Technology, Knowledge, and Society’s Updates

Youth in the Complex Environment of Social Media: A Critical Review

It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens by Danah Boyd. Yale University Press. 2014

Book Review by Alejandra Garcia-Alayon, Ramsey Khabbaz, and Marcus Breen

Social media has become the key feature of the contemporary communication landscape. Its arrival through Facebook (launched in 2004) then progressively through other American inventions such as Instagram, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn, defines the past decade of communication history. Networked personal devices are everywhere, provoking strong reactions to shifts in the culture from the older generation.

Stanley Cohen popularized this kind of reaction with the term “moral panic” in 1972, describing public anxiety about the emergence of “mods” and “rockers” and their music and lifestyles in working class England in the 1950s. More recently, moral panic has been associated with the challenges new media presents to established culture. It is the premise for Danah Boyd’s book It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens. Her book continues as it were, the study of the history of anxiety brought about by social media. In the 1990s and mid-2000s, social media challenged the existing social life of people everywhere, while changing the media and communication landscape.

That the Plain Old Telephone System (POTS) gave way to streaming, media-rich devices that were carried everywhere, especially by young people, is no longer news.

The shift from the known past of communication to the unknown future-present of advanced personal devices led Boyd to undertake an eight year ethnographic study “to describe and explain the networked lives of teens to the people who worry about them – parents, teachers, policy makers, journalists, sometimes even other teens.” (x) Her research and findings were directed by three questions:

· What is and isn’t new about life inflected by social media?

· What does social media add to the quality of teen’s social lives, and what does it take away?

· And when we as a society don’t like the outcomes of technology, what can we do to change the equation constructively, making sure that we take advantage of the features of social media while limiting potential abuse? (25)

Reporting on interviews with young people across the USA, Boyd offers a tour of the culture of the everyday networked environment that is commonplace to the under 20s, while until quite recently, foreign to the adult population.

This kind of study of a nativist population of technology users such as the under 20s, is important for distinguishing the always-on ubiquitous world of networked social media from those that came before. The current generation of youth is one whose knowledge is defined by deeply dedicated communication about themselves and those in their networks. It began with the desk bound Facebook which is now just one of many mobile social media applications: at last count in March 2015, Wikipedia listed 353 social networking websites in an incomplete list.

Parents have been the activists at the pointy end of a critical cohort of social media skeptics, although they are not alone in their concerns. As recently as March 2011, Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society was one of many skeptical voices in Austin, Texas, at the South by Southwest film and music festival citing, as a Chronicle of Higher Education journalist suggested, “cautionary tales and warnings about technology run amok.” (Young)

Today, social media is a layer of technology that often appears to be out of control for parents, skeptics and researchers in general, while it offers diversified and complex opportunities for sociality.

Boyd’s study of teens is informed by “networked publics” a social theory first proposed by Mizuto Ito in 2008. In her application of the theory, Boyd throws a broad net over the term:

Networked publics are publics that are restructured by networked technologies. As such, they are simultaneously (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. (8)

Such application of theory to the converged media, communication and cultural space is a challenge because the field is populated with the corpses of theories that have attempted to explain “technology run amok,” only to find networked technology does not fit theoretical conceptions of social and cultural life.

In an extensive footnote, Boyd recognizes that in applying networked publics she is “trying to add more precision in my usage. To do so I draw on a broader notion of publics… purposefully referring to a long strain of scholarly debate and analysis” (222). This includes work by Nancy Fraser, Craig Calhoun, Jurgen Habermas, Sonia Livingston, Michael Werner, Irving Goffman and Benedict Anderson, all of whom have made contributions to the changing definitions of “public” over the past 50 years.

Despite these academic credentials, the application of “networked publics” to social media remains an unconvincing theory because social media redefines “the public” and “publicness” through the lens of private and individualistic interests. This criticism is sustained when it is recalled that the reason for the study and the book was to understand and if possible assuage anxiety about the private lives of teenagers, whose unregulated private connections to each other and the world at large is the cause of the moral panic.

