On being a trendy teen. Or why I disagree with Essena O’Neill’s attacks on social media and the toxicity/superficiality around it. Or why my priorities online changed over and over and over again throughout the past two years.
I bought followers. I bought 20,000 twitter followers. How about we begin each post with a confession? Isn’t that striking? 20,000 people or bot accounts were following me over a year ago. I was obsessed with looking successful and “in trend”… I still am. I was at a really touchy point in my life… and I’m still getting over it all. But let’s start from the top.
Ever since I was a wee boy, I was fascinated and blessed with being able to easily receive attention. I had a large, flamboyant personality, a crazy sense of humour, and I didn’t let things get me down too much. I loved having everyone’s eyes on me. As I carried on into high school, and as everyone matures with time, this need for attention converted into academic excellence. I was always good in school, but now my craving for attention was being satiated by being one of the smart kids. I was still funny, albeit a little sad after my first foray with YouTube, but my mind was focused on my education.
Social Media Encounter #1: My ninth grade YouTube career.
I was an impressionable 13-year-old who craved that mineral (fame) — and I apologize to anyone who didn’t get that joke, I don’t even think I understand how to use the whole mineral joke myself. Anyway, I was naïve in the sense that I saw how quickly Justin Bieber skyrocketed to fame and, being in love with music, I thought I could replicate it myself – easily. After having successfully performed “Hallelujah” at my elementary school talent show and graduation, and being under the impression that I just performed the theme of the YEAR (shit was fire yo), I asked myself, “Why couldn’t I do the same thing as these other YouTube singers?” What I didn’t realize is that teenaged girls (the demographic you’ve gotta cater to in this business) don’t want a chipmunky brown kid awkwardly singing to them through their screens, especially when he doesn’t practice and half-asses his videos because he sings only when his parents aren’t home.
My YouTube cover song career began and ended in 2009. It ended with verbal harassment online, on YouTube and Facebook, and offline in the school halls. Surprisingly, it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, looking back. But it really hit my self-esteem and how I formed my identity throughout the rest of high school.
So, ask me, “shouldn’t you consider social media toxic after these events?” No! There’s so much more to social media than that! My first experience with social media opened me up to true vulnerability – putting myself out there for the first time. Social media taught me about the truth of people on the internet and it helped give me thick skin. Yes, it did fuck me up a little as I was really young and I was still forming my relation to the world, but I’m so happy it did — it gave me a reason to prove others wrong and it helped me realize that not everyone is going to agree with you or your views. Cyberbullying is a real thing. Bullies can hide behind screens and dehumanize themselves, allowing social media to be their venue to harass and torment. Social media isn’t wrong, the things that some people choose to do on it are. The ultimate lesson I learned in this instance: “You are not the trendy teen you wish to be and you won’t always luck out and make waves in the world without trying. Hard.”
I carried on. I built myself up and allowed myself to open up in music class, choir, and singing competitions (where I placed first on my first go. Haters back off!) I felt happy and successful. I carried this peak of confidence into university, where everything crashed and burned.
Social Media Encounter #2: YouTubing in university.
After performing my somewhat amusing Valedictorian speech at my high school graduation, I had the brilliant idea of starting a comedy vlogging career. At this point in my university career, I was nearing the end of my first semester and I was very much unhappy in my program. I fell into a deep sadness, sleeping all the time, and my friends began to take notice. I went into YouTube hopeful that it would be something to help wake me up in life and let me stand out from being a cog in the enveloping university machine, and it all began with… wait for it… a Flappy Bird video. After that, I followed a path of bandwagoning on trend after trend after trend in pursuit of the ultimate YouTuber title of “#TrendyTeen.” I wanted to be the YouTuber amongst my YouTube friends. I wanted to be the best and the trendiest, fiercest, and most popular. I got myself caught up in the idea that I could make it and finally be the “artiste” I wanted to be by settling for making videos that would cater to the trend.
