I think it’s been really interesting that over the past few months, there’s been a lot of talk (well, who am I kidding, a lot of memes) about Rebecca Black. Her YouTube clip Friday went viral, resulting in fame in just three short months, which includes being invited to making an appearance at the MTV O Music awards.
I want to discuss is the difference between Rebecca Black’s rise to fame, and Jessi Slaughter‘s infamy. Both of whom have become memes online – but Rebecca has a recording contract, while Jessi’s father has faced criminal charges as a result of his daughter’s online infamy. How did these end up on such different paths?
I believe a key difference in the way that these two entered the online stage, and responded to their new audience was, simply what I will call “online literacy”: understanding how and why online culture works, and knowing how to work it. I’m not saying 13-year-old Rebecca has a magic formula to making videos viral – I’m saying that when the internet did pluck her from anonymity, her response was to play smart and cash in. 11-year-old Jessi responded in the way an 11-year-old would to harassment, but unfortunately, antagonized the wrong people because she didn’t really understand the implications of what she was doing. (Obviously, due to her age, which I will discuss shortly).
Rebecca Black understood how to play the online game. Her family paid a production company to create a YouTube video for her, so she placed herself on the online stage in a very formulated way*. While the video is made a mockery of, she’s a girl who made a decision to make a lame video, and she’s standing by it, playing cool, saying the “haters don’t bother her“. Jessi Slaughter, however, stumbled into the online world, making YouTube videos from the perspective of an eleven-year-old to a small online community, lashing out at anyone who attacked her. The result was that the online community, in particular, 4Chan, believed this girl needed to be taught a lesson in manners, which translated in to a string of real-world pranks. Jessi’s family, however, don’t understand this online culture, nor were they aware what her daughter was doing online. They didn’t understand how to use the internet, nor why they were being attacked, exhibited in the meme-tastic, “We’ve called the cyberpolice”. In fact, even as the family were being interviewed by media about the harassment and police intervention, Jessi’s mother still had no idea that her daughter had even made online videos.
One of the biggest issues here, is that the most naive members of our society, are also the most information rich regarding this new form of media. We have eleven-year-olds who can make videos for the world to see, more fluently and faster than people in their twenties, thirties, fourties, fifties. The response to try to combat young people using technology has been to lock social networks down for kids under 13, such as Facebook. Cyberbullying help buttons on Facebook have been implemented in the US but the reality is that there are more than enough online communities for preeteens to explore outside of these places, which are unmonitored.
The issue is that adults are aware of some of the dangers of the online world, especially those of a predatory nature, but don’t understand enough about navigating the online space to encourage or support healthy relationships with people online, including strangers such as people on forums, on twitter, in chat rooms, on chatroulette. All of the cyber safety information I see is about ‘what if someone tries to friend you on Facebook’ and completely overlooks the literacy needed around conversing with online-only friends in all these other spaces, or even, what is really the case with these teens, online reputation management.
Schools will palm it off to parents. Parents will palm it off to teachers. The reality is, that in general, both these groups are as likely to be as confused as each other.
It’s funny, that for a piece of technology which has grown so quickly as part of our everyday lives, there is a vast number of people who still really have no idea how to use it – my favourite example being Read Write Web’s ‘Facebook Login redesign article saga‘, it beg the question – what if we were allowed on the roads without driving lessons?
We need to recognise that there are a lot of people who don’t understand the basics of how the internet works and are forced to learn on the fly. However the nature of the internet is that these interactions are in a public space and people make mistakes which most of the time, no one cares about. But in the case of teens like Jessi Slaughter, public mistakes can lead to some very serious consequences.
What do you think? How should be address the lack on online literacy in our communities? Schools? Parents? Community-based workshops? Training manuals which come with new computers? Or, would a great big internet delete button be a better approach during people fumbling about on the internet? Let me know – I’d love to begin to seriously think about way to challenge this issue.
*Interesting, one of the other girls in the Friday video has also received harassment online from her role. See how well presented her response is (Y’know, despite her ramblings about Justin Bieber, her braces and her driveway length in the middle)?