Teens, Tumblr and the hidden worlds of the social web

On an unproductive afternoon of idly clicking through interconnected blog posts, I recently found myself on a web page dedicated to the curious phenomenon of Jared and Savannah.

Annie Macfarlane

“The cutest couple on earth!” sighed the author. “I wish this was my life.”

Assuming for the moment that the “Javannah” phenomenon has equally passed you by, allow me to describe what I found down this particular rabbit hole. Jared and Savannah are a sometimes-couple of cookie cutter American high school kids who have achieved considerable notoriety through uploading cutesy videos of themselves doing adorable things, like playfully hitting each other in the face and staging skin-crawlingly uncomfortable, massively amplified public displays of affection. Like a shot in the arm of high-fructose corn syrup, their many and varied social media profiles are filled with BFFs, Florida sunshine and inevitably, the occasional impassioned drama.

From a breathless commentator on Yahoo! answers: “Savannah and Jared are a tumblr famous couple for uploading the cutest pictures and videos of them together... Basically they're no one special but well known for being the cutest teenage couple "on earth".”

A quick browse of Tumblr reveals that the clamour for new information, pictures and videos of them is seemingly insatiable.

Teens taking extraordinary steps to secure decades of excruciating embarrassment at family gatherings is nothing new, but what’s interesting is the level of celebrity these two have achieved, while simultaneously being off the radar of anyone who isn’t 16 and on Tumblr. A quick poll of my own friends and colleagues confirms that exactly no one in my age group is willing to admit to having heard of them.

But don’t underestimate the fan club they do have: Tumblr is now a legitimate social media behemoth, and it’s bigger among this age group even than Facebook. Outside of Tumblr, some of “Javannah”’s YouTube videos have raised well over 3 million views. Savannah’s personal Twitter account has topped a quarter of a million followers, and she’s angling for a verified account. It’s no wonder she is anxious to take some control of her identity, given the army of copycat Savannahs who have appeared, claimed her images, speculatively revealed the most intimate details of her personal relationships and fervently persecuted her supposed love rivals. The challenges of childhood celebrity are well documented, and it is troubling to think that there are school children navigating these waters without even the threadbare professional support that comes with more traditional paths to fame.

Leaving these two aside for the moment, the fact that hidden subcultures exist on this scale is fascinating in itself. Many of us forget how much the growth of social networks has led us to self-select the media we consume. It’s very easy to fall under the illusion that spending an afternoon on Twitter connects us with the rest of the world, but most of us are really listening to an intentionally-selected stream of commentators who share our interests, share our humour and rarely challenge our opinions. As our news sources become increasingly personalised, we are able to consume more information but our worldview shrinks. Like perpetually gazing out through an Instagram lens, we habitually crop the web down and apply a filter that’s as blue or as rosy as our character dictates.

The implications of this become apparent when our viewfinder chances to skim over one of the more extreme political blogs or social networks. While the increasingly connected digital world has raised the status of niche interests and provided unparalleled support for those who fear rejection elsewhere, it can also be rather like surrounding oneself with “yes-men”, perpetually reinforcing dubious opinions and creating the illusion of acceptance for ideas that would otherwise be soundly challenged.

As the cultural environment of the web becomes increasingly polarised, it’s wise to challenge our preconceptions about online behaviour and how social media is arranged and consumed. Digital marketers can be more guilty of these preconceptions than anyone, shouting into an echo chamber of like-minded connections and making lazy assumptions about how digital audiences behave, based on observation of the tech -savvy, non-representative group of their own connections.

Jared and Savannah’s time in the spotlight will no doubt pass, and others will take up the mantle. The social web looks very different to them and their peers than it does to any of us, and the way they consume it and the contributions they make to it likely make perfect sense within the confines of that view. I hope they are wiser than us about the way they appear from the outside looking in and that they’ll use that wisdom to anticipate and deal with any future issues that might arise from dubious videos they made as teenagers. I hope we’ll also learn to place our own activities in context and occasionally zoom out enough to see the wider view.

What’s clear is that however much we think we know about the culture of the social web, we can only ever be scraping the surface.

Annie Macfarlane is head of community management at Yomego

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