Nevertheless, Boyd provides ground level detail about how teens understand and use social media. Using empirical detail drawn from interviews and observations in categories presented as chapters titled identity, privacy, addiction, danger, bullying, inequality, and literacy, she concludes with the key question of humanities research – is it possible to make sense of the social world?

A major criticism of Boyd’s work is that the details need more substance precisely because the book is marked by its wide scope and vast research, making it impossible to offer complete answers to the questions it asks largely as a consequence of its omissions. The first of these omissions is Boyd’s failure to acknowledge differences in teenage demographics. The second is her failure to identify a fundamental difference between physical spaces and digital ones.

Firstly then, social media is “not gender neutral;” according to a 2012 survey, teen girls’ have more frequent activity and interest in social media than teen boys’ (Common Sense Media). Boyd references sixty-three interviews in It’s Complicated, of which forty-four (70%) are with teen girls and nineteen (30%) are with teen boys (215-220). The resulting discrepancy in the sources of her claims is significant. However, in a book of compiled statements about teens and their relationships with social media and how it affects their lives, Boyd skates over the distinction between boys and girls.

Boyd points out the state or city the referenced teens are from and what color their skin is, but she does not draw meaningful connections or point out patterns or behavior using this information. To Boyd, an anecdote from one teenage white girl from Kansas is grounds upon which she can make a sweeping statement about every teen in the country (218). Nearly every statement made in It’s Complicated refers generally to “teens” and their tendencies or motivations. How useful, really, is such a generic and genderless portrait of an entire generation? Boyd answers her three questions in terms of this portrait, but the conclusions she comes to are less interesting and more intuitive than she realizes.

Secondly, Boyd claims that social media tools are “direct descendants of hangouts and other public places in which teens have been congregating for decades,” equating various social media platforms to physical spaces (20). This equation is fundamentally incorrect. Boyd draws from the notion of a “cyberspace,” which is “constituted by the use of geographical metaphors” (Graham, 165). But in her equation, Boyd suggests that a “substitution” has occurred; “networked publics” have overridden physical hangouts (Graham, 167). Boyd concedes that there are characteristics—affordances— that are not shared between “networked publics” and physical ones. She mentions four affordances networked publics possess that physical ones do not—persistence, visibility, spreadability, and searchability. However, Boyd fails to point out a crucial affordance of physical publics that networked publics cannot possess: memorability.

We never hear teenagers say “that was such a great night on Facebook last night!” Teenagers use Facebook and other forms of social media to record and discuss their memorable outings and experiences in real places. Yes, Facebook (and all forms of social media) is undeniably a part of cyberspace. But it has not replaced actual space. Facebook never smells like anything or sounds like anything. You cannot touch or taste anything on Facebook, and it always looks the same barring an interface update (which generally only feels new for a few days). The result of this is a sensory numbness that allows for hours wasted “stalking” and “talking” but never experiencing. Boyd fails to point out this key distinction between physical spaces and “networked publics”—a distinction that makes their equation impossible.

Furthermore, teens’ attraction to social media is fueled more by curiosity about, competition with, and the search for affirmation from his or her peers than seeking social experiences. A teen’s presence on social media is predicated on their real-world experiences. These are still the experiences that matter, the ones teens remember. All you can remember about being on social media are the pictures you see and the posts or comments or tweets you read. Those are not social experiences, they are information sorted for consumption.

Throughout It’s Complicated, Boyd questions the validity of commonly held attitudes towards teen use of social media by disputing Technological Determinism and the inherent misconceptions it creates about the role of technology in the lives of teens. At times Boyd simplifies the influence of social media, failing to address the psychological power behind and within social media, as she demonstrates the way the networked lives of teens evade simple readings of Technological Determinism. For example, by exploring the roots of teen “addiction” to social media and highlighting the existence of racial inequality online, Boyd dismisses the utopian, dystopian, and behavior-driving principles of Technological Determinism that distort our understanding of social media in the lives of teens.

