WireTap

Navigating The Web: A Map of Youth Media

When you're young it can feel like everything you read online is trying to pin you down, get your demographics, tell you who you are and what you should buy. But there are now media makers out there interested in more than sending youth to a virtual mall -- young web gurus who have set out to speak WITH teenagers and young adults about their lives, instead of TO them.
When you're young it can feel like everything you read online is trying to pin you down, get your demographics, tell you who you are and what you should buy. Visiting the Web in search of something real to read can leave you wading through a swamp of flashing banner ads and catchy tag lines, full of hidden pitfalls and money traps. It can be frustrating when it seems like, instead of providing useful information, most websites are just trying to sell you something. And with 14.3 million young people (ages 12-24) on the Web every month, there's a lot of potential for marketing executives to attract your eyes and empty your pockets.

Corporations like Gloss.com (Your Online Beauty Store), Ecrush.com, Drugstore.com and Maybelline.com haven't missed a beat in their race to harness a chunk of the collective $275 billion tech-savvy teens have in disposable income. Targeting young women specifically, online "girly" zines have sprung up all over the Web -- offering free e-mail, homepages, message boards and chat rooms as lures into their online shopping malls.

On the flip side are the multitude of personal zines put out by individuals or small groups that are often truthful, raw and uncensored, but not quite as well developed or exciting to look at. If online youth media were a spectrum, most of it would fall somewhere on either tip. There are a few sites which straddle the divide -- that involve youth and media professionals in partnerships, and address issues that delve deeper than the usual "What should I wear to prom?" sort of babble. Most of these sites, like Brat.org, come out of non-profit organizations or schools, while several are created by very devoted volunteers.

A Little News With Your Ads?

The clues to corporate sites are pretty easy to identify: flashing banner ads dancing at the top, shopping corners, lots of commerce links. The content is usually pretty predictable, following in the footsteps of "girly mags" like YM, Seventeen and Mademoiselle -- heavy on glamour and short on substance. For example, Alloy.com -- one of the most heavily trafficked teen sites -- offers the all-too-familiar social quizzes, inviting young readers to determine: "Do You Know How to Flirt?" and "Are You a Hootchie?" Truly thought-provoking questions.

Even the more "alternative" youth webzines smack of corporate meddling. Any zine that uses words like "hurl," "supercool," or "bogus" surely has a few baby-boomers behind the wheel. And as with most things, anything young people do to sidestep the mainstream is quickly co-opted by corporate media. As reporter Andrew Sardone wrote in an article on Young People's Press Online, "young people are totally frustrated because when they create unique identities for themselves, large corporations quickly jump on them, mass produce these original styles and make major dollars."

One striking example of this is React.com -- a zine published by Parade Publications -- which attempts to determine what kind of tattoo would suit their readers with a 10-question quiz. Bolt.com, another teen website, offers style advice for teens trying to change their look; their advice for the "goth" look: "Females should make like Morticia in low-cut, long velvet dresses … lacy fitted shirts, boned corsets and lace-up boots will also make a girl seem goulish." A poll beside the column asks readers: "Which is cooler -- being a punk or a goth?" So much for trying to be unique.

Yet for all the fluff in most youth webzines, there is something to be said for corporate youth websites -- they work. With thousands of dollars backing them, dot-coms like Alloy, Chickclick, React, and Teen have the resources, technology and staff to keep their zines running: updating their content at least once a week, processing submissions from readers, facilitating chat rooms, message boards and polls and offering free e-mail accounts and other services. And every now and then, they'll come up with an article that cuts through the gloss -- such as Missclick's "Putting School On Hold" piece, which lists 16 different programs for people looking for alternatives to college. The Chicklick network -- a project of Snowball.com that has it's own shopping network called "Chickshops" -- also provides links to both commercial and young women's personal webpages, hooking the viewer up with more than 50 sites. And gURL.com, which has a substantial shopping section on their homepage, also offers its own grants as well as HTML tutorials.

With so many articles, options and interactive functions, websites like Teen.com -- which boasted one million visitors a month last May -- do attract a large number of "hits" or visits by readers. And, when it really comes down to it, attracting an audience is the defining factor of success on the Web. After all, it doesn't really matter how great your website is if nobody ever sees it, right?

Yet most youth webzines -- in their search for fame and fortune -- find themselves sacrificing a representation of young voices in their raw, uncensored form and creating a more polished, Disney-like world -- where first kisses and prom dates are the most challenging situations teens face. Rather than providing an outlet to youth culture, they end up bottling and selling it to young readers through their advertising, articles, quizzes and the selection of issues they choose to address. The bottom line is that information provided through commercial websites is inevitably tainted by the corporate agenda behind it. For example, the "Crucial Health and Body Info" section of Alloy.com is sponsored by itsmybody.com, Carefree, Stayfree and o.b. -- companies that have a vested interest in how young people think about their bodies and physical health. And you know there's something tricky going on when you can't tell where the ad ends and the information begins.

