Published on January 26th, 2021 | by Cheryl Klein0
Thanks for Being Awesome: You, Me, and The Algorithm
A blue Honda pulls up to a school. The driver sets the brake and turns to face her daughter. The girl is about eleven, with brown skin, chubby cheeks and arms, and long dark hair with a narrow French braid cresting her scalp.
“Susie, I would really like to meet some of your friends from your new school,” the mother says. She has high cheekbones, dimples, and green eyes. She was probably homecoming queen in her day.
With her mother’s eyes at her back, Susie trudges toward school. She stands with a group of tall, thin girls who are talking about dance crew practice.
“I love to dance!” she says, but it’s immediately clear she’s miscalculated. The girls scrunch their noses in unison.
“Why are you standing by us?” says the ringleader.
At lunchtime, Susie sits alone at a table in the cafeteria, the picture of middle school defeat.
A girl at the next table spots Susie and whispers something to her brother. This is Peyton, as we’ll soon learn. She sits between her twin brother, Paxton, and her oldest brother, Bryton. Ashton is at the end of the bench, and for some reason, the bench across from them is unoccupied. They just like to sit in a row, okay? They wear matching T-shirts that say “Ninja Kidz” in different colors, and eat from Ninja Kidz lunchboxes. Their hair ranges from white-blonde to sandy brown. There’s something vaguely Mormon about them, but it’s hard to say what, exactly.
All four stand up and relocate to Susie’s table. They make her laugh and ask her about her interests.
“Why are you talking to me anyway?” Susie wants to know.
“Why wouldn’t we? You’re awesome!”
“You think I’m awesome?” The blessing of these hyperactive siblings in matching T-shirts is all Susie needs to salvage her self-esteem.
“Who are you guys?” she asks. Who are you flaxen-haired angels?
They answer as only angels can, in rap form. The sea of middle schoolers parts, and the Ninja Kidz take the floor. They perform synchronized kicks, a quick bow, and back handsprings. By now, everyone is watching. Susie bites her fist like a girl at a Beatles concert in 1964.
Her peers scream—all except for the bitches from the first scene, who wave their hands like pssssh. But even the queen bees are no match for the Ninja Kidz, pied pipers who soon have a tidal wave of students following them down the locker hall as they rap: Gymnast, jump kick, watch me do a front flip! They describe their previous videos like hip-hop stars name-checking their own line of liquor.
But the Ninja Kidz are humble, and so they end each chorus with Thank you all for sharing the love. All I really wanna say, really wanna say, all I really wanna say is: Thanks for being awesome.
Susie is at the center of the flash mob by now, looking a little surprised. As she dances with the Ninja Kidz, she shines brighter in the glow from their poreless white skin. Even the bitches can’t deny it any longer. They run over and apologize for treating Susie like a coughing person in the grocery store. Will she please join their dance crew?
Not one to hold a grudge, Susie says she’ll think about it. Everyone pumps their fists and dances together: Susie, Ninja Kidz, bitches, miscellaneous background white kids.
My six-year-old son Dash loves this video. So do 141 million other kids, according to YouTube, or maybe only a few hundred kids who’ve viewed it a half million times each. Or, you know, a few million kids, some martial artists, and a handful of pedophiles.
I do not love this video. I was immediately horrified by its racial politics, and then I couldn’t get its sing-songy chorus out of my head. But I have analyzed it more closely than anything I ever read in grad school, looking for clues about my six-year-old the way biblical scholars try to find God in ancient parables.
Dash shows me his ninja kicks. He speculates about what it is that makes the mean girls mean. “They say ‘Come on girls, let’s go. Susie’s so weird.’ They could just say ‘We need some space.’”
We often talk about the balance between personal boundaries and inclusivity. But how do I explain the white savior complex trope? How do I explain shitty writing?
A few months ago, my partner and I issued a YouTube moratorium. Dash was obsessed with a Star Wars parody set in a high school, made by high school students with cooperation from a handful of teachers. They ribbed each other for things like “dating Chewbacca’s sister,” did some lightsaber-dueling, and, somehow, ended up singing “Let It Go” together. There was something about the big-kid snark that appealed to Dash and coincided with a rude season in his behavior.
