Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

danah boyd: “It’s Complicated”

danah boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, a fellow at the Berkman Center, and director of the Data and Society Institute. danah has been working on the issues associated with “It’s Complicated” for many years. 10 years ago, Ethan and danah were two of the youngest people at a conference. danah told him, “I only have one secret to get through these events. I tell them what their children are doing.” Telling people what their children are doing online is incredibly valuable, either because we’re parents who care about our children, or because we care about the future of the Internet. danah has been relentless over the last decade in trying to make it clear that simple snap answers about the Internet (good, bad, dangerous, amazing) are utterly and totally inadequate. What we need to do is to take a long, careful look at the context that underlies people’s behaviours online. We’re in a moment where the easiest thing to do is to say “it’s simple.” danah has put forward a book that says “it’s complicated.”

Today is the official publication of the book and danah tells us that she wanted to spend the day with friends. (Her day began, mediawise, with a celebratory story on NPR, ”Online, Researcher Says, Teens Do What They’ve Always Done”) She’s been affiliated with the Berkman Center, in one context or another, for fifteen years. Rather than lecture about the book, she wants to provide some context on her thinking, then take questions.

Berkman surprises danah with a congratulatory cake

danah explains that she was part of the first generation to grow up online, and that the internet was her “saving grace”. Her brother tied up the phone lines with strange modem squeals, and he showed her that the internet was made of people. Once she’d made that discovery, the phone line wasn’t safe after her mother went to bed. The first $700 phone bill ended that, but introduced danah to the wider world of phone phreaking and misbehavior to ensure she had access to outline spaces.

She went to school in computer science to explore the space, but didn’t really find her direction until she came to grad school and was able to study social media. She began a blog in 1998, and has been participating in and working on social media since then. Working with Judith Donath in 2002, she was invited to join Friendster a year before the network became prominent and widely used (see this paper on Friendster).

The early adopters of Friendster were geeks, freaks and queers, danah tells us, and those groups are the early adopters of most new technology platforms. As someone who identifies with all those groups, danah tells us that she had a front-row seat for Friendster’s successes and missteps, and was often able to interrogate the platform’s founder about his decisions. She moved to studying MySpace, and benefitted from the shift of youth to that platform, allowing her to watch the rise and fall of two major social media platforms (see danah’s research on Friendster and MySpace and this paper on Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites)

danah tells us that MySpace was based on Cold Fusion, a now-antiquated database programming language, and that the vulnerabilities of the site led her to novel research methods. User IDs were assigned sequentially, and she was able to sample users by choosing a random subset of IDs. But as her research developed, it became less easy to randomly approach youth online, so danah shifted her research methods to working offline, traveling around the United States to meet the young users of these platforms. (The major problem with interviewing 166 teenagers was dietary – it involved a lot of cafeteria lunches and a lot of McDonalds.)

Her research on teens informed her doctoral dissertation, and once she’d completed it, she felt a need to discuss the same issues with a broader audience. The book is organized around myths associated with youth and online media: the idea that youth are digital natives, that online spaces are heavily sexualized, and that online spaces are dangerous to youth.

Her overall takeaway from this research: we have spent thirty years restricting the ability of youth to get together face to face in the physical world. These technologies give youth access to public life once again and to make meaning of the world around them. Youth want to gather and socialize with their friends and become part of public life. Many youth would rather get together in real life, but turn to online spaces because those are the only spaces where young people can interact with one another in public life.

“There’s so much learning, so much opportunity through being part of public life”, says danah. We need to accept the idea that these online spaces are the key public spaces for young people.

Dorothy Zinberg asks about cycles – the decline of Friendster and MySpace – is Facebook now declining? And how do we expect these youth to change over the next decade?

danah notes that ten years ago, email was something people were excited about – “You’ve got mail” was a popular ringtone. Now, we open email with apprehension and worry. And that’s how teens are now approaching Facebook. Teens are not running from it, but it’s no longer the “passion play” – instead, it’s a place to connect with adults in your life. Who wants to spend their time hanging out with adults? The idea of a single platform to rule them all will look like a historical anomaly. It’s more natural to see fragmentation, a wealth of platforms that people use for different reasons and in different contexts. There are messaging, photo and videosharing services, all of which have emerged as new spaces for youth. We’re also seeing the emergence of interest-driven spaces like Tumblr or Twitter, which make it possible to geek out on fashion or music. There are also media for different communities – people obsessed with media are fascinated with Secret, which looks more like ChatRoulette in terms of speed. Young people, depending on their interests and passions, are moving across different services with texting as the single common denominator. danah notes that texting behavior in the US is anomalous, as we are one of the few countries where you pay to send and receive texts – there’s nothing more socially awkward than sending someone a message and making them pay for it.

