On May 16 at 1:16 p.m., a video appeared on Facebook. It showed high school sophomore Kelsey Russell and her friends sitting in the library of Austin’s Bouldin High, talking through an online quiz titled “Are You Ready to Lose Your Virginity?”
Two days later, as Russell curled her hair before a Friday night date with a football player named Daniel, she posted a photo to Instagram.
And the following Monday, another Facebook video appeared, showing a table outside Bouldin High during lunchtime. As Russell recounted her first time having sex, her friends worried that Daniel might have used the social media app Snapchat to share pictures with his friends.
“I hope you checked the sheets,” a girl told Russell. “Because if you bled, then he definitely Snapped it. It’s like a trophy for them.”
Together, the videos have been viewed over 400,000 times. Russell’s Instagram post got more than 3,100 likes.
But here’s the catch:
Kelsey Russell isn’t a real person, and there’s no such school as Bouldin High.
Both are fictional creations of a new teen drama called SKAM Austin. Produced in partnership with Facebook, the show blends earnest storytelling, an innovative new format, and sometimes-graphic and sexually explicit dialogue to authentically depict the role of social media in teenagers’ lives. SKAM Austin also further blurs the line between fake and real, unfolding via snippets of social media content that pop up alongside the posts of viewers’ real-life friends. To follow along, the show’s fans—just like its characters—have to go down the digital rabbit hole, hopping from platform to platform in the hopes of finding out what’s really happening.
Media-literacy experts say schools should pay close attention to SKAM Austin. They describe it as both as a potential teaching tool and a cautionary tale about where social media is headed.
As a piece of popular culture, observers say, the show hits its mark, reflecting the modern high school experience in a way that actual high school students find relatable and true. And SKAM’s success is made possible by its unique uses of new technology to forge deep emotional connections with fans—the same strategy used by the 1930’s radio drama ‘War of the Worlds’ and the television show ‘Big Brother’ during prior generations.
But the show also has a potential dark side.
Some experts worry the boundary-blurring new narrative format could further undermine teens’ already-shaky ability to figure out what’s true online.
And they’re particularly troubled by Facebook’s involvement. Despite being under fire for fueling the rise of fake news, and despite promises to crack down on fake accounts, the company is fighting hard to preserve SKAM Austin’s “realistic illusion,” allowing fictitious Instagram personas and supporting contracts that forbid the show’s actors from promoting SKAM using their real names.
The result is a modern-day hall of mirrors.
Given the stakes, experts say, educators have no choice but to follow their students in.
“By being so immersive and authentic, SKAM Austin is actually begging a much larger question,” said Amanda Lenhart, the deputy director of the Better Life Lab at the think tank New America. “Is there anything that teens can trust?”
Art Imitating Life
The real-life Bouldin High is David Crockett High School, located at 5601 Manchaca Road in South Austin.
SKAM Productions, LLC paid the Austin Independent School District $4,000 per day to film at Crockett last spring, according to a location release agreement obtained via a public-records request.
District officials declined to grant Education Week access to the school, saying they don’t want to be associated with the show.
So on a blistering August afternoon during the first week of the new school year, a reporter watched from the street as real Crockett students poured out of the building. Phones in hand, they waited for rides and hung out on the picnic tables in front of the school.
It looked very much like a typical scene from SKAM Austin.
As the crowd thinned, 15-year-old Kayla Rios and a friend fiddled with a guitar, killing time in the parking lot of a nearby shopping center.
“I love that show,” Rios said of SKAM Austin.
The Crockett sophomore said she remembered when the show was being filmed at her school, and near her grandma’s house.
But when a scene from SKAM Austin first appeared on her social media feed, Rios still questioned whether she was watching life at an actual high school.
“I mean, of course, I knew, like, I go to that school, so obviously it’s not,” she said. “But they make it seem really real.”
