A while ago I wrote a blog post about the Kylie Jenner Lip Challenge; a craze taking the internet by storm (or, at least, heavily reported across various media channels – but that’s a distinction for whole other blog post…) in which people filmed/photographed themselves trying to get fuller lips by creating a vacuum around them. The results were obviously not great, and it led to many a think-piece about ‘kids these days’ being stupid, passive, and gullible. I always think this reaction is incredibly patronising to a generation who, according to recent data, are showing adept media literacy and criticality in a landscape with far more sources competing for attention. It is always worth remembering that we all did stupid things as kids. I did a million stupid things, including swallowing my mum’s earring for a game of hide-and-seek. The difference was of course that I didn’t have a camera in my face and an internet to project my failings onto (until now I guess). The earring never emerged, but I’m sure I’m fine…
But nonetheless, many a reaction was formed about how gullible the current emerging generation are, a far too simplistic narrative that I think needs to be problematized and examined, rather than assumed. Interestingly, this narrative can be further challenged by a more recent reaction to another Jenner sister’s media forays.
Today another Jenner sister was trending in the media for an entirely separate reason. Kendall Jenner starred in an incredibly tone-deaf Pepsi advert that borrowed the imagery and timbre of many current protest movements in a move of crass neoliberalism, highlighting some of the greediest aspects of capitalism. It was a move that many people saw through, and that garnered a wealth of criticism cross the board. Many posts will be written today about what just how misguided and offensive this advert is, and that is a much needed reaction. Here however I want to briefly unpack just what this reaction means for how we think about the relationship between media and audience.
So much media theory from last 50 years is built upon the assumption that the audience is somehow passive and programmable. Theories such as the ‘hypodermic needle theory’ and ‘two-step flow theory’ portray an audience that is waiting to receive message and act accordingly without much criticality. The hypodermic needle effect suggests that there is a direct ‘injection’ from the media to the audience, producing an immediate and predictable response. The two-step flow theory suggests that media messages are filtered down to us through ‘opinion leaders’ who then tell us how to think about these media messages (see the diagram below)
The two-step flow model in particular is useful when thinking about the internet. Increasingly, in a world where we have far more choice over the media we consume, it appears that we are increasingly in separate filter bubbles of pronounced fissiparousness.
That is to say that the ways we consume and receive media are increasingly divided and separated along political and social lines. One of the brilliant/worst things about the internet is that it allows like-minded people to find each-other and to build their own pedagogical spaces to learn and explore subjects and ideas that interest them. They are communicating together, growing together, and learning together.
This does not mean, however, that the audience is passive to media messages, or that we can simply say that media messages continue to work deterministically on an audience, but now with added steps and filters. In these online spaces, young people are learning to be ‘woke’ and to be media critical. Users from all backgrounds are becoming increasingly aware of social divides, and with this, are learning to question the sources of the messages they’re receiving. Sites like snopes.com are gaining more traffic as users are increasingly alert to ‘fake news’. Reverse image searching is becoming a standard tool across the internet to trace sources of information. Hillary Clinton spent much of her campaign drawing attention to the need to ‘fact-check’ political rhetoric. Credibility is becoming an important media metric for all sorts of media sources. And this increased criticality was apparent in the response to Kendall’s Pepsi ad. People simple didn’t buy into it. So many young feminists and activists took to Twitter and other platforms to tear apart this advert in a critical and nuanced manner. They showed the ability to quickly examine crass commercialism.
Anecdotally this increased criticality has been bleeding into my lectures over the past 5 years. I lead BA courses on Media, Culture, and Learning in the School of Education and Lifelong Learning at UEA. As the years go by the students appear to be more and more alert and critical to the media messages around them. This could just be a fluke, but I spend much of my time engaging with younger generations around their internet use and they show a remarkable ability to unpack the messages they are being shown with nuance. I attribute this in no small part to the diversity of media and the increased role of it in their lives. They are increasingly pickier with what they consume and how they consume it. Despite many a moral panic postulating that there is some sort of positive correlation between media consumption and stupidity/gullibility it appears that quite the opposite is increasingly true; that, because younger generations are exposed to a growing diverse wealth of media, rather than being mindless robots, they are gaining the ability to pick, unpack, and consider media messages with nuance and criticality.
This is not to say, of course, that media is not powerful in setting agendas, in silencing narratives, in creating and reinforcing discourses, in minimalizing and ‘othering’ communities, and in generally shaping the social world around us. These are all true, and need to be examined and explored in an ongoing manner. But it is apparent now more than ever that we need to problematize the relationship between media and audience in a way that is not deterministic.
Further to this, I think we need to question the one-way direction implied by the two-step flow theory. IT is not a simple flow from media, through opinion leaders, to the audience. Instead it appears that there is some sort of ‘backwash’ effect in which the audience seems to play a role in sending messages back up to the opinion leaders, and to the original media sources. The audience, in its ability to voice its reaction, is able to reverse this top-down model and to intersect at every stage of the two-step process. Audiences are becoming creators of media, they are becoming opinion leaders, they are reversing the direction of the flow and telling opinion leaders their opinions, they are holding media accountable for the messages they produce, they are questioning sources. In essence, they are increasingly becoming a powerful movement. Not one that is handing Pepsi to police officers, but one that is telling Pepsi to cut it out. This is where I think we need to further problematize the far-to-easy dismissal of ‘armchair activism’ and question what it means to play a role in shaping the media landscape around us. We need to examine what it means to be able to create media in such an easy manner that doesn’t require physical distributions of alt ‘zines but that only requires a Twitter account. We need to support and foster the growing criticality of younger generations in the hope that they’ll continue to push media sources to be accountable and rigorous.
All-in-all, I can’t help but feel that Kendall Jenner’s tone-deaf misstep shows us that there’s no need to view the younger generations as stupid and gullible. They’re media literate and willing to act on it.