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Yale University Press
It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens

It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens

by danah boyd
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An essential read, written by a leading expert, for anyone who wants to understand young people's use of social media

What is new about how teenagers communicate through services such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram? Do social media affect the quality of teens’ lives? In this eye-opening book, youth culture and technology expert danah boyd uncovers some of the major myths regarding teens' use of social media. She explores tropes about identity, privacy, safety, danger, and bullying. Ultimately, boyd argues that society fails young people when paternalism and protectionism hinder teenagers’ ability to become informed, thoughtful, and engaged citizens through their online interactions. Yet despite an environment of rampant fear-mongering, boyd finds that teens often find ways to engage and to develop a sense of identity.

Boyd’s conclusions are essential reading not only for parents, teachers, and others who work with teens but also for anyone interested in the impact of emerging technologies on society, culture, and commerce in years to come. Offering insights gleaned from more than a decade of original fieldwork interviewing teenagers across the United States, boyd concludes reassuringly that the kids are all right. At the same time, she acknowledges that coming to terms with life in a networked era is not easy or obvious. In a technologically mediated world, life is bound to be complicated.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300166316
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 02/25/2014
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

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. She lives in New York City.

Read an Excerpt

it's complicated

the social lives of networked teens

By danah boyd


Copyright © 2014 danah boyd
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-16631-6



why do teens seem strange online?

In 2005, an Ivy League university was considering the application of a young black man from South Central Los Angeles. The applicant had written a phenomenal essay about how he wanted to walk away from the gangs in his community and attend the esteemed institution. The admissions officers were impressed: a student who overcomes such hurdles is exactly what they like seeing. In an effort to learn more about him, the committee members Googled him. They found his MySpace profile. It was filled with gang symbolism, crass language, and references to gang activities. They recoiled.

I heard this story when a representative from the admissions office contacted me. The representative opened the conversation with a simple question: Why would a student lie to an admissions committee when the committee could easily find the truth online? I asked for context and learned about the candidate. Stunned by the question, my initial response was filled with nervous laughter. I had hung out with and interviewed teens from South Central. I was always struck by the challenges they faced, given the gang dynamics in their neighborhood. Awkwardly, I offered an alternative interpretation: perhaps this young man is simply including gang signals on his MySpace profile as a survival technique.

Trying to step into that young man's shoes, I shared with the college admissions officer some of the dynamics that I had seen in Los Angeles. My hunch was that this teen was probably very conscious of the relationship between gangs and others in his hometown. Perhaps he felt as though he needed to position himself within the local context in a way that wouldn't make him a target. If he was anything like other teens I had met, perhaps he imagined the audience of his MySpace profile to be his classmates, family, and community—not the college admissions committee. Without knowing the teen, my guess was that he was genuine in his college essay. At the same time, I also suspected that he would never dare talk about his desire to go to a prestigious institution in his neighborhood because doing so would cause him to be ostracized socially, if not physically attacked. As British sociologist Paul Willis argued in the 1980s, when youth attempt to change their socioeconomic standing, they often risk alienating their home community. This dynamic was often acutely present in the communities that I observed.

The admissions officer was startled by my analysis, and we had a long conversation about the challenges of self-representation in a networked era. I'll never know if that teen was accepted into that prestigious school, but this encounter stayed with me as I watched other adults misinterpret teens' online self-expressions. I came to realize that, taken out of context, what teens appear to do and say on social media seems peculiar if not outright problematic.

The intended audience matters, regardless of the actual audience. Unfortunately, adults sometimes believe that they understand what they see online without considering how teens imagined the context when they originally posted a particular photograph or comment. The ability to understand how context, audience, and identity intersect is one of the central challenges people face in learning how to navigate social media. And, for all of the mistakes that they can and do make, teens are often leading the way at figuring out how to navigate a networked world in which collapsed contexts and imagined audiences are par for the course.

