We Long to Be Surprised

We have the ability to know anything and we wish we didn’t.

I’ve noticed a trend the last year or so that really only started to solidify in my mind this week when I was reading about the explosive popularity of a new TV show.

We Can Find Anything We Want

This isn’t a new phenomenon. I was Googling information for research papers when I was in middle school in the early 2000s. I remember one English class in which they took us to the library to learn how.

In the same day, someone can use Google to research which blender is the best buy for the money, to learn about the hunting practices of pre-Columbian Americans dwelling in what is now the southwestern United States, and to discern whether or not that mole on their neck is cancerous or not (it probably is).

Virtually every fact that can be known can be Googled, and for every fact you find you can find five opinions about that fact and three explanations of why that fact is actually fake.

The ability to find the answers to any questions we have is revolutionary and feels empowering most of the time.

But a rising trend in popular culture and buying habits is showing us that we long to be surprised more than ever.

We Long to Be Surprised

I want to look at three examples of how we long to be surprised:

A YouTuber

One of the biggest, and fastest-growing, channels on YouTube is Ryan ToysReview. If you have a child under the age of like eight, you have heard of Ryan ToysReview. Forbes named him the top-grossing YouTuber in 2018. His videos get millions of views every day because when parents give their children an iPad, they watch his videos and those videos autoplay into more videos for hours on end.

A cornerstone of Ryan ToysRview’s content is anything “surprising.” Here is a search of that content, so you can see for yourself:

He even has his own line of “surprise” toys at places like Target:

The point: Ryan’s content is built on surprises.

When you don’t know what Ryan’s going to discover, you can experience the mystery yourself!

A Toy

One of the most popular toys in the world today is LOL Surprise. It’s manufactured by MGA entertainment, the same folks who make Bratz.

The toys debuted in 2016 and were largely fueled by the subtle content marketing phenomenon that is YouTube channels directed at children like, you guessed it, Ryan ToysReview.

Pretty much the entire appeal of LOL Surprise is wrapped up in two things: 1) the reality that the child doesn’t know exactly what is inside (usually a combination of a doll and accessories), and 2) the prolonged “unboxing” experience that accompanies every LOL Surprise.

The genre of toy is literally listed in some places as “unboxing toy line.” Here’s an example:

The point: Children want toys that are surprising to them upon opening.

The experience of surprise is better than the doll itself.

A TV Show

I don’t really watch network television. Susie and I are watching The Good Place on the NBC app right now when we have time, but we don’t catch any TV shows live as they air.

However, despite my relative ignorance, it has been hard to miss the noise around Fox’s The Masked Singer, which is based on a show from South Korea.

The point, if you haven’t heard of it: a masked singer takes the stage in front of a panel of “judges.” This masked singer is unknown to the judges and is eventually revealed and to the amazement of everyone involved.

Here’s a clip:

The entire appeal of this show is that they don’t know who is singing under the mask.

If Terry Bradshaw just got up on stage and sang a song, nobody would watch. But when he gets up on stage looking like he belongs in Cirque du Soleil without anyone knowing who he is, people will watch for hours.

Why? Surely you know by now: surprise.

The point: People want to be surprised by unknown talents of unknown celebrities.

Watching a bunch of random celebrities sing isn’t nearly as interesting when you know who they are.

So What?

I think we’re knee-deep in an era of surprise.

Why?

Because all of us have the ability to know anything we want to know in our pockets.

IMDB can tell us who that B-list actor is who played that one guy in that one movie.

But it can’t tell us WHO’S BEHIND THE MASK!

Why get a Barbie doll when you can have the experience of opening a capsule, not knowing what’s inside?

When knowledge is readily available, we long for surprise.

Today’s Teens Are Always in the Hallway

In early 20th century America, a revolution in formal public education swept the country. It wasn’t the introduction of the blackboard or the creation of standardized tests.

It was the invention of “secondary education,” known today as “high school.”

Since its introduction into the American educational system about a hundred years ago, the American high school experience has been as defined by its social phenomena as its educational effectiveness.

The high school experience is as defined by what happens in the hallways that connect classrooms as it is by what happens inside the classrooms themselves.

To the average high school student, the high school hallway is as high pressure a performance environment as the catwalk is to a fashion model or the weight room is to the football player.

We live in an age in which the high school hallway is no longer limited to the corridors between classrooms on campus.

Today’s high school hallways are the always-on social media platforms that occupy the pocketed phones of America’s teenagers.

Phones in Hand, Always on Stage

Recently, I’ve been reading Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction by Derek Thompson. The purpose of the book is to look at what makes things popular.

Why do some songs explode and some songs fizzle?

Why has Fifty Shades of Grey sold over 150 million copies? (It’s not just because of the content.)

In the book’s “interlude,” Thompson gives a brief history of teens. Studying Millennials is fascinating to me, but studying teens of any generation is just as fascinating. Teens are on the forefront of popular culture. As go teens so go their parents (see every social media platform).

(FYI: current teenagers are not Millennials, but are part of iGen, or Gen Z, those born after 2000.)

Perhaps the most interesting part of this interlude on the history of teens was on the effect phones are having on teens and their relationships with each other. After explaining that the logos on teens’ clothing once defined them, Thompson writes:

In a new age of cool, the smartphone screen has displaced the embroidered logo as the focal point of teen identity. It was once sufficient to look good in a high school hallway, but today Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram are all high school hallways, where young people perform and see performances, judge and are judged. Many decades after another mobile device, the car, helped invent the teenager, the iPhone and its ilk offered new nimble instruments of self-expression, symbols of independence, and better ways to hook up.

This paragraph just breaks my heart for today’s teenagers. I was a teenager only eight years ago, which seems both like it was yesterday and it was long ago, but even we didn’t have it this bad. The iPhone was released when I was a junior in high school and even then few students had such phones. We often “performed” in online spaces like Myspace and AOL Instant Messenger, but we weren’t carrying those platforms around in our pockets, thankfully.

In an article published earlier this summer in The Atlantic titled “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” Dr. Jean Twenge makes her readers aware of what’s at stake for a generation of young people glued to their phones:

What’s at stake isn’t just how kids experience adolescence. The constant presence of smartphones is likely to affect them well into adulthood. Among people who suffer an episode of depression, at least half become depressed again later in life. Adolescence is a key time for developing social skills; as teens spend less time with their friends face-to-face, they have fewer opportunities to practice them. In the next decade, we may see more adults who know just the right emoji for a situation, but not the right facial expression.

(Dr. Twenge just released a book called iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us, which is now on backorder at Amazon.)

Today’s teens are always in the hallway because the 21st century adolescent catwalk is the smartphone and the terrifying worlds it holds.

It’s depressing teens and keeping them from spending real time with their friends.

Whether you’re a parent of a teen, a boss of a teen, or a pastor of a teen, please be aware of the sad fact that teens today feel as though they are always performing—perhaps they’re even performing for you. Be a person in the lives of the teens you know who doesn’t require them to perform. Be a person teens can approach with their real selves.