The following is a guest post from Julia Fernandez, this year’s NDIIPP Junior Fellow. Julia has a background in American studies and working with folklife institutions and worked on a range of projects that lead up to CurateCamp Digital Culture in July. This is part of an ongoing series of interviews Julia conducted to better understand the kinds of born-digital primary sources folklorists, and others interested in studying digital culture, are making use of for their scholarship.
How do teens use the internet? For researchers, reporters and concerned parents alike, that question has never been more relevant. Many adults can only guess, or extrapolate based on news reports or their own social media habits. But researcher danah boyd took an old-fashioned but effective approach: she asked them.
I’m delighted to continue our ongoing Insights Interview series today with danah, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, a research assistant professor in media, culture and communication at New York University, and a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. For her new book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, she spent about eight years studying how teens interact both on- and off-line.
Julia: The preface to your latest book ends by assuring readers that “by and large, the kids are all right.” What do you mean by that?
danah: To be honest, I really struggle with prescriptives and generalizations, but I had to figure out how to navigate those while writing this book. But this sentence is a classic example of me trying to add nuance to a calming message. What I really mean by this – and what becomes much clearer throughout the book – is that the majority of youth are as fine as they ever were. They struggle with stress and relationships. They get into trouble for teenage things and aren’t always the best equipped for handling certain situations. But youth aren’t more at-risk than they ever were. At the same time, there are some youth who are seriously not OK. Keep in mind that I spend time with youth who are sexually abused and trafficked for a different project. I don’t want us to forget that there are youth out there that desperately need our attention. Much to my frustration, we tend to focus our attention on privileged youth, rather than the at-risk youth who are far more visible today because of the internet than ever before.
Julia: In a recent article you stated that “social media mirror, magnify, and complicate countless aspects of everyday life, bringing into question practices that are presumed stable and shedding light on contested social phenomena.” Can you expand a bit on this?
danah: When people see things happening online that feel culturally unfamiliar to them, they often think it’s the internet that causes it. Or when they see things that they don’t like – like bullying or racism – they think that the internet has made it worse. What I found in my research is that the internet offers a mirror to society, good, bad and ugly. But because that mirror is so publicly visible and because the dynamics cross geographic and cultural boundaries, things start to get contorted in funny ways. And so it’s important to look at what’s happening underneath the aspect that is made visible through the internet.
Julia: In a recent interview you expressed frustration with how, in the moral panic surrounding social media, “we get so obsessed with focusing on relatively healthy, relatively fine middle- and upper-class youth, we distract ourselves in ways that don’t allow us to address the problems when people actually are in trouble.” What’s at stake when adults and the media misunderstand or misrepresent teen social media use?
danah: We live in a society and as much as we Americans might not like it, we depend on others. If we want a functioning democracy, we need to make sure that the fabric of our society is strong and healthy. All too often, in a country obsessed with individualism, we lose track of this. But it becomes really clear when we look at youth. Those youth who are most at-risk online are most at-risk offline. They often come from poverty or experience abuse at home. They struggle with mental health issues or have family members who do. These youth are falling apart at the seams and we can see it online. But we get so obsessed with protecting our own children that we have stopped looking out for those in our communities that are really struggling, those who don’t have parents to support them. The urban theorist Jane Jacobs used to argue that neighborhoods aren’t safe because you have law enforcement policing them; they are safe because everyone in the community is respectfully looking out for one another. She talked about “eyes on the street,” not as a mechanism of surveillance but as an act of caring. We need a lot more of that.
Julia: You conduct research on teen behaviors both on and offline. How are physical environments important to understanding mediated practices? What are the limitations to studying online communities solely by engaging with them online?
danah: We’ve spent the last decade telling teenagers that strangers are dangerous, that anyone who approaches them online is a potential predator. I can’t just reach out to teens online and expect them to respond to me; they think I’m creepy. Thus, I long ago learned that I need to start within networks of trust. I meet youth through people in their lives, working networks to get to them so that they will trust me and talk about their lives with me. In the process, I learned that I get a better sense of their digital activities by seeing their physical worlds first. At the same time, I do a lot of online observation and a huge part of my research has been about piecing together what I see online with what I see offline.
Julia: Researchers interested in young people’s social media use today can directly engage with research participants and a wealth of documentation over the web. When researchers look back on this period, what do you think are going to be the most critical source material for understanding the role of social media in youth culture? In that vein, what are some websites/data sets and other kinds of digital material that you think would be invaluable for future researchers to have access to for studying teen culture of today 50 years from now?
danah: Actually, to be honest, I think that anyone who looks purely at the traces left behind will be missing the majority of the story. A lot has changed in the decade in which I’ve been studying youth, but one of the most significant changes has to do with privacy. When I started this project, American youth were pretty forward about their lives online. By the end, even though I could read what they tweeted or posted on Instagram, I couldn’t understand it. Teens started encoding content. In a world where they can’t restrict access to content, they restrict access to meaning. Certain questions can certainly be asked of online traces, but meaning requires going beyond traces.
Julia: Alongside your work studying networked youth culture, you have also played a role in ongoing discussions of the implications of “big data.” Recognizing that researchers now and in the future are likely going to want to approach documentation and records as data sets, what do you think are some of the most relevant issues from your writing on big data for cultural heritage institutions to consider about collecting, preserving and providing access to social media, and other kinds of cultural data?
danah: One of the biggest challenges that archivists always have is interpretation. Just because they can access something doesn’t mean they have the full context. They work hard to piece things together to the best that they can, but they’re always missing huge chunks of the puzzle. I’m always amazed when I sit behind the Twitter firehose to see the stream of tweets that make absolutely no sense. I think that anyone who is analyzing this data knows just how dirty and confusing it can be. My hope is that it will force us to think about who is doing the interpreting and how. And needless to say, there are huge ethical components to that. This is at the crux of what archivists and cultural heritage folks do.
Julia: You’ve stated that “for all of the attention paid to ‘digital natives’ it’s important to realize that most teens are engaging with social media without any deep understanding of the underlying dynamics or structure.” What role can cultural heritage organizations play in facilitating digital literacy learning?
danah: What I love about cultural heritage organizations is that they are good at asking hard questions, challenging assumptions, questioning interpretations. That honed skill is at the very center of what youth need to develop. My hope is that cultural heritage organizations can go beyond giving youth the fruits of their labor and inviting them to develop these skills. These lessons don’t need to be internet-specific. In many ways, they’re a part of what it means to be critically literate period.