The brainchild of screenwriter and producer Julie Andem, SKAM (pronounced ‘skom,’ the Norwegian word for “shame”) debuted in Norway in 2015. Much of the show’s action consists of friends messaging each other’s phones and checking each other’s social media accounts. But SKAM’s richness comes from its characters’ struggles to navigate a world in which everyone has multiple personas, shame spreads virally, and it’s hard to figure out who you really are.
In 2016, television producer Simon Fuller (of ‘American Idol’ fame) purchased the show’s English-language rights. He then partnered with Andem and Facebook Watch, the social media giant’s new video platform.
SKAM Austin debuted on April 24.
Over a black screen, a teen girl narrated the opening line: “Sometimes, I wish I didn’t have this need to perform all the time.”
The show’s plot loosely tracks the relationship of Bouldin sophomores Megan and Marlon. The climax comes when Megan’s infidelity is exposed via an anonymous Instagram account dedicated to spreading rumors about Bouldin students.
“Literally, the whole school is talking about you,” Megan’s nemesis taunts her.
Wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a large red ‘A,’ the teen holes up in her room at home. Her parents, previously just disembodied voices arguing off-screen, appear. They confront Megan about a call from the school’s principal. On top of getting into a fight at school, she has failed to turn in a paper on ‘The Scarlet Letter’.
Facebook downplayed the idea that viewers might mistakenly think the show is real, citing its music cues, scene cuts, and slow motion effects.
Despite her initial hesitation, Kayla Rios, the real-life Crockett sophomore, agreed.
But does the show accurately reflect life at Crockett?
“Oh yeah,” Rios said. “You can relate to it really easily.”
Such reactions are a clear win for Andem and Facebook, both of whom declined to be interviewed for this story.
“Our goal is to create immersive experiences through Facebook Watch which allow viewers to experience video in a whole new way,” a Facebook spokeswoman said in a written response to questions. “Advancing a show’s storyline through social posts, texts, and teaser drops is not standard practice, and SKAM fans have really responded well to it.”
Researchers call it “transmedia” storytelling. SKAM Austin is probably the fullest, most successful example of the approach in the United States to date.
But the underlying idea is hardly new.
There’s a long history of new technologies being used to make stories feel more authentic, intimate, and relatable, say researchers such as Crystal Abidin, a lecturer in digital media at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia. There’s also a long history of backlash to such new narrative forms.
In 18th-century Europe, for example, popular novels such as ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ sparked a panic that “reading fever” might corrupt the minds and morals of fans unable to withstand the immersive power of fictionalized reality.
More recently, the YouTube series ‘lonelygirl15' presented itself as the video diary of a real teenage girl, gaining millions of followers before being revealed as an elaborate ruse.
In the current age, Abidin said, social media is often used to make audiences feel like they are part of the action. Fans comment on their favorite actors’ Instagram accounts, reimagine their favorite shows on Tumblr, and use Reddit to discuss the “Easter eggs” their favorite writers and directors hide in their work. For content producers, it’s free promotion.
So what makes SKAM Austin different, and why should educators care?
Abidin and others say it’s the way Facebook mirrors and co-opts those previously organic forms of fan participation. By intentionally leaving “bread crumb” trails that entice viewers to engage across the multiple social media platforms the company owns, Facebook aims to keep fans locked into its own ecosystem, discouraging them from finding outside perspectives.
In other words, SKAM Austin is another example of Facebook doing what Facebook does: Taking users’ online behaviors, and turning them into a product that serves its business interests.
“The feedback loop between Facebook Watch and the characters’ social media personas is scary and sinister,” Abidin said.
“It gives the impression that social media is real life, and it seeks to exclude any space for moments of doubt.”
A ‘Realistic Illusion’
Indeed, Education Week’s efforts to pull back the veil on the show were met with resistance.
Interview requests sent to several of the show’s cast members yielded this reply from 18-year-old actor Giovanni Niubo, who plays a SKAM Austin character named Tyler Nunez:
“I’m not allowed to do interviews pertaining to SKAM temporarily due to my contract. I’d really love to do this, as it’d be great to talk about social media’s influence on kids my age…but the team got back to me and said interviews about the show are still off the table for now.”
