Yesterday, I had the pleasure of speaking to Patricia Karvelas for ABC Radio National Drive to discuss online virality. Specifically, we chatted about the recent slime making craze. Below, I reproduce a transcript of our conversation, centered around the rise of “visibility metrics” and the need to equip young people with “digital literacies” to discern the validity of information they encounter on the internet.
If you’re so inclined, the 5:11 interview is recorded here. Transcription below edited slightly for flow.
Patricia Karvelas: Yes you’ve heard right, slime making and selling is the latest fad taking off online. Kids can earn fame and actually real money from it as well. Dr Crystal Abidin joins us – she’s a digital anthropologist at the National University of Singapore and an internet junkie – to talk about what’s going on with slime. Crystal, welcome to the programme. Have you tried your hands at making slime yet?
Crystal Abidin: Hi Patricia, no, thankfully not yet. But I am aware of a very long history of slime making and slime videos being so-called “satisfying” on the internet.
PK: Okay, I’m trying to be polite about it, but what is this all about? Like, I don’t get it.
CA: So before we get to the slime making craze, if we backtrack just a few months, we probably might be aware that there was a series of “mindfulness” therapeutic videos that young people would watch on the internet. These included any thing from say, popping glitter into water, watching lava lamps, watching paint dry and mix, all the way to squishing slime and watching that tactility and the texture of it. So people would watch these videos as part of “mindfulness” practice on the internet, and a lot of commentators said this was therapeutic, to watch mundane things being wobbled and touched on screen.
PK: Okay, so it’s now become a trend, and people are making it. But it’s also perhaps a dangerous trend, and that’s because of one of the ingredients people are using. Talk to me about borax and the dangers there.
CA: Homemade videos and recipes as such are a bit off the cuff, because the people sharing this information are using mainly accessible homemade products. Now these are different from off-the-shelf kits you can buy in stores, where the shops have the responsibility to make sure that customers are not harmed. If they are informal tutorial videos put up on social media, then the onus is on the viewer to decide whether or not they want to engage in these recipes and risk-taking.
PK: So there are dangers, but there’s a broader thing here where kids can gain fame and make money from appearing on platforms such as YouTube. So some of these slimers are making serious money from selling these creations online. What do you make of that?
CA: What’s happening here is, with the rise of internet culture – and especially on social media platforms where things such as “likes”, “comments”, and “shares” are the new marks of success on the internet – we’re now shifting into a culture of “visibility metrics”. Instead of having an authoritarial stamp on things or a trusted figure who has tried and tested things, we are increasingly adopting a herd mentality where mass affirmation is the placeholder for peer endorsement, for validating an activity.
PK: Trends taking off on social media is a phenomenon that won’t go away any time soon, so, you know, it’s not even worth talking about because I think that horse has bolted. So what can parents do to make sure their kids are safe when engaging with these platforms? When they’re following these Influencers, these people on YouTube, and getting, you know, obsessed with the latest thing, including this slime thing I’m getting my head around.
CA: I think most parents’ immediate concern might be to want to restrict access or control how their children use the internet, and that is understandable. However, I don’t think that this is very viable and probably not very functional, considering that the increasing cohorts of young people are going to experience even more unrestricted and direct access to such content. So instead of trying to control this and filter this down, what we really should be doing is equipping these children and young people with “digital literacies”. This means teaching them how to discern information on the internet, and it requires a whole different set of skills from say, viewing content on print media or mainstream media. For example, what is the language of satire and of parody? How can we identify spam? How can we corroborate a document that is viral but has no good sources? So we do need to teach young children who are now encountering the internet things like cross-referencing and verification – both native to the internet and in other media sources.
PK: Yeah. Thank you so much for your time, Crystal. It’s a really fascinating conversation. We’ve just scratched the surface there, of the slime. That’s Dr Crystal Abidin, she’s a digital anthropologist at the National University of Singapore and quite obviously an internet junkie.