Kids These Days. You should know about Danah Boyd

Ok, she works for Microsoft. Don’t hold that against her. I don’t remember when I first encountered her, but it was probably in a mention from Cory Doctorow. Her blog with the excellent name of apophenia, is one I always check on. [0] Her thoughts on youth and media are not to be missed. She spans social media, teen behavior, LGBT issues and bullying. But that’s not why you should know who she is.

You should know who she is because, like Bruce Schneier does for security, Danah gets to the heart of the matter. She gets to the unintended consequences of policies, the unseen costs of short-hand thinking. She shows what is actually going on with teens, not what adults imagine or someone’s ideology dictates. While most media makes its money by appealing to the mental junk foods of fear (If it bleeds, it leads), gossip, and tribalism, people like Bruce and Danah cut through those narratives and deserve our attention and our dollars.

Her new book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, is insightful and heart breaking. Perhaps, I’m biased. A favorite theme of mine is how every generation thinks the youth are out of control, have no taste, and thinks what they do is nonsensical. The world is always going to hell in a hand basket.

Kids these days.

In one section Danah shows how adult’s impression that teens are anti-social and obsessed with gadgetry, is a heart breaking confusion. Teen after teen she interviews is over-scheduled, lives far from her friends and is without the ability to go and hangout with them. She doesn’t use the word, but she’s arguing that Teens use cyberspace as a place to hangout; somewhere they can have some form of privacy to be with their friends. Danah shows how to previous generations, using a computer to communicate is something at the boundaries of social acceptance. It’s what weird people and “computer people” (my words) did. But, for today’s teens, social media is the sock hop or the rope swing. Instead of using a smartphone to withdraw, it’s the only place they can be themselves and can connect with other people like them. The regimentation, physical isolation, and lack of agency in their own lives is something the teens she interviews are always trying to overcome. Not for some evil ulterior motives, but to be themselves with their friends.

A variation on that theme is how a particular technology or new form of media will lead to the debasement of the youth and the minds of the next generations. Most people are familiar with the moral panics around comic books, television, and social media. Some of those still seem rational to people today, but they are just echoes of previous panics where the new technology is demonized: “this time it’s different.” Few remember similar panics and moral warnings around the creation of sewing machines, novels, film, and dire warnings about writing itself.

Any new technology that captures widespread attention is likely to provoke serious hand wringing, if not full-blown panic. When the sewing machine was introduced, there were people who feared the implications that women moving their legs up and down would affect female sexuality. The Walkman music player was viewed as an evil device that would encourage people to disappear into separate worlds, unable to communicate with one another. Technologies are not the only cultural artifacts to prompt these so-called moral panics; new genres of media also cause fearful commentary. Those who created comic books, penny arcades, and rock-and-roll music have been seen as sinister figures bent on seducing children into becoming juvenile delinquents. Novels were believed to threaten women’s morals, a worry that Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary dramatizes brilliantly. Even Socrates is purported to have warned of the dangers of the alphabet and writing, citing implications for memory and the ability to convey truth.

Danah Boyd, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens

Her book is full of insights. But her parallels with Bruce Schneier become very strong when she talks about privacy, social norms, and the way teens deal with surveillance. Many of the teens she interviews are constantly surveilled by their parents, teachers and other who have power over them. Often, these are teens largest frustrations, when the powerful ignore the teen’s social norms. In small houses, parents and siblings have always spied upon teens, but in the world of social media, the lack of meaningful technological access control keeping the parents out, mean many parents feel justified diving into every aspect of the teen’s lives, usually without meaningful context. It makes you wonder how living with constant surveillances changes someone.

The sections on “Social Steganography” are fascinating, and show the extremes someone will go to to achieve privacy. Teens often carefully communicate in coded ways. Unable to control access to their posts, they control access to meaning by encoding what they say is only intelligible by themselves and their friends.

Privacy is not a static construct. It is not an inherent property of any particular information or setting. It is a process by which people seek to have control over a social situation by managing impressions, information flows, and context. Cynics often suggest that only people who have something to hide need privacy. But this argument is a distraction. Privacy is valuable because it is critical for personal development. As teenagers are coming of age, they want to feel as though they matter. Privacy is especially important for those who are marginalized or lack privilege within society. Teenagers have not given up on privacy, even if their attempts to achieve it are often undermined by people who hold power over them. On the contrary, teens are consistently trying out new ways of achieving privacy by drawing on and modernizing strategies that disempowered people have long used. Rather than finding privacy by controlling access to content, many teens are instead controlling access to meaning.

Danah Boyd, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens

Lastly, the theme of context and context collapse weaves throughout. Social Media affords the loss of social context or the merging of social contexts in ways that were unlikely or impossible in the past. You would rarely run into a teacher when you were out with your friends on a rope swing, or a prospective college admissions officer at a GWAR concert. But with social media, those social contexts can merge quite easily. And those powerful in the teen’s life can often force them to. Social norms prevent or punish snooping in meat-space.

Danah provides insights into what teens are actually doing on social media, into the power dynamics that shape the teen’s lives, and into the hidden costs of moral panics around teen use of social media.

You should know who she is.

[0] I’ve made references to Apophenia as one of my favorite words before.