Terri Senft / Teens and the “Attention Economy”

An in-progress article from Terri Senft analyzing youth online practices as a part of a marketplace of “attention.”

She argues that teens using myspace and the like to document their lives is part of:

a larger cultural preoccupation with what self-help gurus are calling “Brand You.” Many wonder why a teen would build an image-shrine to himself on the net. They might as well wonder why he wouldn’t, given the cultural messages teens routinely receive, given the near-daily demand for them to ‘look good on paper.’

She goes on to suggest that generating such online fame and identity is already a part of existing circuits of capital–users work as content generators, which generates profit for the owners of social network sites.

But, she points out, pursuing celebrity can also be a way to seek self-determination, especially since adolescents have few other avenues to pursue it:

Stars don’t accumulate capital because they get attention; they accumulate capital because they have managed to turn themselves from citizens to corporations. This morphing is crucial when we consider the lure of celebrity for teens who feel themselves limited in their sense of agency. Even a cursory examination of the news displays that the only kids who count as people, rather than property, are those who have managed to somehow establish themselves as corporate entities: child celebrities, athletes, and so on. Why wouldn’t someone want to emulate that model, which seems (on the surface at least) to generate just capital, but self-determination?

She warns that economies of attention can be “just as volatile, corrupt, sexist, ageist and counter-democratic as old-fashioned capitalism.”

I think Senft’s analysis of attention and celebrity is useful, but I still wonder: How does this differ from the desire for popularity and social capital?

She starts off the piece with an anecdote about some teenage girls who were punished after their sleepover photos were leaked. Is she saying that they made the photos in the first place because of the demands of this “attention economy”? Since the girls did not intend to share the photos with the rest of the school, it might make more sense to argue instead that the unknown person who nonconsensually distributed photos did so to gain capital, and that such gains were unethical and misbegotten.

Second “sexting suicide” on record: When can we talk about slut-shaming?

This story is tragic: ‘Sexting’ bullying cited in teen girl’s suicide – TODAY show.

But we need to look past the shiny new label “sexting suicide” and put this in a larger context. We need to stop punishing girls for expressing their sexuality–parents, peers, and the justice system, you’re all responsible.

How can we understand this suicide, which seems so new and different, in the context of our long history of labeling some women “sluts” and “whores”? Instead of another quotation from Parry Aftab (“it’s dangerous, don’t do it”) what could Leora Tanenbaum and the hundreds of women she interviewed about being tormented as the “slut” in high school add to this conversation?

We need to think seriously about the connection between the well-established statistics of gay teen suicide and Hope Witsell’s “sexting” suicide.  Can we fight homophobia with dramatic narratives of dead gay teenagers?

What can we accomplish with stories of “sexting suicides”? Can we re-write them to raise the alarm about the unrealistic and damaging sexual standards that adolescent girls are (still) held to? Is it possible to use these stories to argue that our sexual and gender norms are deadly?

UPDATE: an excellent analysis at The Curvature. More great commentary at Sylvia Has A Problem.