9 Mar 2007, 12:12pm
myspace sex youth:
by jordan

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the semiotics of sex

is it porn when college students pose naked for campus magazines with literary intentions, or just ironic, erotic photography? has sex-positivism among young people been twisted into another expression of so-called “raunch” feminism, or does gender diversity shift the power dynamics inherent in consuming images of naked sexuality? the times’ magazine last week published a reasonably even-handed piece on the increasing prevalence of campus nude mags, sometimes offered as porn, but often couched in more aspirational terms (Campus Exposure – Alexandra Jacobs – New York Times).

i was in graduate school at the University of Chicago when Vita Excolatur was first published (prompting me to write my own proposal for a more genderqueer magazine called “Cum Laude,” but the demands of my thesis prevented anything from coming to, um, fruition). at the time, i was largely unimpressed by the amateur and somewhat pretentious forays into “polyamory” and “sadomasochism,” neither of which appeared to have been informed by participants in those sexual subcultures (polyamory was imagined as a typical menage-a-trois, and the S&M surely would’ve disappointed Foucault).

still, the article alights on a number of themes which have been recurring in the media on the topics of youth, sex, exhibitionism, and social media. author alexandra jacobs repeats the popular notion that young people today are so saturated with “overt sexual imagery” even among the “educated elite” that “maybe it’s not so strange that students are confronting their own sex lives so graphically and publicly.” our culture, we are reminded, increasingly embraces fetishistic exhibitionism, especially for women, who attract inappropriate sexual attention through suggestive clothing and provocative pictures. jacobs stops short of concluding that young women today are proof that the patriarchy has won, subjecting them to its overarching ideology of female sexual display for masculine consumption.

but neither can jacobs resist the ubiquity of social networking sites in the lives of young people, such as Facebook and MySpace: “to attend college now means to participate in a culture of constant two-dimensional preening” where students can immediately check one another’s online profiles, complete with revealing photos. but what, exactly, is so flat and superficial about online profiles? of course, these websites streamline individual interests into predetermined categories, producing identities which revolve around popular media and digital imagery. at the same time, digital spaces often reproduce the kinds of semiotic indicators we all deploy in the three-dimensional world of flesh to communicate social and cultural positions to each other, such as fashion, bodily comportment, brand labels, and consumer products. social networking sites may intensify these tendencies, but they also provide spaces for youth to engage in creative appropriation of popular media, reconfiguring music, words, and images in a semiotic assemblage of individual subject position.

the world of college porn ultimately emerges as too diverse to summarize or criticize easily in a few words, when some of the magazines challenge gender norms, while the editor of Harvards‘ H-Bomb was quoted as saying “I don’t think men and women are equal at all. I think we’re different, and what’s wrong with that?” clearly, she’s never read Donna Haraway or Anne Fausto-Sterling on the social and cultural conditions under which sciences like biology are produced, including the biological construction of sex. but i remain suspicious of how young women today are frequently depicted as conflicted about sexuality, unhappy with the reality of their erotic encounters, and displacing personal desire onto performed sexuality, expressed in the emerging predilection for “slutty” and “sexy” costumes on Halloween (or just out at clubs and parties). without seeking to dismiss these concerns, it strikes me that there may be deeper currents beneath the surface of co-ed porn rags and risque MySpace profiles which deserve greater critical analysis and attention.

dangerous fashion

in further video news, i’m not sure how i missed last week’s perceptive news report from WDAZ in North Dakota, but clearly, emo really is the new goth. and just like goth, emo began as a subgenre of punk music (emotive hardcore) that has morphed into a distinctive youth style complete with fashion codes (skinny clothes, floppy black hair) and alleged behavior norms (self harm, mopey poetry, morbid introspection). this current version of emo strikes me as difficult to distinguish from the darker side of indie/hipster style, and has become inseparably imagined alongside myspace and youtube, and similar digital sites of youthful social interaction.

the video is pretty predictable — new youth subculture poses risks to YOUR kids! be on the look out for skinny pants and tight sweaters in dark colors — they might lead to suicidal ideation! but the best part appears to be the newscasters’ misrecognition of internet humor sites as legitimate guides to emo culture. such as the “Insta Emo Kit” at Sykospark.net. they also report on a supposed “point” system, which they acknowledge may be more symbolic than literal — and of course, youth subculture often does rely on schema of cultural capital (specialized knowledge of scene norms, taste preferences, and slang) to confer status and credibility.

but as usual, hyping fears of the internet, self harm, and youth subculture does little to address the real difficulties many young people face navigating the educational system, media, and consumerism in a postindustrial world where they are frequently targeted by mass media and corporate interests, and where “youth” has become a dominant symbol for what’s new, hip, and desirable in mass culture.

