Scholarly Book Review

This is my first piece of academic writing in 22 years. I spent many, many hours reading, researching, thinking, writing and wondering whether I was on the right track.

Boyd, D. (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. New Haven: Yale University Press.

In the last ten years, the lives of American teenagers have been regulated by their parents’ fears. Teenagers have been restricted from participating in public places so they have harnessed the affordances of technology to communicate, socialise and explore the world. Like their parents before them, teenagers want to be with their friends and this increasingly happens in a digital ecology. Many adults are fearful of the new technological spaces inhabited by young people and Danah Boyd attempts to calm their panic by explaining the social lives of networked teens by compiling eight years of qualitative and ethnographic material into an accessible book.

In high school during the 1990s, Danah Boyd was fascinated by technology and spent time exploring the wider world in chat rooms and using bulletin boards. For the past decade as an academic, Boyd’s research has focused on how young people use social media in America. Boyd has drawn upon her experiences and academic knowledge to explain the relationship teenagers have with networked environments. With a broad audience in mind of American parents, educators, journalists, students and librarians, Boyd has chosen an appropriate writing style for her intended readership, to describe her research and convey the voices of the young people she interviewed. Boyd cites scholarly literature and academic ideas to support her ideas and arguments. Boyd makes it clear that her study relates to the culture of the capitalist society of the United States of America. While this does not exclude a wider readership, the reader must acknowledge and take care not to generalise her findings to their own country. Currently Boyd is Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder of Data & Society Research Institute, both commercial enterprises.

Boyd (2014, p. 6) uses the term social media to “refer to sites and services that emerged during the early 2000s, including social network sites, video sharing sites, blogging and microblogging platforms, and related tools that allow participants to create and share their own content”. This interpretation is shared by De Rosa, Cantrell, Havens, Hawk & Jenkins (2007). These tools are an integral part of the world for twenty first century learners. Teenagers are using technology to socialise and many are also using it to learn. Mimi Ito says in the video Rethinking learning: The 21st century learner (2010) that the learning happening outside of school matters to young people and schools need to support informal and formal learning. Schools have an important role in developing the skills required for participatory media. According to Eschet (2012), digital literacy requires a variety of complex skills and not just the technical skills to operate devices. Social media has provided teenagers with new ways to participate in public life and this according to Boyd is what concerns anxious adults.

Boyd contends that young people have leveraged social media to create their own publics. Networked publics are “ (1) the space constructed through networked technologies and (2) the imagined community that emerges as a result of the intersection of people, technology and practice” (Boyd, 2014, p. 8). Restricted freedom and the widespread use of social media, has resulted in social interaction that previously happened at a shopping mall, friend’s house or a park moving to a virtual space. Boyd identifies four affordances that are not new but provide new challenges when they impact on each other in networked publics: persistence, visibility, spreadability and searchability.

In an in informative and in depth introduction, Boyd clearly states her reasons for writing the book, introduces the concept of networked publics and explains the research method she used. Qualitative data and ethnographic material was collected from 2003 to 2012 and interviews were conducted between 2007 and 2010. Boyd’s lack of hard data has been supplemented with copious notes that reference previous academic studies and these can be interrogated further using the extensive bibliography. The topics of identity, privacy, addiction, danger, bullying, inequality, and literacy are addressed in chapters that are best read consecutively but also make sense if read independently. Social media has changed dramatically over the past ten years; consequently some of the examples from her early research may be unfamiliar to some readers. This doesn’t detract from Boyd’s intent and is best explained by the author herself, “the examples may feel antiquated, but the core principles and practices I’m trying to describe are likely to persist long after this book is published” (Boyd, 2014, p. 27).

Bullying is a problem in schools and society. The affordances of technology have provided another avenue for bullying and a bigger audience. Like Boyd, Kowalski, Limber, & Agatston (2012) caution parents against seeing technology as good or evil and encourage them to educate rather than punish. They go on to say engagement with social media provides teens with opportunities for identity development and self-exploration. This advice is echoed by Boyd (2014, p. 152) “we can certainly make a concerted effort to empower youth, to strengthen their resilience, and to help recognize when they are hurting”. Online safety should be discussed openly with young people; limiting access to social media can be counterproductive.

Bullying, drama and attention seeking can be confused by collapsing contexts. Popular reality television has normalised attention seeking, celebrity and drama. Attention, positive or negative, can be easily obtained using social media. Boyd asserts that teens and adults contextualise behaviour on social media differently and this can lead to conflict. Where adults see bullying; teens see gossip, rumours, attention and pranking as drama. Boyd (2014, p. 138) and her associate Alice Marwick defined drama as “performative, interpersonal conflict that takes place in front of an active audience, often on social media”. The technology isn’t to blame for hurtful gossip or rumours “rather, someone seeking to spread a message can easily leverage the affordances of networked publics to do so” (Boyd, 2014, p. 145).

The media, parents, teachers and community leaders complain that teenagers share too much online. Boyd calms this moral panic by explaining how teenagers value their privacy offline and online but in a different way than adults. Adults may be wary of government surveillance but teenagers are worried about parental surveillance. In networked publics the technical affordances of persistency and searchability complicate matters of privacy. Comments can be taken out of context or accessed by an unintended audience. Often the unintended audience are well meaning parents. Overprotective parents can limit their child’s agency to control situations online. Boyd (2014, p. 76) asserts “privacy doesn’t just depend on agency; being able to achieve privacy is an expression of agency”. Despite these concerns a Pew Research Center report has found 60% of teen Facebook users keep their profile private and are confident in managing their settings and only 5% limited what their parents could see (Madden et al., 2013 section 1- 5). This statistic seems surprising but could be explained by Boyd’s explanation that teens switch tools or encode content to reclaim agency and avoid parental surveillance and intervention. Social media privacy settings can be difficult to manage. While Boyd focuses on teenagers, it is important for both adults and teenagers to develop the skills to manage complicated privacy settings.

