In the 2014 PBS Frontline documentary “Generation Like”, Douglas Rushkoff looked at how the marketing industry uses social media to get younger generations to market to each other.
Towards the end of the documentary we are treated to a memorable montage of teenagers trying to answer the question, “What does it mean to sell out?”. Some are completely unfamiliar with the term.
We should not find it especially surprising that the concept of ‘selling out’ is missing from contemporary youth culture. A large part of today’s youth culture is centred around the internet and Social Media. This makes sense, given this is increasingly becoming how we consume all forms of media.
These social media platforms that comprise the entire online experience for many younger users, come with their own built-in value system and social currency – likes, views, faves, shares, follows. These are how value is measured online.
It’s not just an individual’s peers who pay attention to these numbers. Corporations are constantly reaching out to popular internet personalities, in the hopes of having their products featured in the online content they produce.
In this way, many internet personalities having been able to make a comfortable living by building a following and turning themselves into a brand other brands want to be associated with.
“Selling out” doesn’t mean anything if the goal, above all else, is to make money. For most this is only possible with some form of patronage. By accepting sponsorship, they’ve achieved what they’ve set out to do in the first place, and so have not compromised anything.
If your goal first and foremost is to sell out and you achieve this, have you sold out?
One of the Internet personalities Generation Like focuses on is Tyler Oakley, a geeky vlogger and self-described “professional fan” whose videos generally feature him talking about topics he likes. His high energy and positivity resonated with his viewers and he quickly developed a large dedicated fanbase.
Once his videos began picking up popularity, he noticed that if he engaged with brands online they would respond to him, often sending him freebies. Before long he didn’t even have to reach out.
Today he has close to 8 million subscribers. He frequently appears in videos with other famous Youtubers and is often invited to cover award shows, movie premiers and other events. He is also frequently invited to speak at marketing conferences on topics such as how to make the best use of internet personalities such as himself. Tyler Oakley himself has become a brand.
Obviously not everyone reaches this level of success. But the career trajectory is familiar. Do whatever it takes to grow your fan base and attract sponsors. For many, becoming a brand is something to aspire to.
There’s not necessarily anything wrong with this. It’s obviously great that social media has been able to provide a platform where people can have very successful careers doing what they love.
So why should we care?
It can potentially blur the line between commerce and culture and the fear of selling out prevented artists from becoming brands. When an artist becomes a brand they immediately have less say over their creative output. And if all they set out to achieve was to make money branding themselves, there’s very little reason for them to be concerned about this loss of creative autonomy.
Vine star Logan Paul is a perfect example of the gradual process through which branding can alienate young artists from the talents that made them famous in the first place.
Logan Paul is a 22 year old from Ohio who made it big as a Vine star making 6 second comedy videos. In 2015 Business Insider published a profile piece documenting what a day in the life for an internet personality of his calibre looks like.
Paul lives in a building filled with other vine stars. They are all represented by the same agency, who have decided to house them all in the same apartment complex in Hollywood. Their days are spent planning and filming Vines, while surrounded by hoverboards, electric scooters, drones and other merchandise they’ve been sent.
Per the advice of his manager, Paul spends his evenings in acting classes. One of these classes features an exercise in which he has to respond to news of an unplanned pregnancy.
He can’t resist playing it for laughs, which is clearly getting on the nerves of both his teacher and his classmates later in the piece, Paul attends an open mike night where he is set to debut some new songs.
Again, Paul is doing this on the advice of his manager who believes it will help him reach a wider audience. The whole night comes off as being incredibly awkward.
Logan Paul is not an actor or a singer-songwriter. But whatever direction his career takes, the fanbase is there and loyal. He’s a brand now, and his management know they can make a lot more money off the Logan Paul brand by selling movie tickets and album downloads than they could ever make on vine alone.
Rather than continuing to work at something he was very good at, his career has shifted into an area where he will no longer stand out because it’s easier to monetize.
This is what happens when we don’t have “selling out”.
The myth of selling out, no matter how illusory it might have been, discourages gravitating towards the more easily monetizable mainstream.
It promoted diversity, uniqueness, and creativity for a niche audience. It promoted innovation in order to bypass traditional gatekeepers, questioning existing power structures, and challenging the status quo.
The argument is obviously much more complicated and nuanced than this as we have only examined a miniscule section of Internet Culture here.
There is obviously a lot of diversity in youth culture today. We are living in a world where there are more sub-genres of music than ever before, it’s possible to make a movie with just a laptop and a smartphone, and social media means everybody has a platform to have their work seen.
This probably sounds overly sentimental, but whether you’re an artist or not, concepts such as youthful idealism, integrity and self-awareness are all incredibly valuable.
When selling out becomes the aspiration there is no room for culture. Only commerce.