I have cited danah boyd’s book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens whenever the subject of teens, social media, and privacy arise since it first came out. She convinced me that teens not only value privacy, they understand why it matters better than many adults do. Thanks to a long plane trip, I just finished rereading it cover-to-cover and recommend it to everyone who works with teens or with people who have recently been teens, or who use social media and at least occasionally wonder what it’s doing to us. It’s thought-provoking, well-researched, and compulsively readable.
After conducting extensive observations online and off and interviewing 166 kids she has fascinating insights to offer about how teens use social media, how race, gender, and class come into play in social media use among teens, how we confuse normal teen drama with much more serious forms of bullying, how our fears for our children have made online interactions ironically virtually the only “private” ones teens experience – that is, free of adult oversight or supervised social activities – and why it’s so important for the development of teens to have places where they can figure out who they are in a public place that they can call their own.
When I was a kid, that was the street or (for those old enough to drive) a particular restaurant parking lot. (Why that Frisch’s parking lot? Who knows.) More recently, it was the shopping mall. Now kids are discouraged from congregating in any of those public places, so they spend time together where they can – online. It’s not technology or screens that draw them in. It’s hanging out with other teens. Self-presentation, public performance, and trying on more intimate relationships are all part of growing up. Teens, ironically, are now so restricted in real life that they have to turn to the social web. And as boyd points out, they are doing in “under the spotlight of a media ecosystem designed to publicize every teen fad, moral panic, and new hyped technology” (55). Further, while the internet gives them an opportunity to create social spaces to “make sense of who they are and how they fit into society . . . they are doing so under constant surveillance” (53). They turn to the web to escape surveillance from parents, teachers, and mall security, but they are leaving detailed traces of their emerging selves in the databanks of corporations, occasionally surfacing in awkward out-of-context places. She writes
understanding how teens conceptualize privacy and negotiate social media is key to understanding what privacy means in a networked world, a world in which negotiating fuzzy boundaries is par for the course. Instead of signaling the end of privacy as we know it, teens’ engagement with social media highlights the complex interplay between privacy and publicity in the networked world we all live in now. (58)
One final insight from the book (which is full of them); boyd urges us to recognize that algorithms are not neutral. They are shaped by humans with human biases and ulterior motives - as are libraries; though it’s not uncommon for librarians to claim they are neutral, they are not. I often talk to students about how to spot biases in the Library of Congress classification system so that they can make better sense of where we hide the books. But that’s only possible because I can show them the outline of LC classes. Classification systems are not neutral, but they are public. Google's way of organizing information is a trade secret. It’s built to reflect the financial priorities and the often unconscious biases of the people creating the algorithm. The algorithm has to be tweaked constantly both to protect the trade secret and to prohibit others from deriving advantages by gaming the system. An entire industry, search engine optimization, is devoted to that algorithmic whack-a-mole.
Though boyd doesn’t address corporate data mining or mass data collection by the state in depth, I welcome her level-headed and nuanced description of how kids use social networks to participate in public on their own terms in spite of misplaced parental fears. The reforms that Bruce Schneier recommends in Data and Goliath should be part of how we protect kids online so that we can together, as she puts it, “create a networked world that we all want to live in” (213).