Generational differences have been used to explain how people of varying ages understand technology. Prenksy (2001, p. 1) argued “as a result of this ubiquitous environment and sheer volume of interaction with it, todays students think and process information fundamentally differently than their predecessors”. He named these new students digital natives and believed that digital immigrant teachers were at a disadvantage. Boyd believes the digital native versus digital immigrant debate is a distraction and being literate in a networked age is difficult regardless of age. “Being exposed to information or imagery through the internet and engaging with social media do not make someone a savvy interpreter of the meaning behind these artefacts” (2014, p. 177). The findings of Helsper (2010) support this view and suggest older generations can operate at the same level as younger people. Stoerger (2009) also warns against over generalising the capabilities of different generations. Despite dismissing the metaphor, Boyd does make references to some parents using stereotypical descriptions.

Boyd insists that educators have an important role to play but is critical of formal educational settings and the priorities placed on digital competencies. Today most jobs require some form of technical knowledge and employers are demanding twenty first century work skills. “If competence means ‘adaptation’ then we must educate for, first, openness, and second, a critical perspective that facilitates appropriate and productive choice within this openness” Haste (2009, p. 208). Boyd and Haste both agree that formal learning has been slow to educate for competencies that are perceived by many as recreational. Boyd doesn’t offer any advice on how to rectify this situation and seems somewhat accepting of it. Downes also talks of a feeling of acceptance from teachers “that their students would be the source of greater educational innovation and change, revolutionizing high schools as well” (2012, p. 14).

Boyd (2014, p. 181) notes the importance of media literacy and the importance of critical evaluation of messages, “fewer intermediaries control the flow of information and more information is flowing, the ability to critically question information or media narratives is increasingly important”. The positive uses of Wikipedia are addressed but greater discussion of the sophisticated strategies that social media companies employ using algorithms and personalisation of search results would have been beneficial. Perhaps Boyd was impeded by her current role at Microsoft Research or considered it was beyond the scope of the book. The documentary Generation Like (2014) addresses data mining, advertising and the manipulation of social media by companies in greater depth than Boyd. An awareness of these practices is essential for digital literacy across generations.

The affordances of technology present dangers and challenges that can cause moral panic. Boyd believes technology is not the problem or solution and this is supported by her observations and interviews. “Reality is nuanced and messy, full of pros and cons. Living in a networked world is complicated” (Boyd, 2014, p. 16). Generational debates are a distraction; both adults and teenagers need be digitally literate and master technical competencies. Using the voices of teens and broader research, Boyd has clearly described why teenagers living restricted lives leverage social media to interact with their peers. Although the observations made by Boyd are specific to the culture of the United States of America, this does not prevent adults from Australia or other western countries from gaining useful insights into the use of social networks by teenagers. Boyd has provided some reassurance for adults worried about youth in a technological ecosystem that is constantly changing. After reading this book adults should have the confidence to start conversations with the young people in their lives. Technological and societal change is inevitable, teenagers must be given agency to participate and learn in this evolving digital information ecology so that they can become critical twenty first century learners and citizens.

References

Brabazon, T. (2014, May 15). It’s complicated: the social lives of networked teens, by Dana Boyd. Times Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/books/its-complicated-the-social-lives-of-networked-teens-by-danah-boyd/2013266.article

Cadwalladr, C. (2014, March 24). It’s complicated review – online space is teenager’s only public space. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/24/its-complicated-review-online-space-teenagers-public

Downes, J. M., & Bishop, P. (2012). Educators engage digital natives and learn from their    experiences with technology. Middle School Journal, 43(5), 6-15. Retrieved from  http://www.eric.ed.gov/contentdelivery/servlet/ERICServlet?accno=EJ984921

Gaffney, M. (2014, May 17). A wise guide for parents worried by the web: It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. The Irish Times. Retrieved from http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/a-wise-guide-for-parents-worried-by-the-web-it-s-complicated-the-social-lives-of-networked-teens-1.1796924

Eshet, Y. (2012). Thinking in the digital era: A revised model for digital literacy. Issues in Informing Science and Information Technology, 9. Retrieved from http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.csu.edu.au/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA334276673&v=2.1&u=csu_au&it=r&p=EAIM&sw=w&asid=b31f7e42fc96cecc717fe06882264f7

Haste, H. (2009). What is ‘competence’ and how should education incorporate new technology’s tools to generate ‘competent civic agents’. The Curriculum Journal, 20(3), 207-223. doi: 10.1080/09585170903195845

Helsper, E., & Eynon, R. (2010). Digital natives: Where is the evidence. British Educational Research Journal, 36(3), 503-520. doi: 10.1080/01411920902989227

Kowalski, R. M., Limber, S. P., & Agatston, P. W. (2012). Cyberbullying: Bullying in the digital age. Retrieved from EBL database.

MacArthur Foundation. [macfound]. (2010). Rethinking learning: The 21st century learner [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/c0xa98cy-Rw

Madden, M., Lenhart, A., Cortesi, S., Gasser, U., Duggan, M., Smith, A., & Beaton, M. (2013). Teen, social media, and privacy: Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2013/05/21/teens-social-media-and-privacy/

PBS. (2014) Frontline: Generation Like [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/generation-like/

Prensky, M. (2001) Digital natives, digital immigrants. http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf

Quart, A. (2014, April 25). Status update: It’s complicated by Danah Boyd. International New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/27/books/review/its-complicated-by-danah-boyd.html?_r=1

Stoerger, S. (2009). The digital melting pot: Bridging the digital native-immigrant divide. First Monday, 14(7). Retrieved from http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/2474

 

 

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