On a typical Friday night, you will find teenagers of certain means engaging in similar activities. Some hang out at the mall, others convene at the high school football game, and the rest go to the movies. Regardless of the activity in question, the teenager’s primary purpose is to spend time with their friends away from the presence of adults.
Social media is fascinating because it allows teenagers to interact with one another while they are in separate places. This is never clearer than on a Friday night. As media scholar danah boyd argues, social media enables teenagers to escape the confines of strict parenting and form communities with friends on their own terms (see below). When parents deny their children the opportunity to go out with their friends, teenagers lock themselves in their bedrooms, log onto the virtual realm, and establish a presence on social media. More often than not, teenagers are engaging in activities of which their parents are unaware. So what, exactly, are teenagers doing on social media, and why does it matter?
In 2005, James Johnson and Hideki Kishioka founded Stickam, the first live-streaming social network. The website allows users to create a profile and broadcast live webcams to anonymous, unseen viewers, and before the site shut down in January 2013, it had over 10 million members. (“Increased Security Measures at Stickam Successful, leading the UGC Live Community”, by Andy Wombwell, PRWeb, 4 December 2012) Among the 10 million members on Stickam were teenagers—most likely the kind whose parents wouldn’t let them go out with their friends. As TechCrunch notes, Stickam was a haven for “misfit youth”. (“Scene Kids Cry As Streaming Site Stickam Shuts Down”, by Josh Constine, 31 January 2013)
There are a number of activities in which teenagers participated on Stickam and other live-streaming video websites. Some conversed about their favorite bands, a few complained about their strict parents, and others promoted their artistic endeavors in an attempt to gain acceptance and approval from like-minded peers. This article isn’t going to focus on these activities. Rather, I’m going to discuss the more socially problematic behavior that in many ways is responsible for the defunct status of these websites.
Namely, I’m interested in the sexual interactions between teenagers who broadcast their webcams on the website and those who watched the broadcasts. Instead of morally evaluating this behavior, I intend to come to terms with what it is and what it might tell us about youth culture and social media.
One intellectually fruitful way to understand this behavior is to consider scholarship that focuses on issues of looking—or “gazing”—and power. Historically, the relationship between observer and the observed has been widely debated in film and media studies. We can attribute this investigation to Laura Mulvey’s essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, which famously argued that Hollywood narrative films use women in order to provide visual pleasure for men. According to Mulvey, “In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.” Thus, Mulvey asserts, women are passive visual objects of the active male gaze, thereby establishing a looking relationship that reinforces patriarchal ideology.
Scholars have since attacked, revised, and updated Mulvey’s theory—including Mulvey herself in her 1981 essay, “Afterthoughts on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ inspired by Duel in the Sun” first published in Framework—and it is not worth getting into the details of each response. What’s important to know is that Mulvey’s interest in looking relationships has maintained its relevance over the years. Moreover, this relationship and past conceptions of it continue to demand scholarly exploration as social media websites like Stickam have given rise to new ways of seeing and being seen.
In particular, live-streaming video websites force us to consider what happens when teenage girls put themselves in the “traditional exhibitionist role” to which Mulvey refers. That is, how do we confront situations in which young females not only want to be looked at, but go to great lengths to acquire as many viewers as possible?
An exploration of this question is paramount if we are to understand the role of social media in contemporary culture. I acknowledge that this is a sensitive subject because it deals with the sexualization of teenagers, and this explains why it is often unacknowledged in both popular and academic writing. A plethora of studies exist on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, but no one is willing to tackle the live-streaming video website because they would inevitably have to confront the fact that these websites are often used by teenagers to explore their sexuality.
On the one hand, this forces the scholar to remain objective about an issue that from the outset is socially problematic, and on the other hand, anything the scholar says about the issue is immediately misunderstood and cited as a source for youth culture’s immorality. As an emerging scholar, I’m willing to take the risk, and my hope is that sophisticated readers will be able to engage in a mature debate about this topic.
In Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (University of California Press, April 1999), Linda Williams underscores why visual displays of sexuality need to be studied:
But proper or not, at this stage in the contemporary proliferation of discourses of sexuality it seems helpful for all of us—men, women, anti-pornography feminists, and anti-censorship feminists—to agree that we are moved, whether to anger or to arousal, by these images of hard-core pornography, and to proceed with an analysis of the power and pleasure they hold for us… To get beyond the question of whether pornography should exist to a consideration of what pornography is and what it has offered those viewers—primarily men but, now, women in increasing numbers—who have been ‘caught looking’ at it. (xvii)
There are, of course, a few differences between Williams’ study and my own. For one, the sexuality teenagers express on live-streaming video websites like Stickam is hardly pornographic. It’s certainly fair to claim that if parents knew what their teenage sons and daughters were up to on these websites, they would not be pleased, but the behavior is not worthy of alarm or panic. As clinical psychiatrist Daniel J. Siegel suggests in Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain (Tarcher, January 2014), it’s natural for teenagers to explore their sexuality, and social media has merely allowed teenagers to do this in the absence of physical contact. It’s equally natural for adults to be concerned about this behavior, but the behavior itself is not abnormal, and the behavior, of course, existed long before social media’s emergence.