The material was dated, boring, and lacklustre. Part of it had to do with the fear of stepping out and putting myself out there that I took with me from my first attempt at YouTube. Even though I had developed a form of thick skin after my first foray in the YouTube jungle, I became cautious of everyone’s potential thoughts and my insecurity made me sad. I became consumed by fear that the people around me would critique and judge me negatively. I became socially anxious, constantly aware that someone in the hall could be listening, a stranger above my room might be judging. That led to me making videos that were interesting in ways, but horribly presented. I was afraid to make noise. I didn’t want to be heard. Deep inside I knew that I wasn’t meant to be heard. Alongside this fear of stepping out, I was creating content that wasn’t important to me.
There was a constant need to be in-the-know and within the trend. And this was bittersweet. In a sense, I created some material that I thought was really funny, like my tutorial on how to look like Lorde and my #NutellaFacial. But alongside that, there was some material like “reaction videos” where I would react to another video (great plan! /sarcasm) and these videos made me feel bad about who I was becoming.
I ultimately tried so hard to be a trendy teen that I drained away the shred of a person who didn’t care about catering to the mainstream and what others thought. I spent a year trying to fit myself into a groove that my soul resented and it began to show that I was sad. Sad for myself and sad for others who had to witness it all. But it took time and healing to dig up why I was sad, and here we are. After this ‘hunger to trend’ was slathered across the various social media I owned, you would think I would be bitter and disappointed by how YouTube let me down. By how I deserved to be recognized for the videos I made. By how I absolutely hated social media because I could not tweak the system or follow the trend to let it work in my favour. Nope.
Essena O’Neill may choose to blame the toxicity and superficiality of social media on social media itself, but one must remember that social media is nothing without the people who make use of it. Social media without the social aspect is simply infrastructure. Tools that you can look at but not use. Social media is only toxic and superficial when you make it toxic and superficial.
In her case, O’Neill chose to become a model. She chose to wear borrowed clothes on her Instagram. She chose to take one hundred photos of the same pose to get the right view of her stomach. She understood the results of her actions when she aspired to be a trendy teen. I gave in and bought 20,000 twitter followers. I settled to make content I wasn’t happy with to hopefully fit a trend. I chose to aspire to become a trendy teen. These choices are unquestionable.
What we can question, however, is why the superficiality and the toxicity of the #aesthetic is a common trend on social media. Why do we tend toward the superficial? Why did we, as young impressionable kids, value the idea of beauty and opulence that we saw on television and on the internet? Why did Essena O’Neill aspire to be a model at 12 and why did I want to live the life of a trendy teen? And I think a good path to the answer in that regard is to simply look at the value we put on the celebrity and the idol in our society. It speaks for itself.
Social Media Encounter #3: Blogging.
I dwindled away from YouTube this past year. I ran from it. I decided I wouldn’t dedicate my time to posting content on YouTube until I was ready to face a camera without fear of judgement or loathing and until I knew I had material that was important to me. I appeased my need to create by blogging about productivity. However, like a typical trendy teen wannabe, I knew a lot about productivity but I had trouble making a productive person out of myself. In this sense, a productive person can be someone who has a fixed schedule, doesn’t procrastinate, and actually sleeps at normal hours!
Out of all trial-and-error, misadventure, and regret comes a lesson. Despite having failed so hard every time I put myself out there, I acknowledge that I brought these issues upon myself. I don’t hate social media… because social media hasn’t given me a reason to hate it! I don’t deserve glory, fame, status, or recognition if I don’t pour my every being into my work. And moving forward, I won’t get my hopes up from this project either until I know that my material is worth viewing and I’ve done everything in my grip to get others to give a damn!
At the end of the day, I look at myself and remember that the things I did and the person I made of myself were active choices in obtaining a status I wanted for myself. Social media is not toxic, nor is it superficial. It’s simply social media. Media that you can share. A venue to create and express and find like-minded people to discuss your thoughts with. It’s up to what we make of it that indicates the impact we have on it and, more importantly, the impact we have on ourselves.
What do you think about social media? Have you had any interesting social media encounters that taught you lessons in life? Let me know in the comments!
Until next time,