January 11, 2007
Social researcher danah boyd (who generally chooses not to capitalize her name) has made a name for herself as an expert on young people and online social networks. A Ph.D. candidate at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley and a graduate fellow at the University of Southern California Annenberg Center, boyd has also worked as a social media researcher at Yahoo, Google, and Tribe.net. Recently, she appeared on The O'Reilly Factor, where she enlightened Bill about Myspace and the "dopey kids" it attracts. At 29, boyd has become the go-to woman for "adults" trying to figure out what "kids" do online all day, and one look at her blog, Apophenia, offers insight into her exhausting speaking/interview schedule.
WireTap caught up with boyd recently to talk about social networks, kids these days, and the intersection of technology and political organizing.
WireTap: How did you start researching "digital publics"?
danah boyd: I first went online when I was about 14. My brother was a hardcore geek and I thought what he was doing was really lame, and I wanted nothing to do with it. Then I realized there were people in there, and it wasn't just about coding. And I started talking to people online and participating in all sorts of social interaction, and found it fascinating. So when I went to college, I decided I was going to study computer science, in part based on those experiences.
Needless to say, computer science degrees are not meant to engage with the web in any socially relevant way. So I ended up getting involved with a lot of computer graphics, which was awesome. When I entered college, I started blogging, so I was also having this whole web experience.
My research has gotten more and more related to youth over the years [and to] identity, and performance in online environments, which in many ways are online public environments.
WT: What sort of relationships are young people forming online? Who are they connecting with?
db: Most of what's happening is they're building relationships, they're engaging socially, they're seeking validation, they're seeking negotiation of status, and this is happening both on and offline in a very fluid way. My generation was much more about "going online" and it being this separate universe, in many ways a totally separate social world with social rules and scripts and what not. But for a lot of young people, it is a fluid environment that moves between their offline and online worlds. The technology doesn't act as a separator.
And what you end up having is two different clusters of kids. You have kids who are getting all they need in terms of validation and status, and everything else from school, peers in the physical world, peers from church, summer camp, activities, school, those kinds of obvious physical environments. They are just replicating their networks and their community online, using all the online tools--IM, email, blogs, Myspace, that kind of thing--to talk to the people that they already have networks formulated around.
You still also have the marginalized and ostracized kids who are actually actively seeking out a community of peers online because they don't have one offline. This is who I was growing up. The assumption from the earlier days of the Internet was that this latter [behavior] is all that the kids were doing, and actually that's become the less common practice.
WT: What are some the differences between online and offline networks?
db: There are sort of four properties and one key practice that are fundamentally different online. The key practice is that you have to write yourself into being. To a certain degree we do this offline as well, whereby you have a body that you're working with that you then accessorize to hell. Online you don't have a body, you don't have a presence, you don't have anything that sort of marks your existence.
There are four functions that are sort of the key architecture of online publics and key structures of mediated environments that are generally not part of the offline world. And those are persistence, searchability, replicability, and invisible audiences. Persistence--what you say sticks around. Searchability--my mother would have loved the ability to sort of magically scream into the ether to figure out where I was when I'd gone off to hang out with my friends. She couldn't, thank God. But today when kids are hanging out online because they've written [themselves] into being online, they become very searchable. Replicability--you have a conversation with your friends, and this can be copied and pasted into your Live Journal and you get into a tiff. That creates an amazing amount of "uh ohs" when you add it to persistence. And finally, invisible audiences. In unmediated environment, you can look around and have an understanding of who can possibly overhear you. You adjust what you're saying to the reactions of those people. You figure out what is appropriate to say, you understand the social context. But when we're dealing with mediated environments, we have no way of gauging who might hear or see us, not only because we can't tell whose presence is lurking at the moment, but because of persistence and searchability.