In addition, the visual displays of sexuality to which Williams refers has entered the mainstream, and to this day pornography remains a booming media industry. Contrast this to live-streaming video websites that few teenagers have used and even fewer have heard of. To this day, I am amazed at the number of people who can talk about Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram in a casual conversation, but who have never heard of Stickam, blogTV, or Twitcam. This is because live-streaming video websites appeal to a niche group of teenagers whose strict parents won’t let them hang out with their friends in person, and who long for agency and control over their social lives.
It’s not an overstatement to say that the only people who know of these websites are generally the teenagers who use them and the social media scholars who study them. This serves as a testament to the teenager’s ability to form private communities on social media unbeknownst to adult authority figures. danah boyd calls attention to this, as she writes:
As kids work to be invisible to people who hold direct power over them (parents, teachers, etc.), they happily expose themselves to audiences of peers. And they expose themselves to corporations. They know that the company can see everything they send through their servers/service, but who cares? Until these companies show clear allegiance with their parents, they’re happy to assume that the companies are on their side and can do them no harm. (“how youth find privacy in interstitial spaces”,Apophenia, 9 March 2008)
While the displays of sexuality on live-streaming video websites aren’t pornographic and should instead be understood as natural teenage behavior, in many ways I am following in Williams’ path by explaining what these websites are and what they convey about their (mostly) teenage users. I want to move away from the morally evaluative judgment claims that seem to permeate social media scholarship and suggest instead that we try to view this technology from the perspective of those who actually use it as opposed to those who don’t understand it and deem it nefarious as a result.
I noted before that young females broadcast on these websites in an effort to be looked at by anonymous viewers. There are occasions where men have broadcasted, as well as live underground bands and other aspiring artists, but for the most part, the paradigm is that young females broadcast their videos to an audience of young males. A quick search of “Stickam Girls” will show both what teenagers are up to on these websites as well as the gender relations in play.
The relationship between the young females who broadcast and the young males who watch can be understood as one of tension, play, and negotiation. Live-streaming video websites destabilize power relations between observer and the observed because both parties rely on one another to co-exist within a digital space. Whereas the young females broadcast in an attempt to gain as many viewers as possible, the young males don’t watch unless the female broadcasters do something “fun” or “exciting” to earn more viewers.This creates a tense, unstable power relationship in which the young males ask the young female broadcasters to display their bodies in exchange for more viewers (what else can be more “fun” or “exciting” for socially outgoing teenagers?), and the young female broadcasters withhold displaying their bodies until a certain viewership quota is met.
At any given moment the power structure can be reversed, which makes the relationship tense. For example, if the broadcaster refuses to display her body, she has power over her viewers, but when the viewers threaten to move to another broadcaster who is displaying her body, the first broadcaster fears that she will lose viewers, so she displays a part of her body to compete with the other broadcasters and keep her viewers, thereby relinquishing some of her power while simultaneously gaining more power for the next negotiation. Thus, the more a broadcaster displays her body, the more viewers she receives, which gives her more room to negotiate and ultimately more power. However, since she competes with other broadcasters, the viewers always hold some of the power as they decide which broadcasts to watch.
The relationship is playful because both the broadcasters and the viewers literally treat their interactions and negotiations as a game. To be clear: these websites aren’t environments where young teenage girls are pressured by young teenage boys to engage in sexual behavior. The majority of broadcasters who don’t’ want to express their sexuality will make it clear early in their broadcast, and their decision will be respected by the community of viewers. This means, of course, that they broadcast to fewer people, but the sacrifice is worth it for them because they don’t intend to play the game.