Boyd argues that the primary motivation behind teens’ obsessive use of social media is connecting with their friends. She believes that teenagers are hooked on social media because it has become the most convenient form of socializing with their friends in the 21st century. According to her findings, teenagers today rely on social media due to their limited mobility and abundance of extracurricular activities that limit their freedom and time to physically socialize. Boyd traces the recent changes in teens’ socializing patterns not to technology itself, but to the socio-cultural conditions of modern society that force teens to seek new ways to feel connected, while their mobility is limited. She believes that childhood in modern society has changed because “in many communities, parenting norms focus on limiting children’s access to public places, keeping an eye on their activities, and providing extensive structure. [Parents] argue that these restrictions are necessary in an increasingly dangerous society” (18).

Parental fear combined with family obligations, jobs, school-work and after school activities impose stringent restrictions on teens’ free time. Therefore, teens must turn to social media to interact with their friends even though they would rather interact face to face. She argues that the dystopian rhetoric of teen addiction to social media is inaccurate because it positions teens as victims of an absorbing digital culture in which they have no agency. In reality though, Boyd finds that teens use social media intently, and are not addicted to social media but are addicted to each other.

While it is easy to agree with Boyd, that the primary function of social media is to feel connected, she fails to understand that social media is more than just a virtual place to hangout: other psychological factors contribute to the appeal of social media and its addictive nature. For example, Facebook can be seen as a place where people are allowed to do all the things they love doing online but won’t admit to: acting shallow, making quick judgments, and obsessing over what people think to boost their egos.

And there is more to boosting egos than superficial feelings. Research by psychologists at the University of North Carolina, indicates that social information feels intrinsically rewarding. A report by Kristen Lindquist in The Financial Times titled “Dopamine Jolt Behind Internet Addiction,” suggested that whenever users get a “like” on Facebook they experience a chemical release of the “feel good” chemical dopamine. The acknowledgment and validation feeds a chemical process that influences the teen obsession with social media. Therefore it is difficult to agree with Boyd’s claim that, “Teen ‘addiction’ to social media is a new extension of typical human engagement,” and that “Their use of social media as their primary site of sociality is most often a byproduct of cultural dynamics that have nothing to do with technology, including parental restrictions and highly scheduled lives” (80).

Her justification for teen addiction to social media does not address why teens today are constantly on social media even if they are physically hanging out with their friends. While it is possible to agree with Boyd that the technology of social media itself is the cause behind compulsive teen use of social media, she overestimates the sociality of social media, overlooking the way social media cleverly (and chemically) satisfies users’ inborn craving for affirmation.

Teens have always, and will always, want to communicate. Parents have legitimate reasons to be concerned about their children’s safety - both on and off the Internet. Though the anecdotes Boyd shares are interesting, they confirm previous suspicions in the form of sixty-three strangers’ stories that may or may not apply to anyone else. The answers to Boyd’s three questions that informed this book are too general to invoke adequate conclusions. She is talking about too many people and too many forms of social media at once, in a new media environment that is defined by its complexity.

What Boyd tries to achieve in It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens is difficult to do in just over 200 pages. She offers an opening for further analysis of the moral panic prompted by teenager’s use of social media, but is held back by her failure to distinguish the demographics of teens and her quickness to suggest the substitution of physical publics for “networked” individual ones, and the role of barely understood psychological and physiological influences of social media on users.

Alejandra Garcia-Alayon is a sophomore majoring in Communication at Boston College.

Ramsey Khabbaz is a sophomore majoring in English and Cinema Studies at Boston College.

Marcus Breen PhD is a Full Time member of the Department of Communication at Boston College.

References

------------------------. Common Sense Media. “Social Media, Social Life: How Teens View Their Digital Lives.” Common Sense Media, June 2012. Web. 17 Nov. 2014.

Graham, Stephen. “The End of Geography or the Explosion of Space? Conceptualizing Space, Place and Information Technology.” Progress in Human Geography, 22 (2). 1998: 165-185.

Lindquist, Kristen. "Dopamine Jolt behind Internet Addiction” FT.com. Financial Times. N.p.,

3 January, 2013.

Young, Jeffrey. Beware Social Media’s Dark Side, Scholars Warn Companies. The Chronicle of Higher Education. March 20, 2011.

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