As far as where youth usage is going: it’s moving to mobile. Mobile is an intimacy device. In response to discussions over safety, computers are now used in shared spaces, like the living room. The mobile device is a way of maintaining privacy. But the world of aps is a very different world than the world of websites. It’s surprising that we don’t yet have powerful geographically-linked apps – it may be that since youth are restricted to a world of home and school, geolocation doesn’t yet have a youth audience, and people love to experiment on young users. She notes that the old is new again, pointing to the rise of the aniGIF.

David LaRochelle wonders whether issues of Facebook’s collapsed context is a technical problem – could something like Google Plus solve those technical problems? danah explains that the key feature of new platforms is that Mom doesn’t know about them yet – once Mom knows you have an account, she can watch over your shoulder or demand you friend her. She asks us to think back to high school: not everyone in your class are friends with one another. When you plan a party, you don’t want to invite everyone. That same drama plays out online – you can move to a different platform as a way of connecting with a subset of friends.

Judith Donath asks what we’ve learned longitudinally from studying social media over the course of years. What happens when a generation that grew up on one set of applications is now 23? danah explains that the book is really about high school. She’s tracked some of these teens through college or the military and into the real world. Something that becomes clear is that certain behaviors are tightly associated with a life stage. The constraints of high school dynamics seem to force people to work through status, peer relationships and early sexual relationships, all of which play into online media environments, and then, in turn, influence those school dynamics. Once people are no longer constrained by school dynamics, you see a more mature set of dynamics: more dating, more efforts to appear cool, and lots of discussion about employment. The use of social media changes sharply for 20-somethings who want to go into social media marketing, or government, where that behavior ends up changing their online behavior.

A visiting scholar from Valencia asks about gender differences in teen behavior online, especially around experimentation. danah notes that it’s challenging to differentiate between gendered behavior online and offline: online behavior mirrors the offline. Status dynamics come into focus for girls earlier than for boys, while boys have more gameplay relationships (pranking, punking) with their peers, both offline and online. One of her book chapters is on “drama”, a predominantly female behavior online and off. What’s more challenging in studying gender online is watching gendered pressures, especially around sexuality, playing online. Young girls see a Miley Cyrus video and feel pressure to dress and behave certain ways. Young boys feel social pressure to talk to girls in certain ways. Online environments make very clear how powerful these pressures are.

Tim asks about policy and practice responses to youth behavior online. danah explains that she never expected to engage in policy through this research. She takes us back to a lawsuit mounted by 49 states attorneys general against MySpace, accusing the platform of enabling sexual predation. One of the outcomes of the suit was appointing a Internet Safety Task Force, consisting of danah, John Palfrey, and Dena Sacco, to help MySpace regulate behavior. The attorneys general expected a tension between the three, but the three worked closely together to consider actual data around contact, conduct and content online. Their research found far less evidence for dangerous behavior online than the attorneys general had expected to find, and came to the counterintuitive finding that the laws designed to prevent bullying had often had negative effects. danah hopes that one thing this book can do is help prevent ridiculous, counterproductive laws from being written.

danah also explains that it’s been very hard to work with practitioners, like teachers. In the early days of social media, teachers often came into these spaces and explored how to interact with students. It’s now become an article of faith that teachers should not engage with students in these spaces, and that’s a shame, as it’s important to have non-custodial guides online. Don’t friend a student, but if a student reaches out to you, reciprocate. “Don’t flip out” when students misbehave, but make clear that you’re present in the space. She notes that Jane Jacobs explained the importance of eyes of the street in urban spaces – we might think of the same dynamic happening online.

Kate Darling notes that Sherry Turkle speculates that online communication in the place of face to face communication is dangerous and detrimental. danah explains that she loves Sherry as a person, but strongly disagrees with her as a researcher. Sherry starts conversations by noting how uncomfortable teens are interacting with adults – when, asks danah, have teens ever been comfortable interacting with adults?! Teens are comfortable socializing with each other face to face, but retreat to devices around adults. Teens want to spend more time face to face with friends and generally are prevented from doing so. “Every aspect of sociality is a learning process and you strengthen different muscles through different interactions.” Teens may be more sophisticated in interacting online than in interacting face to face simply through where they have the most practice. But it’s absurd to suggest that teens are somehow stunted by online interaction.

“The political activist in me got entertained by the idea that a generation learned to use proxies to escape restrictions put in place by adults.” When we talk about teenagers, we’re usually dealing with our own anxieties, danah says. Lawmakers became obsessed with teen sexting before Anthony Weiner came on the scene and reminded everyone that lawmakers can misbehave as well.

Deb Chachra refers to a Sumerian clay tablet in which a father complains about his slacker son. How do we overcome the “kids these days” narrative that shapes so much of discussion around kids and social media. danah notes that the downside of Deb’s example is that we appear to be predestined to repeat these behaviors. The key is to get adults to listen to young people. Young people are telling their stories – the positive and the negative – to an unprecedented degree. Instead of complaining, there’s an amazing opportunity to listen to youth writ large. danah hopes the book will spark conversations about how we listen, rather than answering specific questions. That said, she worries that protectionism of young people leads to young adults who are not well socialized to deal with the choices of college or adult life.