Homemade Media

In an effort to fill the void of genuine young voices online, teenagers and young adults have been making their own media -- a movement that has been evolving for decades. From fanzines to underground school newspapers, they have been writing and making art as a way to speak to each other and be heard by a larger community. So, it makes sense that so many youth find online culture so appealing -- it's a window into a media world that is easy to produce, instantly accessible and interactive.

The already-flourishing youth zine movement took a new turn in the 1990's when zines went online. Thousands of kids who had been exchanging print zines jumped at the chance to spread their messages over the Internet. And for a good reason: teens and adults around the world were suddenly able to view their work from thousands of miles away. There they were -- intact and real -- brushing shoulders with the likes of CNN, NBC and MTV Online.

But that wasn't the only reason. Like their print cousins, online youth zines offer a refreshing alternative to the mainstream media targeting youth. They do not focus singly on dieting, dating, video games, cars or music. More importantly, they are not what most kids' parents are reading, nor what their parents would want them to read. They are filled with confessions, beliefs and burning questions about life. They do involve plenty of what you might call stereotypical teenage experiences -- like some of the online corporate youth magazines -- but they address the issues from a different perspective. A young perspective, not shaped by adult minds. They talk about activism, music, crushes and what it feels like to have your best friend leave for college, but many of them appear in a personal, diary-like format -- including links to friends' pages and other telling aspects of their creators' personalities.

Who are the youth making these sites? Well, to begin with, they have access to computers. And while quite a few schools and recreational programs now offer computer classes and lab time, most of the youth who maintain regular websites come from pretty stable financial backgrounds. Other demographics are harder to come by. Yet zines that step outside of the white, middle-class American box -- like The Beat Within, a zine written by kids in juvenile detention centers; Mavin, a zine about mixed-race people; and Blu, a socially conscious hip hop magazine -- do exist, and are pushing to redefine the conventional image of youth culture.

The downside to some of these smaller youth-driven sites is they are rarely updated. And let's face it: not all diary entries are interesting. Then there's the question of continuity. Getting through the teen years is very time-consuming on its own, and by the time many young site-producers get around to updating their pages, they might just find they have outgrown its original intent.

This may lead some of us to ask: has the Web really changed youth media? Has it united young people and given them a stronger voice? Or has it simply ghettoized them further, by seperating them out and pushing them to the margins of online media? Is there a middle ground between ultra glossy commercial youth sites and those that are tucked away in hidden corners of the Web, truthful but unkept? Is it possible to find raw, unpolished non-commercial perspectives on youth that are fun and challenging to read, and worth returning to?

There are now media makers out there interested in more than sending youth to a virtual mall (where they will not only spend money, but be distracted and kept opinionless). Corporate sites definitely attract young eyes, but probably not for extended reads. They create quick, snappy content, and in this sense, they appear to be using the same techniques as television producers. Some of the non-commercial youth sites out there work more like magazines: they draw you in and explore issues in depth.

Take Brat.org, for example. Their mission goal is to "promote social awareness about and among youth, encourage community-based activism, and support independent, progressive cultures." Their tag line: "Because Your School Paper Sucks." Brat is one of a growing number of non profit e-zines that are made in collaboration between youth and devoted adults. It seeks to address pressing issues affecting youth -- meaning everything from curfews, book banning and skateboard laws to racism, classism and homophobia.

Brat and other sites like it -- including LA Youth, Youth Outlook and Sex, Etc. -- set out to engage youth in vital dialogues, to speak with teenagers and young adults about their lives, instead of to them. In the making of many of these sites, teens are being mentored and trained to create the kind of media they want. In a report written for the Open Society Institute, an organization that provides funding for progressive youth media projects across the country, Liza Featherstone points out that "producing media makes people savvier media consumers, and [young media-makers] read the mainstream media critically." This fits in well with the way many of these organizations say they aim to "decrease apathy." By undoing some of the stereotypes, they are also giving youth a sense of their own power to criticize and look deeply into the culture that surrounds them and, hopefully, to suggest change. Creating online youth media is just the kind of training needed to spark a new generation of journalists and artists who will have grown up in the face of racial, gender and class oppression, and therefore have the potential to infiltrate the "predominantly white and increasingly elite" media-monopolies.

What Are You Waiting For?

Aren't we all tired of images of angst-ridden, violent, attention-hungry teenagers? Shouldn't media exist that, according to Featherstone, paints youth "engaged as critical people ... with hopes, ideas, and idiosyncratic lives?" The solution is simple. Young people can identify gaps in existing media sources and help fill them, on local and national levels.

Right now, there are a lot of windows of opportunity opening up for young media makers -- training workshops like those offered by Media Alliance in San Francisco and Global Action Project on the East Coast are springing up everywhere. And free HTML tutorials, like those offered by Builder.com and Webmonkey, are all over the Web. With the right knowledge and skills, anyone can become a reporter, author or editor of their own zine, or at an existing media project. You'd be surprised how many publications are dying to add your voice to the mix, as long as you're willing to be part of a team. Like the Arkansas-based PHaT LiP Youth Radio project mantra says: DON'T HATE THE MEDIA. BECOME THE MEDIA.

Twilight Greenaway and Carrie Ching are WireTap editors.

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