Further, the broadcasters who play the game usually initiate the first move (typically by dancing in front of the camera), which lets the community of viewers know that they are there to display their bodies. For both parties, this is fun, exhilarating, rebellious behavior, and neither the broadcasters nor the viewers appear to be uncomfortable. There are a number of Facebook posts and message board posts on the internet that express sadness over Stickam’s closing, which implies that users wanted to be there and are upset that it has closed. (Hello, My Name is Chantal., January 2013)
In addition, the relationship is playful because the broadcasters are putting on a performance. Despite social media’s role in situating these interactions within 21st century media culture, this online behavior is reminiscent of the long history of peepshow performance and voyeurism as discussed in Richard Balzer’s Peepshows: A Visual History (Harry N Abrams, March 1988). Further, Audacia Ray in Naked on the Internet: Hookups, Downloads, and Cashing in on Internet Sexploration (Seal, May 2000) implies that women display their bodies to “cash in” on the internet. Even if teenage users of live-streaming video websites like Stickam don’t intend to profit, there is a sense that they are putting on a show. Often, the usernames created aren’t matched to a real birth name. This alludes to the different identities users assume on these websites and how they might not correlate with their public identities at school, home, and on Facebook and Myspace.
Therefore, as productive and progressive as her work is, danah boyd’s insistence (in numerous lectures and articles) that teenagers use social media to communicate with people they already know is challenged by live-streaming video websites like Stickam where teenagers broadcast webcams to a community of unknown viewers. There are undoubtedly close relationships formed between the Stickam users, and those who consistently use the website are often recognized by their screen names over time, but the average user separates the Stickam community from his/her real-life friendship groups and even Facebook and Myspace friendship groups. Nevertheless, the community on Stickam consists of like-minded teenagers, and even if they don’t spend time with one another in person, they most likely would if they went to the same schools and lived in the same neighborhoods.
If gaze theory traditionally assumes the sexualized, objectified female to be powerless to the male’s active gaze, live-streaming social media websites like Stickam force us to reconsider some of these perspectives. They suggest that power in looking relationships is always in a state of flux, and that the broadcasters are powerful because they provoke others to look at them and that viewers are powerful because the broadcast would not be successful without their gaze. The question remains, however: Why does any of this matter?
For one, the overwhelming number of users on the websites as well as the negative response to the websites’ closings demonstrate that teenagers are looking for ways to assert control and power in their lives. They want to escape the control of their parents and other authority figures, and one of the ways they do this is by forming communities on social media. Since sexuality is a natural part of adolescence, teenagers often use these digital spaces to explore their limits with like-minded peers. It’s not quite the same as physical contact, but since their parents don’t allow them to hang out with their friends, it’s a suitable compensation. Sometimes, however, this can cause problems.
Patrick McGuire points out that unwanted “lurkers” sometimes take advantage of the young female broadcasters who choose to display their bodies. (“Cowards Are Blackmailing Young Women to Death on the Internet”, VICE, 21 December 2012) The question that McGuire raises, and one that ultimately led to the demise of both Stickam and blogTV, is whether teenagers should be engaging in sexual behavior on social media in the first place, and whether they are aware of the possible repercussions if they do. In many ways, this question engages in larger debates about content regulation, privacy, and surveillance.
This is a difficult question to answer precisely because of agency. Teenage girls and boys make conscious decisions to use social media live-streaming websites to interact with one another, and these interactions sometimes become sexual. However, no one is forcing them to do this, and they often go to great lengths to form communities away from their parents and teachers in which they can act sexually without being punished. Is this dangerous or is it harmless? Do we regulate it or do we let them explore? What role should parents and legislators have and what role should be left to teenagers?
As a social media scholar who has observed past and recent behavior on these live-streaming websites and talked with some of its users, I can say that regulation alone isn’t going to solve the problem. Shutting down the websites only leads to the creation of more websites, and a greater effort on behalf of teenagers to hide from authority figures. As Henry Jenkins articulates, “the key issue isn’t what the media are doing to our children but rather what our children are doing with the media… Popular culture has become one of the central battlegrounds through which teens stake out a claim on their own autonomy from their parents.” (“Jenkins on Participatory Media Culture and Youth”, New Learning, 2006)
Perhaps the problem isn’t social media, but what leads teenagers to resort to social media in the first place. Jenkins, boyd, and other media scholars have shown that teenagers use social media to assert their autonomy and escape the control of authority figures. This is a fact. But as scholars also point out, teenagers prefer face-to-face interaction, and would much rather spend time with their friends in person—if only their parents let them. The solution might not be so complicated after all. If adults want to protect their teenagers from engaging in problematic online behavior that could potentially damage them, perhaps they can loosen their grip, relinquish (some) of their control, and let their children leave the house.
Ultimately, the question that needs to be answered when it comes to youth culture and social media is whether we’d rather expose teenagers to the dangers of the internet or the dangers of the outside world. I’m not sure how to answer this question, but something tells me that if we take a step back and let teenagers make the initial decision—to go out with their friends or stay home and use social media—we’ll be surprised by what they choose.
As Jenkins said so beautifully before Congress after the Columbine shooting, with a sense of urgency that applies even today, “Listen to our children. Don’t fear them.” (“Mr. Jenkins Goes to Washington”.)