By Annika Bjerke
Since the introduction of Facebook in 2004, the past twelve years have been a whirlwind of social media. You have the popular platforms — Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter — as well as the alternative Tumblr, where, according to my thirteen-year-old sister Lilly, confused pre-teens develop their “aesthetic.” My first tryst with social media occurred when I joined Facebook at the ripe age of thirteen, a fact I only recently discovered thanks to Facebook’s Memories feature. Honestly, I only made a Facebook account so that I could keep up with my friends on Farmville. No one at age thirteen was posting photos of themselves, and if they were, they were the kind you took on the Photo Booth application of a MacBook in the Apple Store.
But times have changed since I was a thirteen-year-old in 2010. The modern thirteen-year-old is a new breed. I talked to my younger sister, Lilly, to gauge the gap between existing in adolescence then and now, and to measure how social media has changed what it means to come of age.
I started by asking Lilly some simple questions, comparing them to what my own answers would have been at her age. On paper, Lilly is quite similar to 13-year-old me: her favorite song is “Send My Love” by Adele, a popular pop song of the day. Mine—and I’m not ashamed to admit it—was “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz. Her favorite movie is Divergent, while mine was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; both are popular series that take place in alternative universes, albeit one dystopian and the other (and, can I just say, better) one magical.
The most significant difference between me and Lilly is the fact that she has more profiles on more forms of social media than I did. She’s more logged-in, yes, but she’s also logged into platforms that didn’t even exist when I was thirteen — among them Instagram, Snapchat, and musical.ly. Lilly’s favorite form of social media is Instagram. I am nearly 20, and Instagram is my favorite form as well. Maybe I’m stagnant or maybe thirteen-year-olds are maturing at an alarmingly rapid rate; either way, I can see her tapping into a consuming form of self-portrayal at an early age.
I imagine Lilly is a prototypical, modern thirteen-year-old on Instagram, posting pictures of stuffed animals, pet cats and the occasional blurry selfie. Discovering this in our interview revealed nothing new or surprising about my sister. Things got more interesting when our conversation quickly moved to the interactive (or perhaps not-so-interactive) aspect of Instagram: the followers. This is where I began to notice the consuming nature of social media—a stark difference from my days on Farmville.
According to Lilly, there is a whole science behind followers. When Lilly meets someone new, boom — she gains a new follower. Every new social interaction is rewarded by the instant gratification of a number bump for her “following-to-follower” ratio. This revelation had me thinking: are we instinctively dehumanizing people we meet and containing them into the tiny box of numbers found in the corners of our Instagram pages? When did the meaning behind the word “follower” change?
My one certainty is that the meaning of “follower” has indeed changed over time. A follower was once defined as a person devoted to another’s ideals or cause. When I was thirteen, follower had a negative connotation. It meant someone who couldn’t think for herself, someone who wanted to be like someone else. A follower was a copycat.
Nowadays, and I can even admit this is true for me, a follower is synonymous with a virtual number, rarely accompanied by a face. In fact, when I type the word “follower” into Google, the top suggested search is “follower Instagram,” followed closely by “follower Facebook.”
Lilly told me, “On Instagram I don’t have that many followers. When I look at other people’s Instagram accounts, there are so many people who seem like they have more friends because they have more followers, so they seem cooler.”
Gone are the days when actual, physical followers—and I mean devotees—changed the world with their ardent beliefs. Or at least, gone are the days when we associated these people with the word “follower.” The word “follower” has been reclaimed and turned into something new. Online, more followers prove to everyone that you are someone worth following. Now, there is the impression of a correlation between virtual followers and real-life popularity.
What does this change mean for the modern, average thirteen-year-old? This is a lot of pressure for a near-twenty-year-old, let alone a pre-teen.
It’s easy to say that social media is superficial and distracting; and while I do think both of these are true, that isn’t my point, nor is it what I gathered from talking to my sister. What I suggest is that we are so intrinsically surrounded by this form of connection that it has changed what it means to be thirteen, to look thirteen, and to act thirteen. Nowadays, at this critical point in your development as a teenager, you are cultivating—along with your own identity—an audience of which you are hyper-aware at all times. Having learned this new vocabulary at thirteen, can you ever really shake it?