Danah Boyd is principal researcher at Microsoft Research, a research-assistant professor in media, culture and communication at New York University, and a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Her new book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, describes and explains the networked lives of teens to the people who worry about them – parents, teachers, policymakers, journalists and sometimes even other teens. It is the product of eight years of work exploring various aspects of teens’ engagement with social media and other networked technologies, and it is a very welcome antidote to so much of the superficial analysis of this issue in the media in recent years.
The principal strength of Boyd’s study is that it decisively shifts the debate from adult perceptions of digital and social-networking technologies to what children actually do and why they are attracted to these technologies in the first place. For the past decade, adults have simply projected their own discomfort with technological innovation and cultural change on to their children. This displacement has told us very little about the technologies involved, or children’s motivations and experiences of these technologies. Historically, children have been cast as objects and innocents incapable of resisting the lure of the media. While purporting to be child-centric, these views actually express an overwhelmingly adult-centric technological determinism.
Boyd decisively shifts the debate to ground that is far more fruitful. Her key insight is that young people have been attracted to these technologies not because of a natural predisposition to gadgetry or technology, but because of their lived experience. Her great insight is that teens are doing today what teens have always done – attempting to forge spaces where they can exercise their autonomy, interact with their peers and gain some freedom from parental control. While Boyd is a great evangelist of social-networking technologies, she does not allow herself to be carried away at the expense of recognising what has really changed over recent decades: childhood itself.
The rise of ‘bedroom culture’, and the decline of ‘street culture’, as other studies have recognised, is the result of how childhood has been reconfigured through the prism of risk. As a result of this focus on risk, today’s children have grown up more in the presence of adults than previous generations. Boyd also highlights specific US phenomena, such as the privatisation of malls, which have deprived teens of traditional areas to hang out. The rise of social-networking sites like Facebook, and applications like WhatsApp, is therefore the result of young people’s desire to escape the adult gaze, to create spaces of freedom, autonomy, experimentation, entertainment and peer-to-peer interaction. Social experience is what has driven the entire social-networking phenomenon, not the technology itself.
This is all pretty straightforward and welcome. And because Boyd sticks to this as her core insight, she is able to demystify many of the focal points of today’s policy obsessions; namely, identity, privacy, addiction, danger, bullying, inequality and literacy. For Boyd, and indeed for most teens today, being online is now normal, rather than geeky or idiosyncratic. And it comes with all the usual angst, pimples and hormonal ups and downs associated with teenage life.