That was quickly followed by an email from a staffer at Beck Media & Marketing, Facebook Watch’s public-relations firm.
“Hi Ben! One of the actors just let me know that Education Week was reaching out for an interview. In order to maintain the realistic illusion, the cast and crew are unfortunately not doing interviews or press. Thanks!”
The Facebook spokeswoman also declined to directly address whether the company is violating its own community standards by allowing the creation of false personas and fictitious histories on Instagram, a platform that Facebook owns. The standards explicitly forbid “creating inauthentic profiles” on Facebook itself, although Instagram allows users to create multiple accounts.
And the spokeswoman confirmed reporting in the New Yorker that Facebook itself “guided” the creation of SKAM Austin’s online fan community, building fan pages that appear to be organic and paying social media influencers to promote the show.
Already, Abidin said, such strategies are creating new challenges for young people trying to make sense of the many layers of identity and truth found on social media.
Many teens actually have learned that all information from social media can’t be trusted at face value, she said, and many teens actually do work hard to verify what they see across multiple sources.
But now young people can follow that process, and feel like they’ve drawn their own independent conclusions, all without ever having left a fictional universe created by one of the largest corporations on the planet.
It dramatically raises the stakes for schools already struggling to keep up.
“SKAM is a great case study for what authenticity means in the social media age,” Abidin said. “It’s mirroring what’s happening in real life, and the increasing difficulty of corroborating facts.”
Teaching Media Literacy
The good news for those with such concerns is that teenagers remain ingenious, and eager to do plenty of boundary-pushing of their own.
Take, for example, Kayla Rios.
Like many fans, Rios didn’t stop at watching scenes of SKAM Austin on Facebook, or following the Instagram accounts of the show’s characters. She also tracked down the personal social media accounts of all the actors.
“I followed them, too,” she explained. “I’m interested in what their actual lives are like, rather than just on the show.”
Media-literacy experts say teachers could use such strategies as a jumping-off point for rich classroom conversations.
But most schools aren’t there yet.
Officials from the 81,000-student Austin school district, for example, declined to talk on the record about SKAM Austin, just as they refused to grant access to Crockett High.
They did, however, allow Education Week to observe at nearby James Bowie High.
On the third day of school, all Bowie’s 9th graders were handed new district-issued Chromebooks, then sent back to their English classes. There, teachers delivered a “digital citizenship” lesson that mixed discussion prompts (“What are some strategies you’ve used to help limit your distractions?”) with YouTube videos of TED Talks (“Why Our Screens Make Us Less Happy.”)
In general, the teens seemed receptive to the message that screens and social media come with downsides.
But in interviews, they mostly described the district’s information as old news.
When it comes to the actual role social media plays in their day-to-day lives, older Bowie students said, the reality is teenagers have mostly been left to fend for themselves.
“For people that didn’t grow up with [social media] like we did, it’s hard to understand,” said Stephen Do, a 17-year old senior. “It bleeds into who you are, and it becomes an extension of the character you want other people to see.”
Does that make it hard to know what to trust?
“The problem with social media is it leaves so much to the imagination,” Do said. “It’s always bits and pieces, and you have to try to put it together, and that causes problems.”
That’s a pretty good summary of the reality SKAM Austin depicts, which is why many observers consider it so powerful and timely.
But Do’s take is also a pretty good summary of the show’s potential consequences, which is why many media-literacy experts say that it’s important to watch what happens next.
In an age when an anonymous Instagram account can upend your entire life—and a tech company can fudge its own rules to help create a mirror image of your own school—what do big concepts like authenticity, identity, and truth even mean?
SKAM Austin, recently renewed for a second season, could be a powerful tool to help adults be part of those conversations with the teenagers in their lives.
But as yet, there’s little sign that either Facebook or America’s schools are ready to seize that opportunity.
A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 2018 edition of Education Week as Facebook’s New Teen Drama Blurs the Line Between Real and Fake