Thursday, May 01, 2014

danah boyd - It's Complicated

Cover It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. danah boyd, Yale University Press, 2014. ISBN 0300166435

I don't always agree with everything danah boyd writes. That's probably because I'm a crusty old British academic with capital letters in my name, and she ... isn't. But with one caveat, this is the best book about social media that I have ever read. What's the caveat? Boyd (it's the start of a sentence so excuse the capital letter) is writing exclusively about American teenagers, but the sense of what she writes is more generally true. I lied, there's a second caveat. This isn't really a book. It is, as she herself calls it, a monograph. So much the better - hurrah for this moribund form.

There's much to praise in the quality of boyd's writing, and even more in the amount of common sense in this slim volume, so make sure you read it. I wish I could encourage all senior managers in education to read it. Boyd has eloquently summed up her thesis and her findings in the title - it's complicated. Those who think otherwise definitely don't understand social media. I don't need to do more here than pick out a few passages that particularity interested me.

One of the strengths of this book is that boyd accurately defines over used and ill used terms such as bullying and networked publics, on which she is particularly strong:
networked publics creates new opportunities and challenges. They are:
  • persistence: the durability of online expressions and content;
  • visibility: the potential audience who can bear witness;
  • spreadability: the ease with which content can be shared; and
  • searchability: the ability to find content.
... What persistence also means, then, is that those using social media are often “on the record” to an unprecedented degree.

Nothing about technology is new:
Socrates is purported to have warned of the dangers of the alphabet and writing, citing implications for memory and the ability to convey truth. (Plato quotes Socrates as paraphrasing an Egyptian god. The relevant excerpts critiquing writing as a medium can be found at:

Technological determinism:
Utopian and dystopian views assume that technologies possess intrinsic powers that affect all people in all situations the same way.  ... These extreme rhetorics are equally unhelpful in understanding what actually happens when new technologies are broadly adopted. Reality is nuanced and messy, full of pros and cons. Living in a networked world is complicated.

Context collapse:
A context collapse occurs when people are forced to grapple simultaneously with otherwise unrelated social contexts that are rooted in different norms and seemingly demand different social responses. For example, some people might find it quite awkward to run into their former high school teacher while drinking with their friends at a bar. These context collapses happen much more frequently in networked publics.

Online identity and acting out, as illustrated by the "Stokely Carmichael problem":
In his 1985 book No Sense of Place, media scholar Joshua Meyrowitz describes the story of Stokely Carmichael, an American civil rights activist. In the 1960s, Carmichael regularly gave different talks to different audiences. He used a different style of speaking when he addressed white political leaders than when he addressed southern black congregations. When Carmichael started presenting his ideas on television and radio, he faced a difficult decision: which audience should he address? No matter which style of speaking he chose, he knew he’d alienate some. He was right. By using a rolling pastoral voice in broadcast media, Carmichael ingratiated himself with black activists while alienating white elites.

Social media is messy and means exactly what we say it means. Life is complicated. Get over it.

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