Review of It’s Complicated, by danah boyd

http://www.amazon.com/Its-Complicated-Social-Lives-Networked/dp/0300166311

(This book is actually available for free download here: http://www.danah.org/itscomplicated/, though it would be good to support her work if you like it.)

The remarkable thing about It’s Complicated is that danah boyd actually talks to teenagers for her findings. As she describes the different popular attitudes and beliefs about teens and social media it’s striking how little of it is actually based on sound data, and how much of it is based on the selling of fear by news media, barely concealed inter-generational prejudice and sheer intellectual laziness.

In one telling story, boyd (like bell hooks, she doesn’t capitalize her name) talks about a girl who killed her mother who had also been active on Myspace and describes how the media translated this event into “Girl with Myspace kills mother”. boyd identifies this as a common theme: stories that would otherwise be about broken homes or social disfunction become stories about social media, with the implication that social media creates the pathology. She argues that technology is such a locus for our hopes and anxieties that the realities of how technology is actually used by teenagers becomes distorted, resulting in bad public policy that often causes real harm.

For her own research she simply sits down with a wide array of kids and asks them questions about how and why they use social media. She uses a qualitative, ethnographic method, meaning that there’s no attempt to statistically verify the universality of her findings with surveys containing standardized questions and answers. Instead she identifies common themes from hundreds of interviews conducted over the last decade. This style of research strikes me as a good way to open up a field of social research, because it starts from reported phenomena rather than from aggregated data that already embeds assumptions and is subject to multiple interpretations. Many of her findings run directly counter to conventional wisdom, and others seem completely overlooked by popular media.

One common finding is that many kids either have little unstructured social time, because of over-programming by parents, or their parents don’t allow them to leave the house or meet with friends because of safety fears.  Social media becomes more important to teenagers as a result (the teens keep telling boyd that they would always rather hang out with their friends in person). Another finding is that teenagers use the different social networks in different ways (just like adults do) and struggle to maintain their privacy in the face of confusing settings and social circle boundary collapses (just like adults do). She talks about teens who are exasperated with parents who jump into Facebook conversations that are clearly not intended for them. She also talks about teens who employ clever tricks to avoid “drama” stemming from social networks, like deleting all comments on their wall every day (“whitewalling”) and a teen who temporarily suspends her account every day instead of logging out.

A more general theme is the conflict between parents’ concerns about teenagers and teenagers’ own perceived interests. Adults are concerned with ensuring that teenagers are doing their homework, not getting involved with bad kids, and keeping their digital records clean for future employers. Teenagers on the other hand are interested in entering into public life wherever it can be found. Since other kinds of ‘publics’ are withheld from teenagers, even to the extent that many teenagers are prevented from gathering,  ‘networked publics’ are elevated in importance for teenagers, and they are willing to make more trade-offs in terms of privacy or potentially negative representations.

What adults see as irresponsible or even “obsessive” interest in social media is for boyd a rational response to the developmental stage of being a teenager given existing social conditions. She attributes the special anxiety that parents have towards the Internet and social media to the fact that it allows teenagers to enter into various ‘publics’. boyd argues that teenagers need to be able to step out and operate in these publics in order to do their ‘identity work’, to develop into social adults. The conflict between teenagers and adults is thus a disagreement about how valuable that online social engagement is. To teenagers it feels very important but adults tend to discount it, often without compassion.

Another theme that runs throughout the book is the idea that technology by itself generally does not create social problems, nor does it offer solutions on its own. In one chapter boyd looks at the fears about sexual predators on the Internet. She finds that the risk is extremely low for teenagers overall, but that the teenagers who do get involved with adults through the Internet tend to come from troubled households and engage in risky behaviors in real life as well. Likewise, in a chapter on whether teenagers are “digital natives”, boyd points out what should be obvious: like other forms of literacy technological literacy tracks with income and social class. Similarly social media doesn’t necessarily promote equality or erase racism, but largely reproduces existing social networks and attitudes. In a chapter on online bullying, she allows that technological ‘affordances’ can help spread harassing messages farther and wider, but she reports that her informants claim that bullying is not a big issue for them (instead they talk about “drama”, which doesn’t involve a power differential). Her message is that while technology can amplify or alter behaviors online, it does not necessarily create the behaviors or the underlying non-technological conditions behind them.

The book is written in an accessible style with a minimum of jargon that clearly enunciates its arguments and findings. These points are so counter to popular views on teenagers and social media that the exposition can be forgiven for being somewhat cautious and repetitive. boyd does a good job of not assuming any academic background on the part of the reader, and gives a clear explanation of the few theoretical constructs that she needs to make her case (she does have the annoying-to-me academic tic of referring to things as “problematic”). Over all, this is a great model for how to communicate challenging ideas to a wide audience. I would recommend this book to parents, educators, policy makers, journalists–anyone who would like to understand teenagers, rather than just demonize them.

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