Fretting about social media corrupting youth these days risks sounding like an earlier generation of parents wringing their hands over Elvis and the Beatles. Yet “Frontline” has found a way into the conversation by delving into the insidious way corporate marketers — including Hollywood — have insinuated themselves into the process, turning enthusiastic fans into co-opted marketing minions. “Generation Like” is a fascinating look into a world where Retweets, Likes and other online endorsements have become social currency, spawning a new breed of consultants unabashedly seeking to take the risk out of public opinion.
That the younger cohort has an evolving relationship with technology — and ostensibly fewer compunctions about privacy — hardly comes as a news flash. Still, picking up where he left off more than a decade ago in “Merchants of Cool,” correspondent Douglas Rushkoff finds several interesting points of entry into this multipronged topic, from the obsession with celebrity to the way sponsors crunch data in order to turn enthusiastic teens and young adults into apostles to help promote their brands.
“You are what you like,” as Rushkoff puts it, and the copious amount of information available — as well as the eagerness of teens to promote something like “The Hunger Games” for the merest brush of personalized contact with the property — make it easier for companies to track and exploit every move.
Similarly, as Rushkoff documents, Web personalities can create a viral effect by cross-pollinating their subscriber or fan bases, until the act of getting noticed becomes a marketable end unto itself. A similar logic guides actors, and the doc shows “The Vampire Diaries’ ” Ian Somerhalder meeting with a consultant and marveling at how his Twitter following can exceed his show’s audience.
If all that seems relatively benign — except perhaps for the crass commercialism of it all, and the layers of AstroTurf underlying what are supposed to be grassroots fans — Rushkoff closes on a particularly sobering and troubling note: A teenage girl who has developed an avid online following with the encouragement of her mother, who notes that her daughter’s “likes” pile up when she posts “full body” shots.
So while there’s a case to be made for the democratizing aspects of the social-media revolution potentially eradicating some of those barriers erected to block access, as “Generation Like” illustrates, sometimes that just amounts to a fancy way of pimping out kids, even if they’re willing participants.