WT: How does online or digital identity differ from one's day-to-day life presentation?
db: It's a performance, right? In that performance there are things that are magnified. Think of it this way. My favorite thing about online dating is that 80 percent of women are above average looking, according to their marker, and 80 percent of men make above average in salary. Is this true? Of course not. But our self-perceptions are often very distorted. We want to be seen in the best light. This is why we sit home with a shitload of makeup and try to construct a "Don't we look suave" sort of appearance. The same thing happens online, but instead of using expensive paints for our faces, we're using digital ones. But we're still trying to put what we think is our best foot forward for the social context at hand.
WT: Why are we so drawn to portray ourselves online like this?
db: You have a generation that is restricted from social life and a lot of mobility in many ways because of their age. They can't get into a club or a pub or anything like that, which is where a lot of socialization happens for 20- 30-somethings. They're getting banned from places like malls and other such fun. At a younger age, they don't have a car. Their parents are afraid to let them go hang out in the park or other because they might be raped or molested or kidnapped or killed, etc.
Their primary hangout is at their friends' houses. This is all fine and good when you're thinking about everything in constrained social groups. But there's a reason why we start to engage with public life that is not simply our friends. And that has to do with seeing and being seen and going through this process of figuring out how the social world works. The problem for today's teenagers is, what is their public life? Where is it that they can go and see and be seen and go through all of these social? Where is it they get to control their space their way? Myspace. It's a great place for teens to make a public world on their terms. If your friends are there, and you get to portray what really matters to you, that's really significant.
WT: What are the biggest misconceptions/myths about social networking online?
db: Myth No. 1 is that everybody is on there to meet people, and everyone is on there to engage in social networking. That's one of the reasons that I call them "social network" sites instead of "social networking" sites. It has [more] to do with constructing or presenting your social network, showcasing it, showing it off, engaging in the status around it. The idea of social networking, going to meet tons of strangers, is typically a much more common practice among adult users of these sites.
Myth No. 2 is that kids are in grave danger just because of participation. The risky behavior is not putting information about yourself online, which is what most adults think. We do not have a single case related to Myspace where someone has been abducted. We've had plenty of press coverage of these things, and every single one of them has proven to not be an abduction, but a runaway situation, or the kid was abducted by their noncustodial parent.
WT: How do we extend discussions of favorite bands and television shows into more social and political issues to draw out this social/political realm that now exists online?
db: Civic engagement happens when you have access to civic life. Civic life is inherently public. Youth are silenced in nearly every way possible in civic life offline. Why should they care? They don't see how it's relevant. In fact, they're being ignored at pretty much every turn. Needless to say, the 10 percent of kids who are in the Young Republicans club are like "Weee! We're really engaged." But that has to do more with their parents than anything else. And in fact, most kids' parents are disengaged. This is not a country of really engaged political life.
Are kids political by their very nature? Yes. They're actually deeply politically engaged in the things that matter to them. Look at what happened when 750,000 kids responded to the news feed crisis on Facebook. That was a pretty political move, and a very powerful one. And you have the 50,000 kids who walked out of school over immigration policy. It happened in part through different forms of technology--mobiles, IM, Myspace.
WT: Do you see these social network sites replacing public meetings, like town hall meetings, protests, and social gatherings? How will these types of events be changed by a generation that's growing up socially online?
db: Again, most of it's going to reflect the offline [world]. They're going to become tools that are used to enable offline engagement, for people who are actually motivated that way. We already see this on Facebook, where Facebook is leveraged in fights for the class presidency.
You're going to see some sort of wave of communication and structure from the most politically engaged. This tool won't just make everybody engaged. For people who are engaged, it will become very valuable. But that's true of everything else. Is SMS a political tool? No. Did people in the Philippines use it to overturn a particular government? Yes. People are inherently political and they found a new tool to allow for mass mobilization, and it was effective. So I see the same thing to be true for a lot of these sites. It's a question of how they can be repurposed to be effective in a particular moment.
Kate Sheppard spent three years as an editor for Buzzsaw Haircut, Ithaca College's award-winning student magazine. She is now an editorial intern at Grist magazine in Seattle, a contributor to WireTap and a freelance writer.