Taken Out of Context

In his 1985 book No Sense of Place, media scholar Joshua Meyrowitz describes the story of Stokely Carmichael, an American civil rights activist. In the 1960s, Carmichael regularly gave different talks to different audiences. He used a different style of speaking when he addressed white political leaders than when he addressed southern black congregations. When Carmichael started presenting his ideas on television and radio, he faced a difficult decision: which audience should he address? No matter which style of speaking he chose, he knew he'd alienate some. He was right. By using a rolling pastoral voice in broadcast media, Carmichael ingratiated himself with black activists while alienating white elites.

Meyrowitz argues that electronic media like radio and television easily collapse seemingly disconnected contexts. Public figures, journalists, and anyone in the limelight must regularly navigate disconnected social contexts simultaneously, balancing what they say with how their diverse audiences might interpret their actions. A context collapse occurs when people are forced to grapple simultaneously with otherwise unrelated social contexts that are rooted in different norms and seemingly demand different social responses. For example, some people might find it quite awkward to run into their former high school teacher while drinking with their friends at a bar. These context collapses happen much more frequently in networked publics.

The dynamics that Meyrowitz describes are no longer simply the domain of high-profile people who have access to broadcast media. When teens interact with social media, they must regularly contend with collapsed contexts and invisible audiences as a part of everyday life. Their teachers might read what they post online for their friends, and when their friends from school start debating their friends from summer camp, they might be excited that their friend groups are combining—or they might find it discomforting. In order to stabilize the context in their own minds, teens do what others before them have done: just like journalists and politicians, teens imagine the audience they're trying to reach. In speaking to an unknown or invisible audience, it is impossible and unproductive to account for the full range of plausible interpretations. Instead, public speakers consistently imagine a specific subset of potential readers or viewers and focus on how those intended viewers are likely to respond to a particular statement. As a result, the imagined audience defines the social context. In choosing how to present themselves before disconnected and invisible audiences, people must attempt to resolve context collapses or actively define the context in which they're operating.

Teens often imagine their audience to be those that they've chosen to "friend" or "follow," regardless of who might actually see their profile. In theory, privacy settings allow teens to limit their expressions to the people they intend to reach by restricting who can see what. On MySpace and Twitter—where privacy settings are relatively simple—using settings to limit who can access what content can be quite doable. Yet, on Facebook, this has proven to be intractable and confusing, given the complex and constantly changing privacy settings on that site. Moreover, many teens have good reasons for not limiting who can access their profile. Some teens want to be accessible to peers who share their interests. Others recognize that privacy settings do little to limit parents from snooping or stop friends from sharing juicy messages. Many teens complain about parents who look over their shoulders when they're on the computer or friends who copy and paste updates and forward them along.

To complicate matters, just because someone is a part of a teen's imagined audience doesn't mean that this person is actually reading what's posted. When social media sites offer streams of content—as is common on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram—people often imagine their audience to be the people they're following. But these people may not be following them in return or see their posts amid the avalanche of shared content. As a result, regardless of how they use privacy settings, teens must grapple with who can see their profile, who actually does see it, and how those who do see it will interpret it.

Teens' mental model of their audience is often inaccurate, but not because teens are naive or stupid. When people are chatting and sharing photos with friends via social media, it's often hard to remember that viewers who aren't commenting might also be watching. This is not an issue unique to teens, although teens are often chastised for not accounting for adult onlookers. But just as it's easy to get caught up in a conversation at a dinner party and forget about the rest of the room, it's easy to get lost in the back-and-forth on Twitter. Social media introduces additional challenges, particularly because of the persistent and searchable nature of most of these technical systems. Tweets and status updates aren't just accessible to the audience who happens to be following the thread as it unfolds; they quickly become archived traces, accessible to viewers at a later time. These traces can be searched and are easily reposted and spread. Thus, the context collapses that teens face online rarely occur in the moment with conflicting onlookers responding simultaneously. They are much more likely to be experienced over time, as new audiences read the messages in a new light.

