I’ve been reading danah boyd’s work It’s Complicated which is about the lives of teenagers in the digital world. It’s an excellent book, and casts a whole new light – for me, at least, on the way that young people engage with their communities via the mechanism of digital and social media. Of course, before I begin any discussion, I acknowledge that such terms as ‘social media’ and ‘teenagers’ are often fraught with confusion – but still, for the purposes of my own theory-building, they will serve for this period.
boyd analyses a range of the dangers and problems that are often raised in terms of teenagers and their use of social media. She looks at topics like privacy, danger and bullying. Drawing on a wealth of interviews from US youth across the country, she theorises about how and why young people use social media in the way that they do – and why such uses are often confusing or challenging to older onlookers, especially parents and, I think , teachers.
The central point, as far as I understood, is that, older people have often mischaracterised young people’s understandings of the use of social media, and therefore misunderstood why they are using social media. These misunderstandings are often based upon very different perspectives about social media, but also about the way young people interact.
boyd argues that young people are looking for ways to interact and socialise with each other; that in itself is not unusual, but what is unusual is that the traditional ways that young people can interact with each other have been limited. For example, in many communities, young people often live a long way from their friends, and they are actively discouraged – by authoritarian council decrees, by the fear of stranger danger, or by other mechanisms. These structures prevent them from interacting – something which most adults take for granted. Of course, for a lot of the students that boyd spoke to, there is also an incredibly busy schedule of school and other enrichment- like activities that seem to take up every moment of free time.
When faced with these road blocks, it is not surprising, then, that young people have taken to social media with such enthusiasm. In many ways, it allows students to interact with their peers in ways that they were otherwise prevented from – but the challenge lies in the fact that the contexts in which they interact via social media have become blurred: that is, young people are no longer just talking to their friends at the park. They might be doing that, but they are also talking to everyone else who cares to listen, or follow, or search. And these conversations are now permanent, no longer ephemeral.
Just like adults present a different face to their work colleagues to the one they present at home, so too do teenagers. They way they speak and act to peers is different to the way they behave at school or at home. But with social media, these contexts ‘collapse’, and it can become difficult to present the right ‘face’ to the right audience. Of course, this is a simplistic reading, but it does illustrate some of the new challenges brought about by social media.
But central to boyd’s work was themes of power and control. Young people often use social media to exert some kind of control over their lives – lives which, as described above, are often lacking in any agency. Thus, young people use social media for various purposes – to shape identity, to interact with people they choose to interact with, to present themselves in the way they choose to the rest of the world. However, this is where confusion and misunderstanding can occur – when observers don’t follow the social clues. One memorable example from boyd’s work was about a teenaged boy who was frustrated when his sister kept commenting on his social media posts – he was annoyed because he felt that she was intruding upon his conversation with his peers – even tough she had the capability to do so.
This intrigues me: young people’s use of digital and social media was central to my own research. I viewed the film and publishing on YouTube as a mechanism to engender a wider audience for their work, but I wonder if young people saw it in quite the same way. This needs more consideration.