Too much fighting, I told him. Although that wasn’t it, exactly, because we let him watch the actual Star Wars movies, which were much bloodier. But once the hiatus ended, with no discernible difference in Dash’s attitude, he tried to apply our vague moral filter to videos he liked.
“This isn’t a fighting one!” he would say, excitedly, about the grating, nonsensical, consumerist universe of Toys and Colors. The best things I can say about the family that produces these videos are that they’re not white, and they seem to have a good time. Like 80% of amateur kids’ YouTube, the videos are set against a backdrop of minimally furnished McMansions and claim to be “educational” because they tell kids to wash their hands and eat healthy food (while sometimes employing fat suits to make the latter point, as I murmur “All bodies are good” in the background).
Sometimes there’s sponsored product placement, sometimes they seem like a more general ad for Buying Toys/America.
I know there’s a simple solution to this quagmire, which is to turn off the TV (not so simple during month eleven of quarantine) or at least to disable YouTube. But I like some YouTube content: the mesmerizing seascapes of Jonathan Bird’s Blue World, the wit of Peppa Pig, and the dorky narration of Mighty Machines, a Canadian show from the nineties starring talking snow plows. While there are parental controls, there doesn’t seem to be a setting that tracks with my personal internal algorithm.
Sometimes I think what I’m wrestling with is the fact that Dash has free will. He’s expressed his individuality at least since toddlerhood, but it’s one thing to scream for what you want, and it’s another to lug a kitchen stool over to the cupboard and climb up and get it. Or to work a remote control, which he’s quite good at for someone who can barely write his name.
My partner and I can say no, don’t watch YouTube, and sometimes we do. But we already have to say no to seeing friends indoors, no trips to the indoor playground, no sliding down the front steps on a boogie board, no painting the exterior of our house with real house paint.
The Algorithm is a trickster god—if not an outright malevolent force—pushing against free will, both mine and Dash’s. It’s the collective will of those 141 million viewers thrown in a blender constructed by a corporate entity. It decides what will scroll past our eyeballs and what won’t, and it is probably at least part of the reason that some Americans think Hillary Clinton and George Soros are running a sex-trafficking ring in the basement of Harvard, or whatever.
In case parenting wasn’t hard enough, now we have to outsmart all of Capitalism And Technology. Cool, cool. In this quest, I find myself longing for some sort of TV Guide to YouTube, a central authority that will help me survey the landscape. But there are only maps layered upon other maps, none of them comprehensive, all of them arguing with each other.
My own parents limited my TV viewing to Sesame Street and Mister Rogers, plus the occasional sitcom, until I was in middle school, so Dash’s media consumption feels like yet another category in which I’m downwardly mobile by comparison.
They never limited what I read, and once I hit twelve, they let me choose what to watch as well. My mom was a librarian and didn’t believe in censorship. In school, we read a lot of books about boys going into the woods to face their demons. On my own time, I read about girls. All-of-a-Kind Family and the Little House books, but also The Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley Twins, which was a Sweet Valley High prequel series with less dating and more girl drama; as such, it appealed to my baby-femme-dyke tastes.
My mom never shit on my tastes. Not even when I got into Flowers in the Attic, which was straight-up softcore incest porn. And while my media selection was limited to our local library and network television, neither of those menus was unbiased or without corporate influence.
My mom leaned into all my interests. It was her nature as a librarian, or she was a librarian because she was curious and non-judgemental by nature. When I became a cheerleader in high school—a good fit for my dance and gymnastics background, less so for my personality—she came to every game and even got into football. Everyone in my unathletic family was baffled. Just because I cheered for the football games didn’t mean I watched them.
I want to channel her spirit as I parent Dash. Yesterday, we told him only thirty minutes of YouTube, and he took it well enough. He pivoted to Aliens TV on Netflix, which cracks him up and contains almost no dialogue, a bonus.
Today, I’m remembering how my sister and I once taught ourselves one of the dance sequences from Newsies, rewinding our VHS tape to catch each bit of choreography. I wonder if Dash wants to learn the Ninja Kidz dance with me. Exercise and quality time are counterweights to YouTube. It might be kind of awesome.