When it's #followateen, every teenager is a celebrity and a Tamagotchi at the same time
This past Friday, David Thorpe (@Arr) tweeted, referencing a hashtag he’d created back in 2011, “let's bring back #followateen for 2013. Here's how it works: find a teen, follow it, and report on its life.” By the middle of the day, the #followateen hashtag yielded hundreds of results. The tweeters were adults, for the most part in their twenties and thirties, each talking about “my” teen as though the teenage Twitter user were a virtual pet they’d adopted. “My teen hates school because you have to wear pants there. I love my teen.” “My teen doesn’t want a part-time job, but he does want a hoodie.” Many of the #followateen tweets are legitimately hilarious, and the mediating narration — not retweeting “your” teen but instead paraphrasing them — is part of the comedic effect. The Buzzfeed article explaining the phenomenon cautioned that if your teen interacts with you or follows you back, “the game is over, and you must start again with a new teen.” The teens function like exhibits under glass, or like the Tamagotchi pets of the late '90s, to which many Twitter users compared the hashtag.
Besides the comments on proms and crushes and parents and school and #yolo, the most common theme on #followateen is people pointing out that #followateen is creepy. It’s a good point. Of course it’s creepy. It’s really creepy. If you haven’t yet noticed, Twitter is, itself, creepy. The language is creepy and the concept is creepy. The form is creepy and the content is creepy and the fact of all our relative habituation to it is very, very creepy. The word follow is creepy, evoking heavy-breathing stalkers. Cult leaders have followers, and hapless victims get followed down dark alleyways. Follow implies obsession, lack of autonomy, predators, and silent threats.
Twitter is creepy, a device through which to peek in through your neighbor’s windows. When I first moved to New York, I was amazed at how many people left their curtains or blinds open. I witnessed fights between couples, small scenes of heartbreaking loneliness, and of course sex and nudity. I quickly learned that everyone in New York watches their neighbors through windows, or tries to, or hopes to, and everyone wants to talk about it. Neighbor-spying was always a good topic with which to make conversation at parties. Stuffed into this dense, overpopulated, oversharing city, we were all permitted to be voyeurs, allowed to admit that being creepy is a pretty intrinsic part of being human. Twitter is premised on this same shared desire to be creepy. Its basic action is lurking. Twitter’s very language encourages voyeurism in a way that Facebook doesn’t. Where Facebook is all about “friendship” and “connecting,” Twitter is about following and talking about people publicly behind their backs ("subtweeting").
Twitter is a self-curated world of choose-your-own-adventure voyeurism. It becomes interesting when you realize that you can just sit behind the scenes of someone’s life and listen to them talk to themselves, when you realize how many inner monologues — those of friends, celebrities, strangers — are waiting there naked-faced in a neat backward scroll. Voyeurism is not widely acknowledged as useful, and social media are constantly being asked to justify their efficacy. Although Twitter succeeds as a mechanism for self-promotion and offers a way to connect with strangers or friends of friends, its main utility is as entertainment. We have all wished at times that we could be there for someone else’s argument, gossip session, or first date: Twitter gets us pretty close. Twitter is where we go to be creepy, and #followateen demonstrates this: It is precisely what has made Twitter so popular, so successful, and so addictive.
In the #followateen tweets, people whose teens were experiencing trivial but distressing dramas felt that they’d found a really good teen. The most entertaining tweets paraphrase teens who are very upset about something unimportant. When someone becomes entertainment, they become an object and can be evaluated in terms of their success or failure at entertaining their audience. Most people I know who had Tamagotchis did horrible things to them. These were hilarious things to do to a virtual pet and would have been horrifying things to do to a flesh-and-blood pet. But it was entertaining. Here objectification draws a clear line between the way we treat people we know and the way we treat people we watch online. Voyeurism makes everyone into strangers.
Watching someone, even someone to whom you’re close, will always emphasize the distance between that person and you. Watching enforces your absence, since you can’t watch and be present at the same time. Making someone into entertainment removes our sympathetic connection to them and eliminates compassion. In being close to people, we want them to be happy; in watching people, we want them to be interesting. The two are rarely compatible. People are mostly interesting when they’re not happy, when they’re fucking up, when things are going wrong.
Teens are always interesting. In a teen’s life, something is always going wrong. Very little actually happens, but all of it is of enormous consequence. Or at least that’s how we assume it feels, from our definitively creepy position of adult voyeur. Many tweets in the #followateen feed are extremely condescending, as is Thorpe’s original tweet. The description of a “little teen life” minimizes the teen. The appeal of #followateen as characterized is intrinsically connected to the smallness and inconsequence of the teen’s life. After all, we’re all sick of being grownups, sick of caring about large things like jobs and bills and marriage and aging. It’s probably no coincidence that #followateen caught on like wildfire right as all taxes were due in the U.S. If only our lives were smaller, and if only we still had so few big things to care about that the small things could feel big. In a teen’s experience, everything is a crisis — school, clothes, parents, cars, prom, shoes, backpacks, homework. Every tiny thing is crucial and worth crying about — or, in this case, worth tweeting about. Teens are the ideal tweeters because they are never happy and always interesting.
But none of this actually distinguishes the teens from their creepy audience, as much as those of us watching might like to believe it does. Teens don’t have “little” lives because they’re teens but because all our lives are small. We stumble though the pointless minutiae of the day to day. Tiny events that seem like crises are made large only in the telling. What #followateen admits is not that teenagers’ lives are smaller than our own, but that teenagers are the only ones who are doing the internet right.The social internet is determined by teenagers. Our use of the medium and all its memes and codes and approved and appropriated and habituated constructions and formal devices are all adapted from the language of teenagers using the internet. The Twitter account of a 16-year-old complaining about homework and boys can be seen simply as the true and correct use of Twitter.
Many of the teens using Twitter are from affluent, privileged backgrounds and have not yet had the experiences that might lead them to seek privacy, to keep silent the narration of their own lives.They are afraid neither of being overdramatic nor being boring. We would all rather read about a random teen trying to sneak liquor into a prom than read any self-promotional tweet from an adult trying to use Twitter in a grown-up way. Twitter may not be something you want to be good at, but to being good at Twitter means being as much like a 16-year-old as possible. Adulthood is about closing down, about keeping things to yourself, building defenses, maintaining dignity, putting a polite face over impolite reactions. Adolescence lacks these filters. It is still about tantrums and obliviousness. People are far more interesting before they have figured out that in the grand scale of things nothing that happens to any of us is all that important.
Celebrities are similarly interesting on Twitter, since they too assume the minutiae of their lives to be grandly interesting. To be good at Twitter, you also have convince yourself that you’re a celebrity. Twitter is about pretending you’re already famous, when fame is defined by strangers caring about the banality of your day. Nobody cares when you eat lunch, but when a celebrity eats lunch a fight breaks out over who gets to take and publish a photo of it. Justin Bieber tweets “good morning” and tens of thousands of followers retweet as though some kind of miracle has occurred. The condition of fame means that these little lives are blown up out of proportion, and this process is foundational to Twitter.
Teenagers act like they’re already famous because they don’t know that they aren’t. When people paraphrase their teens on #followateen, it is often with a tone of amazement. The origin of the word celebrity is celebrate, after all, and the #followateen tweets all read as delighted exclamations: “Look what I found!” Teenagers and celebrities share this use of Twitter: Celebrities post banalities because they know people will find it interesting, and teenagers post banalities because they don’t know yet that people won’t. Your Twitter feed isn’t complete until you follow a teen, and you aren’t entertaining until you start acting like one.