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.

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1 Comment

  1. Amy, thanks so much for your comments on my in-process essay, and for keeping this fantastic blog full of essays and pointers I’ll be looking up all holiday! I wanted to include a bit of your observation in my final essay, and would like to email you a copy for your okay (don’t think it’s ethical to quote from blog without permission.) Can you shoot me a decent email address to send it? Thanks!

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