Interview: danah boyd

danah boyd is a social scientist at Microsoft Research and a research associate at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. In her research, she examines everyday practices involving social media, with specific attention to youth participation. Lately, she has been focused on issues related to privacy, publicity, and visibility. She recently co-authored Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media. She is currently co-directing the Youth and Media Policy Working Group, funded by the MacArthur Foundation. She blogs at and tweets at @zephoria.
This interview was conducted by Christine Newkirk, the Managing Editor of Youth Media Reporter at the Academy for Educational Development. Christine has worked for several years in the youth media field as a scholar, practitioner, social science researcher and evaluator in New York, Costa Rica and Brazil. She is currently completing her Master’s thesis in International Affairs at the New School University in New York City. Newkirk’s research interests include youth activism, new media technologies, and grassroots social and economic development.
YMR: Some people say that changes in technology inevitably result in changes in society, while others say that society continues as it will and new technologies are used as they make sense within existing social relations. What does your research on teens and new media technologies add to this debate?
danah boyd: As always, reality is somewhere between two extremes: “technology is radically changing and the lives of young people are turning upside down” versus “nothing is changing and the lives of teenagers continue as they always have.” I’ve found that teens are primarily engaged in practices that are common for their life stage but that technology has inflected those practices in new ways. For example, in using major social media, teens have to make sense of communicating in a persistent, searchable environment while balancing new tensions between what constitutes public and private.
YMR: Share with us some highlights from what you learned about American teen culture through your ethnographic research with teens.
boyd: The concept of ‘teenager’ is a social construction. The term was devised in the 1940s to address a marketable demographic. In contemporary American society, teens are primarily living at home and are functionally dependent. Teens make up an important part of American society, but they are also, in many ways, excluded from adult society and always have been. One prevailing attitude toward teens persists in this decade and is clearly reflected in the law: teens are perceived as vulnerable and therefore protected from interactions with adults, are perceived as dangerous and therefore kept out of the public sphere through curfew laws and penal laws. Teens are taught to be wary of adults that they don’t know. And while we want them to be politically engaged, we don’t invite them to be part of adult society in any meaningful way.
While most adults see formalized education as the ‘job’ of teenagers, most teenagers are focused on figuring out how the social world works. They want to understand how people relate to one another while making sense of social hierarchies. They’re trying to figure out their sexuality and their social standing at the same time. This sets the stage for their Internet engagement. For most teenagers, the Internet provides an opportunity for them to socialize with their peers in light of their limited mobility and access to public spaces. The Internet is to today’s teens what the mall was to my generation. It’s a place for flirting, gossiping, and hanging out.
YMR: If you found that teens are using social networking mostly to engage with people they know offline, what are the implications for youth media practitioners?
danah: The Internet used to be primarily about engaging with strangers who shared your interests. Public online spaces were “interest driven.” Today, they’re “friendship driven.” Teens turn to social network sites to engage with the people that they already know rather than meeting people online. As I explained in a talk I gave at State College in April 2009:

I use the term”social network site” instead of “social networking site.” This is intentional. While you might be off using Facebook and MySpace to network with business colleagues, high school mates, and the attractive individual that you think you might want to date, most teens are not. They’re focused on their friends. They use these sites to connect to people that they already know from school, church, activities, summer camp, etc.

Teens’ engagement with social network sites reflects all of the challenging social dynamics that exist in everyday life. This is why it’s complicated to overlay other relationships on top of the pre-existing networks. For example, many teachers want to use social network sites for classroom purposes, but kids who are working on a project together at school aren’t necessarily friends and forcing kids to collapse their social worlds and their school worlds can have serious social consequences. Educators need to identify exclusionary dynamics in the room and keep in mind that these will probably play out online.
It’s one thing to be networked personally and another to show all of your social connections to all of your friends. This may have particular implications for programs aimed at bridging young people from very different backgrounds. For example, I’ve examined strategies to bring individuals from separate and conflicting gangs together. I’ve seen that in spite of the affordances of technology, creating bonds between individuals from groups as different as these relies on the kind of time and social interaction that has always been necessary for building trust between strangers. Teenagers are particularly sensitive about what they reveal to their social world, and this is as true in digital spaces as it is in the real world.
Youth media practitioners might want to consider allowing participants to create alternate Facebook accounts help ease this tension. Once there are signs of acceptance, the two accounts might become fused into one. The key to creating thriving online communities that support youth media endeavors is allowing time and space for trust formation, and creating an audience in ways that feel natural to teens.
Some great examples include the use of social network sites to maintain connections made through extended social/academic activities, including the Model UN and summer camps and church youth groups. Social network sites function as an infrastructure for young people to continue ties with one another.
YMR: In your research, you identified discrepancies between adults’ expectations of what teens know about new media technologies and what teens actually know about these technologies. Can you talk about these findings and their implications for educators?
boyd: In order to address the gap between what “digital natives” supposedly know and what they really know, I believe that the best approach is bringing a dialogue about new media technologies into the classroom. While young people use new media technologies every day, they do not have a comprehensive understanding of how the information is negotiated, produced and reproduced.
Wikipedia is a fantastic example of a new media technology learning tool through which we can directly address some of these discrepancies. Young people know three things about Wikipedia: 1) it’s mostly accurate; 2) it’s easy to get to and covers most relevant topics; 3) it’s banned by all teachers. Given this, students use Wikipedia heavily while trying to obscure the fact that they’re using it so as to not upset their teachers. Students don’t have the critical skills to understand how to analyze Wikipedia; and, teachers all too often black and white understanding of the site does not help.
Wikipedia is a phenomenal source of information, precisely because it’s open. While all publications have their biases, Wikipedia’s are publicly exposed. As such, it’s possible to actually understand how the information was constructed, by whom, and with what biases. The particularly instructive parts of Wikipedia are not the content pages, but rather the history and discussion pages. Through looking at these pages, young people can develop a better understanding of how knowledge is produced. Bringing Wikipedia into the classroom can serve as an entrée into a conversation about the production of knowledge, the introduction of bias and control for bias, and the reproduction of information through new media technologies.
Additionally, there is space for conversation about authorship and intellectual property—a concept that has quite different meanings “on-the-ground” among young people and in law. For example, Andres Monroy-Hernandez, a PhD student at MIT Media Lab, has found that young kids often emphasize who shared content over who produced it. It’s not that young people do not recognize or value artists, but that they also value the individuals that they know who shared information with them and they want to give them credit too. This finding has broad implications for teaching not only media and news literacy, but also for bringing young people into the fold with respect to regulations around plagiarism in high schools and colleges.