When filmmaker Caroline Suh decided to make a documentary about the student-council election at New York's Stuyvesant High School, she was concerned about how the kids would react to the camera. It's an understandable fear: for those of us of Suh's age—she's 37—and older, the introduction of a movie camera has traditionally turned people into either hams mouthing 'Hi, Mom!' or zombies frozen stiff with anxiety. "When I was in high school, if someone was making a film, it would have been this glamorous, exciting thing," Suh says. Turns out she needn't have worried. During the year Suh spent making "Frontrunners," two other journalists were also documenting Stuyvesant's kids: one for a book about the school's academic pressures, another for a magazine cover story on the sexual mores of contemporary youth. And the kids, Suh says, were unfazed by the scrutiny. "They've all seen reality TV. They make movies with their cell phones," she says. "Being under the microscope is just part of their lives."
The kids in "Frontrunners" are the leading edge of what's being called the millennials—the cohort born after 1982—but you might call them the Look at Me Generation. Thanks to "The Real World," "Laguna Beach" and the like, they've been documented like no group before them, most especially by themselves: on their blogs, their MySpace, Facebook and Flickr pages, and on YouTube. And now the artistes are taking their turn, with a new wave of reality series, films and books examining the documentation generation. But are we seeing real people, or personas? Listen to girls talk about their roles in the WE series "High School Confidential," and they sound like eerily polished publicists—for themselves. Flip through the photo book "One Hundred Young Americans," and you see a collection of pretty young things prepping for fame, not life, such as Jake, who says, "The whole MySpace thing is a good warm-up for when I'm really famous." It's not just the entertainment that can feel hollow. Sociologists have begun to question the effect of all this exhibitionism on young people. Can they form durable identities off-camera, or are they so used to producing their images for outside consumption that images have replaced their essences? Will a generation for whom all secrets are fair game and every private moment can become public trust each other and form intimate relationships?
To trace the roots of this culture of overexposure, consider two of the forerunners of reality programming: the BBC's "Up" series, which followed a group of 7-year-olds starting in 1964, and the five Loud children in the PBS series "An American Family," from 1973. It's amazing how artless the subjects are in their self-presentation, and how conflicted they are about their participation in the projects. In the "Up" series, a few of the children even express annoyance at the camera's presence and wonder what the point is of being filmed. Contemporary documentaries such as "American Teen," "Frontrunners" and "High School Confidential" have the unvarnished appearance of authenticity—all those handheld cameras and dodgy lighting—but the subjects seem to take for granted that their lives are documentary-worthy. In fact, being filmed often takes on an air of community service. "I had moments of feeling like what I was going through was private, and you don't want the world to know you," says Jessi, who had a miscarriage and struggled with depression during the filming of "High School Confidential," which followed a group of high-school girls in Kansas over four years. "At the same time, other girls are going through those things, and maybe it will help them to see they're not alone. I saw it as an opportunity." The only time Jessi asked the director to stop filming was when she auditioned for an acting school. Did she fear coming off as too real when she's acting, or not real enough?
You can really see how blurry the lines between reality and "reality" have become in a typical meta-moment: when the girls from "High School Confidential" did a taping recently of "The Tyra Banks Show." They were seated in a row onstage, acting like spokeswomen for the issues they expected to represent: Cate is the anorexic wrist-cutter, Cappie is the party girl, Jessi the suicidal depressive. It's hard not to think that the girls have learned their roles, at least in part, from "The Hills" and "The Real World," where subjects craft their identities for maximum screen time. "There is some savviness of trying to fit some position on the show," says Jon Murray, one of the creators of "The Real World." "The persona might be, I'm the fun-loving frat guy, I'm the dark-poet type. I'm the say-anything crazy person." And if you have to endure the embarrassment of having the topless photo you sent to your boyfriend forwarded to your entire school—and then endure it again as a major plot point in "American Teen"—so be it. No pain, no gain, which is the prime lesson of MTV's "The Hills," where Lauren Conrad has parlayed her tragic love life into B-level stardom. "With Lauren, it was like we had a reality house with Angelina Jolie," says Murray.
One of the ironies of the Look at Me Generation is that many young people believe they are masters of their own images, only to discover, like the topless girl in "American Teen," they can't control anything. "Every decision you make can be so regrettable now, because technology can be so much more vicious," says Nanette Burstein, the film's director. Online gossip sites such as juicycampus.com exacerbate the problem by making it possible for kids to post rumors about each other anonymously, with little recourse for the victims. "What is different is there are these digital footprints," says C. J. Pascoe, a sociologist studying how teens use new media. One kid she studied had broken up with his girlfriend a year earlier, but he still had her name as part of his MySpace page address, the virtual equivalent of having SUZY FOREVER tattooed on his arm.
At the extreme, consider Errol Morris's upcoming "Standard Operating Procedure," about the torture scandals at Iraq's Abu Ghraib Prison. In the film we see the dozens of photos the soldiers—most of whom were in their teens and early 20s at the time—took of the prisoners they abused, and of each other, posing and goofing around. In some of the shots with the prisoners, other soldiers' cameras are visible as well. Their eagerness to document themselves seemed to blind them to the consequences of creating a record of their actions. The pictures not only resulted in the guards' downfall—without the photos, there would have been almost no proof of crimes—but they may have fed their ugliest impulses. As Morris says, "I often think that if cameras had not been present, these events would not have occurred."
It's probably too soon to weigh the implication of all this publicization on teens' abilities to have meaningful experiences off-camera. In order to form intimate relationships, they will need to trust each other, and not view friendships and romances—not to mention guarding prisoners—as one more arena for MySpace-worthy performances. But instant trust via a blog or Facebook page can be misleading, says Kate Hellenga, a psychology professor at San Francisco State who has studied intimacy and online behavior. "There's a difference between spewing a lot of 'content' between two people and true knowledge of another person," she says. "There isn't a lot of room for trust and earnestness because of the younger generation's constant awareness of self-presentation." Some young people are aware of this conundrum. Looking at a portrait of himself taken by Dawoud Bey "feels strange because I am trying to extract a private memory from an image that is now public," writes one of Bey's subjects in the foreword to "Class Pictures," a book of photos of high-school kids across the country. It seems contradictory: one thing you can say for the Look at Me's is that they won't suffer the collective amnesia of their boomer elders, who often boast about being too stoned during their youth to remember it. But this generation may have something else in common with boomers: they are so busy documenting their experiences, and being documented, that they may end up with postcards from a trip they have no memory of taking.