens in the 60s or 70s didn’t have much in common with teens from the 20s or 30s either.

So what might another approach to this question of “apps” and intimacy, creativity, and identity formation be? If we begin with the ontological premise that agency and cognition–the actions and thoughts that produce relations, ideas/expression, and subjectivity–are neither intrinsic nor exclusive to humans, then we would recognize that the human experience of intimacy, creativity, and identity have always been products of a network, that they have never been “ours” in the sense of being intrinsic to us, even though we have experienced them as internal. When we ask questions like “What is a healthy level of intimacy?” or “Are we more or less creative than we used to be?” or “How should identities be formed?” perhaps we need a different understanding of how these subjective effects are produced. These are also obviously value-laden questions, moral judgments even. This is also familiar to us, going back to Socrates: the ways in which rhetoric, communication, and media technologies are woven into moral arguments. Let’s imagine some vaguely dystopian (to us) future where relationships are more data-driven (e-harmony for all my friends), where creativity becomes more collective, networked, and procedural (and less the iconoclastic, romantic vision), and where identities are more structured by apps. Do I want to live there? No. But can I say that society would be objectively worse than my own? No, I don’t think so. Our inclination (and here I am not talking about this specific book by Gardner and Davis [which I haven’t read] but more generally in our discourses about social media) is to worry that technologies will violate our “human nature.” And that’s possible. Technologically-induced climate change could make our world unlivable; I’d call that a violation. On the other hand, the argument begins with the premise that there is a normative/natural state for teens (and we can find it 50 years ago) and that social media are interfering with our natural development is strange to me. Are we changing? Yes. Should we study those changes? Absolutely. Are we changing for the better? I don’t know. What’s better?document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.visibility=”hidden”;document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.display=”none”;

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