When teens face collapsing contexts in physical environments, their natural response is to become quiet. For example, if a group of teens are hanging out at the mall and a security guard or someone's mother approaches them, they will stop whatever conversation they are having, even if it's innocuous. While they may be comfortable having strangers overhear their exchange, the sudden appearance of someone with social authority changes the context entirely. Online, this becomes more difficult. As Summer, a white fifteen-year-old from Michigan, explains, switching contexts online is more challenging than doing so in the park because, in the park, "you can see when there's people around you and stuff like that. So you can like quickly change the subject." Online, there's no way to change the conversation, both because it's virtually impossible to know if someone is approaching and because the persistent nature of most social exchanges means that there's a record of what was previously said. Thus, when Summer's mother looks at her Facebook page, she gains access to a plethora of interactions that took place over a long period of time and outside the social and temporal context in which they were produced. Summer can't simply switch topics with her friends at the sight of her mother approaching. The ability to easily switch contexts assumes an ephemeral social situation; this cannot be taken for granted in digital environments.

Because social media often brings together multiple social contexts, teens struggle to effectively manage social norms. Some expect their friends and family to understand and respect different social contexts and to know when something is not meant for them. And yet there are always people who fail to recognize when content isn't meant for them, even though it's publicly accessible. This is the problem that Hunter faces when he posts to Facebook.

Hunter is a geeky, black fourteen-year-old living in inner-city Washington, DC, who resembles a contemporary Steve Urkel, complete with ill-fitting clothes, taped-together glasses, and nerdy mannerisms. He lives in two discrete worlds. His cousins and sister are what he describes as "ghetto" while his friends at his magnet school are all academically minded "geeks." On Facebook, these two worlds collide, and he regularly struggles to navigate them simultaneously. He gets especially frustrated when his sister interrupts conversations with his friends.

When I'm talking to my friends on Facebook or I put up a status, something I hate is when people who I'm not addressing in my statuses comment on my statuses. In [my old school], people always used to call me nerdy and that I was the least black black person that they've ever met, some people say that, and I said on Facebook, "Should I take offense to the fact that somebody put the ringtone 'White and Nerdy' for me?" and it was a joke. I guess we were talking about it in school, and [my sister] comes out of nowhere, "Aw, baby bro," and I'm like, "No, don't say that, I wasn't talking to you."

When I asked Hunter how his sister or friends are supposed to know who is being talked to on specific Facebook updates, he replied, I guess that is a point. Sometimes it probably is hard, but I think it's just the certain way that you talk. I will talk to my sister a different way than I'll talk to my friends at school or from my friends from my old school, and I might say, "Oh, well, I fell asleep in Miss K's class by accident," and they'll say, "Oh, yeah, Miss K is so boring," and [my sister's] like, "Oh, well, you shouldn't fall asleep. You should pay attention." I mean, I think you can figure out that I'm not talking to you if I'm talking about a certain teacher.

Hunter loves his sister, but he also finds her take on social etiquette infuriating. He wants to maintain a relationship with her and appreciates that she's on Facebook, although he also notes that it's hard because of her priorities, values, and decisions. He doesn't want to ostracize her on Facebook, but he's consistently annoyed by how often she tries to respond to messages from his friends without realizing that this violates an implicit code of conduct.

To make matters worse, Hunter's sister is not the only one from his home life who he feels speaks up out of turn. Hunter and his friends are really into the card game Pokémon and what he calls "old skool" video games like the Legend of Zelda. His cousins, in contrast, enjoy first-person shooters like Halo and think his choice of retro video games is "lame." Thus, whenever Hunter posts messages about playing with his friends, his cousins use this as an opportunity to mock him. Frustrated by his family members' inability to "get the hint," Hunter has resorted both to limiting what he says online and trying to use technical features provided by Facebook to create discrete lists and block certain people from certain posts. Having to take measures to prevent his family from seeing what he posts saddens him because he doesn't want to hide; he only wants his family to stop "embarrassing" him. Context matters to Hunter, not because he's ashamed of his tastes or wants to hide his passions, but because he wants to have control over a given social situation. He wants to post messages without having to articulate context; he wants his audience to understand where he's coming from and respect what he sees as unspoken social conventions. Without a shared sense of context, hanging out online becomes burdensome.

