Book review: It’s complicated – the social lives of networked teens by Danah Boyd

itscomplicatedListen: if you want to feel sorry for young people, Danah Boyd’s It’s complicated is a good place to start.

Boyd is Principal researcher at Microsoft Research and holds positions at NYU and Harvard’s Berkman Centre. Her focus is how technology impacts behaviour, particularly how young people are affected by social media’s “networked publics”. The book is her attempt “to explain the networked lives of teens to those who worry about them.”

Boyd successfully uses ethnography within a commercial setting. I was interested to read the book not only to explore the issues but to see how a “proper ethnographer” transmutes their source material into compelling prose. By proper ethnographer I mean someone whose work / life balance perhaps suffers in the pursuit of her cause (sample quote from recent interviewAfter the film, I did what I always do after a movie. I went and sat in the women’s bathroom to listen to how people would talk about the film with their friends.”)

Whilst the nexus of people and technology is the book’s focus what stuck with me most strongly was the world which many of her interviewees inhabit. Sterile and stripped of spontaneity, defined by paranoid parenting, structured activities and little trust:

“From wealthy suburbs to small towns, teenagers reported that parental fear, lack of transportation options, and heavily structured lives restricted their ability to meet and hang out with their friends… While parental restrictions and pressures are often well intended, they obliterate unstructured time and unintentionally reposition teen sociality as abnormal. This prompts teens to desperately – and in some cases, sneakily – seek it out. As a result, many teens turn to what they see as the lowest common denominator: asynchronous social media, texting and other mediated interactions.”

For Boyd, teen social media use stems from being excluded from other spaces. The narrative of addiction used to describe hours spent online is naïve. Young people are addicted to each other, not social media:

“Listening to teens talk about social media addiction reveals an interest not in features of their computers, smartphones, or even particular social media sites but in each other.”

Unable to control their child’s peer groups or boundaries online parents often feel anxious about social media. For Boyd the nature of the medium has led to confusion. A teen using Facebook to continue a conversation that started at school rather than the telephone is nothing to be alarmed about. The question we should be posing when technology advances is what has actually changed, and what hasn’t. At some point all media was new media, and it’s surprising in retrospect what causes anxiety – novels were seen as addictive in the Eighteenth Century, comics seen to encourage violence in the 1930s and rock n’ roll morally corrupting in the 50s. With perspective, in her view moral panics like these are merely adults projecting fears onto the technology of the time. The message is: calm down, it’s natural. Look at what is underlying the behaviour.

Boyd also attacks some sacred cows.

For her the term digital native is a myth, and a misleading one at that. The teens Boyd comes into contact with are less adept with technology than the term would suggest. Skill often correlates with privilege: those with multiple devices and the opportunities to develop them in their own time. The term has unintended consequences, implying digital education is unnecessary for the young. People across generations need the skills and knowledge necessary to survive in a mediated world, especially as government migrate services online.

The techno-utopian ideal that social boundaries would be broken down by the internet is not borne out by Boyd’s research. Social media does not radically change the social networks of young people. The social dynamics of the real world are reproduced online, as teens engage with others who share similar interests. Birds of a feather flock together online and offline (homophily.) Our years researching young people’s online behaviour on behalf of Government supports this. Young people’s friendship groups online tend to consist of several overlapping groups, replicating their real world relationships (for example the football team, your old school pals, your work mates etc) and extending them (friends of friends, people you met once and are unlikely to meet again).

Oversharing by teens is related back to social media platforms and their default settings. It is easier to share widely than manipulate privacy settings thus many teens operate by a “public-by-default, private-through-effort” rule of thumb. Norms around information sharing are changing, with privacy achieved by choosing what not to share, as one of Boyd’s interviewees describes:

“I just think that technology is redefining what’s acceptable for people to put out about themselves. I’ve grown up with technology so I don’t know how it was before this boom of social networking. But it just seems like instead of spending all of our time talking to individual people and sharing things that would seem private we just spend all of our time putting it in one module of communication where people can go and access it if they want to. It’s just more convenient.”

Thought-provoking stuff: worth a read.

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About Simon Shaw

I'm a Director at a communications agency. I'm interested in marketing, market research & consumer psychology. The views expressed are not necessarily those of my employer.
This entry was posted in Consumer Psychology, Demographic change, Ethnography, Marketing Research, Media, Social Media and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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