A questioner asks about kids moving to different platforms to escape their parents. She notes that there’s a spectrum of risk from paranoia to actual risk. If kids are escaping to these narrow, parent-free spaces, who are the people on the streets who can provide eyes on online behavior? The providers of these applications are not teenage kids and may not have the best interests of teens in mind. danah suggests that we think about what adults are in the lives of kids beyond their parents. We want kids to have multiple adults – the cool aunt, the teacher they like – in their lives, and they are likely to invite these adults into online spaces. This is why age segregation is a dangerous direction for online platforms – we want adults and youth interacting in the same spaces. But danah doesn’t believe this will necessarily happen automatically – we may need to consciously create eyes on the streets, as community activists do by putting college students on the streets to work with at-risk youth. We need people to be involved in online spaces in a way that they are available, but non-judgemental.

danah notes her involvement with Crisis Textline, an NGO she helped start, that uses texting to connect teens to crisis hotlines. The worst thing we can do, she suggests, is put these decisions in the hands of engineers. We need to look at the people who understand these social systems and build on their best practices.

Rob Faris notes that part of being a kid is surviving your own mistakes and being able to hit the reset button. How does that work in online spaces? Could platforms and online spaces improve on this score? danah notes that one of the challenges online is that things go on your permanent record – she notes that her teenage Usenet posts are still online. We don’t know the longitudinal answer, danah notes – she’s part of a cohort that really did grow online, but it’s not clear how that information may affect life going forward. People assumed that bullying would be worse online, but it’s actually turned out that having a record of bullying is helping people find support. Documenting self-harm seems to lead youth to interventions that happen more quickly, but perhaps that accelerated progress is a good thing. Perhaps we are able to acknowledge the past through some sort of online transparency, putting information online before someone else does. She notes that we’ve moved into a culture of forgiveness for US presidents – from I didn’t inhale, to I did drugs, but I was a kid from Clinton to Obama – that we may simply be making it easier to escape your past. The question is whether this will be true for underprivileged youth in the same way that it is for the most privileged.

A questioner asks about youth’s relationships with free services. danah notes that this generation has very little access to financial capital. Babysitting and newspaper routes no longer produce revenue for kids, and kids now compete with fifty-year olds for fast food jobs. Without capital, there’s enormous pressure for kids in poorer families to get a phone and a pay as you go data plan. As a result, she saw a lot of kids engaged in illegal activities to obtain devices. Once kids are online, it’s all about free. They don’t particularly like ads, but they don’t see an alternative. The response is a form of gameplaying: can you send content to your friends that make them get absurd ads? Young people understand the ecosystem, but their relationship is one of hacking and playing. Their goal is socializing with their friends, and they understand that free services make that possible.

Tim Mallay notes that he recently revisited danah’s discussions of gentrification in MySpace. In 2006-7, danah explains, she saw a split between youth moving to MySpace and Facebook. Facebook appeared safe and high-status, while MySpace seemed dangerous, poor and used by people of color. danah wrote an essay she now regrets discussing this dynamic, and woke up to a media storm that resulted from her observations. Teens often told danah that she was right, though insufficiently nuanced. These race and class dynamics are still critical to understanding social media, danah tells us, but there’s no longer as start a division between sites. Instead, it plays out in different behavior on the different platforms. Because social media plays out around the race and class networks of your social circle, it’s impossible to understand online behavior without considering these issues. danah guesses that we’ll see this again once we’re fragmenting between different services like messaging aps – adoption of the different platforms tends to be based on race and class. This matters, because in 2006-7 colleges were recruiting online – we need to make sure that we don’t reproduce privilege online by favoring some platforms over others.

A question from a Berkman staffer begins by noting that he coaches high school atheletes, and he’s observed that they are less broadly skilled than they were years ago. He believe this is because students only engage in physical behavior in structured ways. Is it possible that we may finally be reaching a point where we will be able to tell youth that it’s okay to go outside again? danah notes that, especially within privileged environments, it’s hard to get a network of parents to change behavior. It’s a collective action problem – if you allow your children to be “free range” kids, other parents will force their children to shun your child. Because it doesn’t work to go parent to parent, danah feels it’s important to bring these messages of the importance of giving youth space to roam online and offline to media and other public fora. Oddly, she’s more successful making this case for urban families than to suburban ones, if only because public transportation makes it possible for children to roam.


danah will be speaking tonight (February 25) at the Harvard Bookstore. Come and hear hear her talk about “It’s Complicated” and bring your own questions.


Ethan Zuckerman and Nathan Matias blogged this talk. Willow Brugh visualized it as well:

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