The ability to understand and define social context is important. When teens are talking to their friends, they interact differently than when they're talking to their family or to their teachers. Television show plotlines leverage the power of collapsed contexts for entertainment purposes, but managing them in everyday life is often exhausting. It may be amusing to watch Kramer face embarrassment when he and George accidentally run into Kramer's mother on Seinfeld, but such social collisions are not nearly as entertaining when they occur without a laugh track. Situations like this require significant monitoring and social negotiation, which, in turn, require both strategic and tactical decisions that turn the most mundane social situation into a high-maintenance affair. Most people are uncomfortable with the idea that their worlds might collide uncontrollably, and yet, social media makes this dynamic a regular occurrence. Much of what's at stake has to do with the nuanced ways in which people read social situations and present themselves accordingly.

Identity Work in Networked Publics

In her 1995 book, Life on the Screen, psychologist Sherry Turkle began to map out the creation of a mediated future that resembled both the utopian and dystopian immersive worlds constructed in science fiction novels. Watching early adopters—especially children—embrace virtual worlds, she argued that the distinction between computers and humans was becoming increasingly blurred and that a new society was emerging as people escaped the limitations of their offline identities. Turkle was particularly fascinated by the playful identity work that early adopters engaged in online, and with a psychoanalyst's eye, she extensively considered both the therapeutic and the deceptive potential of mediated identity work.


Excerpted from it's complicated by danah boyd. Copyright © 2014 danah boyd. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface ix

Introduction 1

1 Identity why do teens seem strange online? 29

2 Privacy why do youth share so publicly? 54

3 Addiction what makes teens obsessed with social media? 77

4 Danger are sexual predators lurking everywhere? 100

5 Bullying is social media amplifying meanness and cruelty? 128

6 Inequality can social media resolve social divisions? 153

7 Literacy are today's youth digital natives? 176

8 Searching for a public of their own 199

Appendix: teen demographics 215

Notes 221

Bibliography 245

Acknowledgments 267

Index 273


How are teenagers’ lives different today?
The most visible difference is, of course, technology. Many of today's youth have access to tools that allow them to connect to people and information in unprecedented ways. Yet this is not actually the most salient difference between now and the past. Teens today are also more heavily constrained in their mobility, more regulated in terms of their time and activities, and under more pressure than those from previous generations. This means that they have fewer opportunities to socialize in unstructured, face-to-face settings. Technology often serves as a relief valve, allowing teens to hang out with friends when getting together isn't otherwise possible.
What most surprised you from your interviews of teens?
Given the plethora of concerns about social media, I expected to see problems everywhere. I was most surprised to find that most teens had a perfectly healthy relationship with technology and that many of the struggles they faced were age-old issues made more visible through social media. I found that the newness of technology distracted many well-intended adults from helping young people with the challenges they do face.
What topics dominate society’s conversations about youth? How would you change the focus?
Most conversations that focus on teens' use of social media—and their lives more generally—center on the risks youth face. While it's important to protect youth from dangers, a society based on fear-mongering is not healthy. Let's instead talk about how we can help youth be passionate, engaged, constructive members of society rather than how we can protect them from statistically anomalous dangers. Let's understand those teens who are truly at risk; these teens often have the least support.

Praise for It's Complicated:

"danah boyd is one of the smartest people thinking about how teenagers use the Internet—a topic of enormous importance to parents, me included. Her book is smart, sophisticated, and imbued throughout with a rare and wonderful sensitivity to the real, lived experiences of teenagers. Read it to understand what they're doing online, and why—you'll come away enlightened!"—Emily Bazelon, author of Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy

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