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.