In It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, Danah Boyd helps us to understand what’s going on behind young people’s devotion, some would say addiction, to social networks made possible through digital devices like smart phones. Her work is the result of more than a decade of on-site observations of teenage behavior, in-depth interviews with diverse group of more than 100 adolescents, and an immersion into the scholarly internet-and-society literature.
She wants to get us beyond the anxiety that frequently arises when we observe seemingly mysterious teenage social practices and the fear that comes when we contemplate how the new technologies are sure signs of disturbing changes in the culture.
She does so by saying that what teens are doing on Facebook and Twitter is not too different what previous generations of adolescents did in the pre-digital age. They are looking for a place to hang out where they can joke and emote and flirt and gossip and complain a place that exists outside of parental or school control. And while some teenagers are victimized by their participation in social networks, most use the technology in a health way to make vital social connections and to establish personal identity.
The set of inter-related special circumstances of modern life have driven teens to move into cyberspace. First, teens lack physical mobility. Up until a certain age they cannot drive a car and many live in areas poorly served by public transportation. The stereotypical hangout spots of the Boomer generation – the drive-in, the mall, even the basement recreation room – are unavailable to them. Even if they could get to the mall, they face rules that prohibit large assembly and “loitering.” Even if the teen is lucky to live in a community with an active downtown life, they are still barred from congregating in adult establishments with age restrictions.
Compounding the problem of immobility is the growth of ‘the nation of fear.” It is a common belief that dangers in the public square and in its side alleys are unprecedented and, thus, young people must be protected from deviants of every stripe. Indeed, many teens are housebound, restricted by parental rules that may even prevent walking down to the end of the block. We may think that all of this vigilance is a hysterical reaction to imagined threats, but there is no sign that this spirit of protectionism is going away.
In addition, school life, part-time employment, and parent-scheduled out-of-school activities like traveling sports teams and dance lessons leave the teen with little time for face-to-face socializing. Is it any wonder, Boyd asks, that the teens turn to their cell phones to have a social life, and, as she would say, to engage in normal developmental task. 80% of teenagers have cell phones and use them to go about the business of establishing allegiances, values, autonomy, self-expression — choosing to engage in these developmental tasks on their own terms and not according the fashion of school administrators and parents. Like previous generations, today’s teens fight against the circumscribed nature of their lives.
It is an interesting paradox that parents who placed their children on a short leash are vexed when their charges invent a longer leash that is mysterious and threatening to the parents.
Boyd is quite insightful about the ways in which teens negotiate this new social space. In doing so, she is attuned to the nature of this new rhetorical situation. In the pre-digital age,their parents faced many of the same challenges: how to make a favorable impression, how to control the flow of self-revelation, how to respond to another’s presentation of self, how to engage in acts of deception out of necessity or as opportunities for humor and entertainment.
What makes the contemporary teens’ challenge more difficulty is the nature of the space. Boyd points to “affordances” of social networks like Facebook. An “affordance” is what the technology makes possible, how it limits, liberates, and shapes communication. Facebook enables asynchronous communication. It enables the user to communicate simultaneously with multiple audiences. And it is searchable; that is, because there is a permanent record of the post, the communication is definitely not ephemeral. These conditions create rhetorical challenges. Take, for instance, the imagined audiences for the communication. One’s friend’s list is very well made up of a number of sub-groups: co-workers, elementary school friends, current classmates, cousins and other relatives, and interest-group acquaintances (though the later are more likely relegated to the Twitter channel). The Facebook user regularly faces what Boyd calls “context collapse,” which she defines as the necessity “to grapple simultaneously with otherwise unrelated social contexts.” What makes the communication challenging is that these sub-groups have different norms and different expectations for response. As Boyd says, today’s adolescent who becomes a member of social communities must navigate “one heck of a social labyrinth.”
While she is well-aware that some teens (and adults for that matter) are mightily embarrassed or harmed when a context-less message is misunderstood by a reader outside the imagined target audience, she believes that this navigation of the nuances of a social network present numerous learning opportunities for teen users. Many of the skills acquired are transferable to face-to-face encounters, which often demand adroitly switching between our multiple selves. Here she draws on the work of Erving Goffman [The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life] who explored the ways in which modern humans present different selves in different social situations. We can’t escape our roles as “impression managers.” Jesse Jackson presents a different self to a Congressional hearing than he does to his followers at Operation PUSH. Although we may not be as rhetorically skillful as Jackson, we all “code switch,” altering speech to suit the audience.
One other important contribution that Boyd makes to the discussion of the impact of digital tools and social networks is to challenge the terminology used to mark generational differences. If she could, she would banish “digital natives,” a term usually used to indicate that the Millennial Generation has special skills and gifts – and even differently constructed brains – that are beyond the attainment of their woeful grandparents. Boyd thinks that the term obscures the real variations in access and understanding across the generation. She reminds us that the internet experience of a student in a wealth suburban school who has multiple readily available portals is quite different than that of an inner-city student who may have only an hour of access during school hours.
And it’s not simply the comparison of hours spent on the screen. The cultural capital of that suburban kid that is shared with peers presents learning opportunities unknown to the inner city kid. Yet even this child of affluence child might be a “digital naïve” if he does not understand how to manage and evaluate information flow. Even if we could equalize access, Boyd is doubtful that social networks will be great social equalizers. As in face-to-face encounters, the Facebook user brings to the site her social status, experiences and values. Prejudice does not magically disappear when one opens the program; indeed, bias may be increased through peer reinforcement.
Boyd argues that immersion is social networks is normal; what’s different today is that technology has provide a different vehicle for social interaction and identity formation to take place. She makes a good case that we should put more focus on the positive communication skills that are developed than on the ways in which social networks are sites for bullying. But in doing so, she gives short shrift to the school classroom where teens spend a lot of time. She hints that most teens dislike the academic life of the school – or at least suggests that it is not a top priority – and use social networks to combat the boredom and irrelevancy of the adult-designed world.
I’m not as willing as she is to approve of the immersion into social networks because social contact is of paramount importance. And although I agree with Boyd that we should be careful about calling normal behavior an addiction, I wonder about the “opportunity costs” of spending a lot of time in social networks. Additionally, I’m not as willing to dismiss writers like Nick Carr (The Shallows) and Mark Bauerlein (The Dumbest Generation) as misinformed cyber-dystopians. With Carr I believe time spent sending and reading 140 character Twitter feeds may be contributing to the disappeance of logical modes of discourse and long-form argumentation. With Bauerlein I worry that tracking “trending” pop stars crowds out time exploring more important cultural literacies. I wonder if immersion in social networks underscores and perpetuates adolescent narcissism and status pre-occupation.
As someone who interacts with college students, I hope that Boyd turns her curiosity and investigative tools to the use of social networks by young adults. If they are now freer of parental supervision and have more opportunities to structure their own time and follow their own interests, are they less reliant on social networks? Or have they repurposed their participation to address a new set of developmental goals, like making themselves career ready? Do they close their Facebook account because it’s perceived as a “high school thing”? Do they abandon Facebook when they get a friend request from the old man?