I Must Be Emo – News Report

the special generation

i woke up this morning to more social anxiety about youth — this time, NPR’s Day to Day was covering a recent study which claims that “[college] students today are more narcissistic and self-centered than a generation ago.” now, my mother assures me that she never told me i was special, so perhaps i escaped the worst of the “self-esteem movement.” but according to psychologists at San Diego State, this recent trend can be traced to the indiscriminate emphasis on self-esteem and praise popular in parenting during the 80s. of course, the researchers then went on to add that this growing narcisissism is “fueled by current technologies such as MySpace and YouTube.” ah, technological determinism.

at the risk of tooting the same tinny horn all the time, this just clamors “social anxiety! social anxiety!” the study purports to have relied on the “Narcissistic Personality Inventory,” in which over 16,000 college-age students were surveyed between 1982 and 2006 using this psychological evaluation survey. admittedly, i tend to be wary of this kind of quantitative data, largely due to my own investments in ethnography and qualitative methods. what does it really tell us that students are increasingly agreeing with statements like “I think I am a special person” and “I can live my life any way I want to?” could this represent a part of larger cultural shifts in how we conceive of ourselves in American society? does this index actually indicate anything about social and behavioral changes, and is it sufficient to assess such cognitive trends?

but now i’m confused, because only a few days ago, APA researchers were all worked up about the negative effects of media on girl’s self-esteem — so it self-esteem good, or bad? or are researchers just bandying the term about without careful definition? given the cultural specificity of Western conceptions of selfhood, some care and clarity would be welcomed here. still, lead author Jean Twenge seems to think that today’s youth are less empathic and more self-centered, and cautions that this shift could have damaging ramifications for society generally. as i’ve said before, youth are often a site where social anxieties are expressed concerning social reproduction, and youth are frequently and vaguely blamed for social changes that many find threatening. but are youth initiating these changes, or products of them?

the best part of this morning’s interview with Twenge was when she claimed to hold the media responsible first, then parents and schools. ah, of course. but which media? that’s right, magazines and television, in particular those that pander to youth. at no time did she point out that those media are generated for the sake of attracting advertising revenues, and that corporate interests tend to shape the media through which they promote their products. lastly, of course, Twenge includes MySpace and YouTube as proof that media are increasingly capitalizing on the narcissistic tendencies of today’s youth, sites which revolve around individual identity. but perhaps these websites embody the same kind of cultural shifts that lead students to respond differently to the Narcissistic Personality Inventory. before asserting that changing attitudes signal dangerous trends in personal relationships, clearly closer research is needed to investigate how young people conceive of themselves, how they relate to others, and how they use (and produce) media.

18 Nov 2006, 5:36pm
media & technology youth
by jordan

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surveiling the surveillant

as danah boyd mentioned in her blog today, an Iranian student was tasered by campus police at UCLA last Tuesday, triggering protests from the student body. the event, however, was captured by a student’s video phone, and quickly disseminated around the internet and on television networks. by Thursday night, a friend of mine was showing me the clip on Youtube, whose video-sharing capabilities had undoubtably facilitated circulation. as Roxanne Varzi, a professor of Iranian studies and visual anthropology at UC Irvine said to me, emerging media technologies such as camera phones and video sites now allow the surveilled to become the surveillant.

media analysis aside, i hope the exposure of this event leads to a meaningful investigation of the actions of the UCLA police, and to thinking more critically about the ways in which some students (middle eastern, students of color, etc.) are treated, especially in our current political climate of fearmongering.

Authentic Youth: Cultural Capital and Credibility in Digital Youth Culture

(from a proposed paper on the role of digital media in the lives of young people)

For young people, commodity culture offers an important site for the production of individual and collective meanings. Digital spaces such as the internet provide an excellent arena for do-it-yourself culture and creative consumption, but are ultimately structured by the same logics that determine how popular culture operates more generally. Discourses of credibility and authenticity afford us a glimpse into how young people navigate the complex interplay of social networks, cultural commodities, and subcultures in a mobile, mediated society. Given the role of cultural engagement in developing social capital, digital media offer a means for young people to become more invested in their social and cultural worlds.

more »

29 Mar 2006, 4:24pm
media & technology social networks
by jordan

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myspace — not just for pedophiles anymore!

An interesting tidbit in the news this week — apparently, students in SoCal relied on MySpace and other digital media (email, txts, IM, etc.) to organize extensive walkouts Tuesday and Monday protesting proposed new immigration legislation.

From the LA Times:

“The protests appeared to be loosely organized, with students learning about them through mass e-mails, fliers, instant messages, cellphone calls and postings on myspace.com Web pages.”

the Modesto Bee:

“At Ceres High, students spread word of the protest through the popular teen Web site MySpace.com.”

and the San Diego Union-Tribune:

“Cpl. Dennis Gutierrez, a department spokesman, said students were well organized because they were communicating through the myspace.com Web site.”

Not that this represents a new use of digital communications to organize protesters or coordinate masses of people — Howard Rheingold has written about and documented “smart mobs,” amorphous groups of people that cooperate and behave intelligently, despite their size and lack of centralized organization. But this may be the first highly publicized use of MySpace to help give students a political voice.

Hopefully, this recent application will suggest some of the positive possibilities for sites like MySpace, and other techno-social activities like texting and instant messaging. Maybe it will even offset some of the negative publicity and moral panics that the media have been fanning lately. Instead of stressing out about the (low) risk of internet pedophiles, or indulging in fears about inappropriate online behaviors for teens, we should focus on how social networking sites and digital media can facilitate meaningful community for young people, contributing to increased social connections and thereby fostering social engagement.

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