Spoiler warning. I talk about the entire plot of Killer Content by Kiley Roache. I also talk about suicide and harassment.
When it comes to internet trends, I’ve never really been that in touch. I didn’t get TikTok until around October 2021, purposely avoiding that timesink as long as I could until I started working with some people a few years younger than me (read: 18/19) and wanted to understand what they were talking about. I also never actually used Vine, despite technically being somewhere around 14 when it finally died. I also didn’t start a twitter until I was 16. My instagram was started when I was 12, immediately followed by my dad, privated, and then promptly forgotten. In short, I’m an ex-Catholic school kid who only used Tumblr because I was technically not allowed to be on any social media at all without parental approval and never really got in touch with my generation. But hey, it’s my generation.
I grew up on Tumblr and fanfiction.net and Nickelodeon forums. I evaded parental supervision on these three sites and later AO3, and thus did things that were definitely unsafe looking back on them. I hid my age on tumblr, often assumed to be older than I actually was, got involved in pointless discourse about Marvel TV shows (don’t ask), and had my political beliefs shaped on that hellish blue website. I even once got an ask calling me a nazi for being pro-choice when I was 12. I learned to make gifs to get more followers. I wrote fanfic, so much fanfic. So, I am not that familiar with TikTok, and I never wanted to be a youtuber growing up, but I at least have some experience growing up on social media.
Our feeds and our posts and our endless scrolling occupy so much brain real estate because they’re part of us! Part of how we live! Part of who we are and how we understand each other. We are already cyborgs bonded to the Internet, practically and emotionally.Bo Burnham vs Jeff Bezos, CJ the X
In his video Bo Burnham vs. Jeff Bezos – Video Essay, CJ the X discusses how technology is becoming more and more engrained with every generation. He argues that we are already in an age of transhumanism, says “just because your microchip is physically outside of your body, doesn’t mean it’s any less connected to your brain.”. This is just how the world is for most young people, this life that is lived offline just as much online, this extension of who we are into the ether, this knowledge that is always just one google search away.
Our souls inhabiting both the physical reality and this new hyper compressed jump cut laden meme tainted digital realm.Bo Burnham vs Jeff Bezos, CJ the X
And as this happened, as children grew up to be cyborgs, the authors of YA books got older and older. There is nothing wrong with aging. There isn’t anything wrong with older authors writing characters younger than them. The issue comes with an unwillingness or an inability to truly understand just how engrained social media and technology at large with the younger generation.
Nothing has made this more clear to me than Killer Content by Kiley Roache. On paper, it’s a pretty basic thriller with a modern infusion of social media—five teens living on their own in a content house and reeling after one of their fellow housemates is murdered. In practice, it’s a reminder that even people a few years older than me don’t really get it. In the aforementioned essay, CJ the X says, in conversation with a Bo Burnham clip, “I also grew up with the Internet.”, not on it.
The kids in this book? These six kids, now older teenagers hurtling towards 18, and living in their own content house, should’ve grown up on the internet. But they don’t feel like they did. They feel like caricatures of the TikTok influencers that they are clearly based on, like they should be parody. But this is not parody, not satire. Instead, it reads as a sincere warning against the dangers of social media. And yet—
Any adults that are watching this who grew up without the Internet and don’t spend much time online might feel like this sounds a little insane … Like, you don’t even– You don’t even understand what this thing is. This is the Achilles heel of older generations trying to talk about the Internet. Your brains are not as interfaced with it as ours.Bo Burnham vs Jeff Bezos, CJ the X
Killer Content is a polemic against social media. Maybe that’s a bit strong but in the very least, it is a years behind on the conversation, stuck on the exact same page that the news is. It is a declaration that social media is bad, and it is focused so entirely on the individual. Social media is horrible and toxic and has hurt just as many if not more people than it has helped, I am not going to shy away from that fact. But to focus on how harassment led a teen girl to suicide and how that drove her sister crazy, it is so short-sighted. It is a callback to the fear-mongering of the 2011 film Cyberbully, and completely ignores the cesspool of radicalization and misinformation that the internet, that TikTok in particular, has become.
It’s not like the top TikTokers are good people. You can go to any commentary channel and see any number the inane number of scandals these people get into. There’s no lack of material to draw from to create something more realistic, more nuanced, more useful. But that’s not what happened here. There’s no mention of the young audiences that are taken advantage of, their attention and their parents’ money the main currencies that the top TikTokers deal in. There’s no mention of how the largest creators got to the top from stealing from Black creators. There’s no mention of the numerous allegations that follow around a number of creators.
I understand it is a thriller. I understand it has to be dramatic, over the top, but it doesn’t have to revert back to the boomer-esque, out of touch fearmongering of the 2010’s in order to make it’s point, not when there are a thousand sinister things based in reality that might actually support the argument rather than invoking eye-rolls and groans. Because I’m sure that the target audience of this book, because I did, admittedly, age out of the genre a few years ago, is just as tired of hearing people older than them have these same conversations led by the disconnected and ungrounded.
The book closes with Gwen, the most followed TikTok personality in this universe, pledging to be more real, more honest, and honestly? That’s not any better. People have been real, have been honest, and it hasn’t fixed the problem. Instead, it has only worsened parasocial relationships and left people lonelier.
Any decent criticism held in this book was held by just how out of touch it is. I cannot reasonably expect everyone person online to be in the trenches of these debates, to know that the framework this book looks at social media through is over a decade old by now and that the conversation has shifted and evolved so much as time marches on. Scrolling through goodreads and storygraph, most people don’t seem to have ever moved past this. Yet, if an author choses to write a book about this, I think it’s reasonable for them to be up to date about the topic, to be involved in it beyond the same old conversations that have been happening my entire life.
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