Tuesday, June 10, 2014

"The kids are alright"—
Danah Boyd's It's Complicated: the social lives of networked teens

Danah Boyd is Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, Research Assistant Professor at New York University, and Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
It's Complicated: the social lives of networked teens (2014)I've just started reading Danah Boyd's brilliant new book, It's Complicated: the social lives of networked teens (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2014).

From 2005 to 2012, Boyd toured the United States, "talking with and observing teens from eighteen states and a wide array of socioeconomic and ethnic communities," as well as conducting 166 formal, semi-structured interviews with teens.

She writes that this book is her
attempt to describe and explain the networked lives of teens to the people who worry about them—parents, teachers, policy makers, journalists, sometimes even other teens....
As I began to get a feel for the passions and frustrations of teens and to speak to broader audiences, I recognized that teen's voices rarely shaped the public discourse surrounding their networked lives. (x)
Coming of age

Boyd brings to the discussion a deep respect for teens, in the place of adult mistrust.  Her key insight is that
Most teens are not compelled by [social media] gadgetry as such—they are compelled by friendship. The gadgets are interesting to them primarily as a means to a social end....
Teens' preoccupation with their friends dovetails with their desire to enter the public spaces that are freely accessible to adults. The ability to access public spaces for sociable purposes is a critical component of the coming of age process.... (18)
Boyd reminds the reader that teens are challenged to envision themselves as young adults. Their efforts to set their own agendas and "to a be with friends on their own terms, without adult supervision, and in public," are part of coming of age.
Paradoxically, the networked publics they inhabit allow them a measure of privacy and autonomy that is not possible at home.... Recognizing this is important to understanding teens' relationship to social media.... [Their] engagement with public life through social media is not a rejection of privacy. Teens may wish to enjoy the  benefits of participating in public, but they also relish intimacy and the ability to have control over their social situation.... [Teens] go to great lengths to develop innovative strategies for managing privacy in networked publics....
Social media enables a type of youth-centric public space that is often otherwise inaccessible. But because that space is highly visible, it can often provoke concerns among adults who are watching teens as they try to find their way. (19)
The Significance of Networked Publics

To focus her work, Boyd broadens and sharpens the concept of "networked publics" first introduced by Mizuko Ito in the "Introduction" to Networked Publics (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2008, 1-14).
Networked publics are publics that are restructured by networked technologies. As such, they are simultaneously (1) the space constructed through networked technologies and (2) the imagined community that emerges as a result of the intersection of people, technology, and practice. (8)
Using this concept, Boyd normalizes teens' use of social media.
Teens engage with networked publics for the same reasons they have always relished publics; they want to be a part of the broader world by connecting with other people and having the freedom of mobility. Likewise, many adults fear networked technologies for the same reasons that adults have long been wary of teen socialization in parks, malls, and other sites where youth congregate. (10)
She then introduces Donald Norman's concept of "affordances" as a way of exploring the new social possibilities offered by technology. [See The Design of Everyday Things, (New York: Basic Books,1988).]
The particular properties or characteristics of an environment can be understood as affordances because they make possible—and, in some cases, are used to encourage—certrain types of practices, even if they do not determine what practices will unfold. (10)
 There are four affordances which Boyd argues make social media appealing to teens:
  •  persistence: the durability of online expression and content;
  • visibility: the potential audience who can bear witness;
  • spreadability: the ease with which content can be shared; and 
  • searchability: the ability to find content. (11)
 Boyd then addresses adult fears more directly, saying that the social lives of teens are far less different from those of their parents than many of us believe.
School looks remarkably familiar, and many of the same anxieties and hopes that shaped my experience are still recognizable today.... All too often, it is easier to focus on the technology than on the broader systemic issues that are at play because technical changes are easier to see.
Nostalgia gets in the way of understanding the relation between teens and technology. Adults may idealize their childhoods and forget the trials and tribulations they faced.... They associate the rise of digital technology with decline—social, intellectual, and moral. The research I present here suggests that the opposite is often true. (16)
Having seen this introduction to Boyd's study, I'm eager to learn from the teens she paid attention to how they understand their own use of social media...and how we adults might nurture rather than fear this aspect of their coming of age.

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