Review of danah boyd’s 2014 book, “It’s Complicated”

The following appears in the most recent edition of the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media. 
TO CITE: Vitak, J. (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens by danah boyd (Book Review). Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 58(3), 470-472. doi: 10.1080/08838151.2014.935944

 

BOOK REVIEW OF: boyd, d. (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 271 pages.

When I was a senior in high school, I joined America Online, which was, for many of my generation, our first real taste of the Internet. I often chatted with friends through instant messenger, but I also spent many late nights exploring the topic-specific chat rooms talking with people who shared similar interests. Most importantly, I used AOL to locate and introduce myself to current and fellow incoming students at my future college, gaining both friends and valuable information before I ever stepped foot on campus.

Even though my introduction to mediated social interactions occurred more than a decade before the interviews highlighted in danah boyd’s new book, It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens, I found myself easily identifying with the perspectives and experiences these teens shared as they navigated identity, privacy, and relationships via technology. In many ways, not much has changed: teens today face many of the same challenges growing up that their parents and grandparents did. At the same time, however, the evolution of the Web and increasing ubiquity of mobile phones has increased parents’ and lawmakers’ focus on the safety and privacy of the youngest—and presumably most vulnerable—users. And as we have seen throughout history, new technologies are often accompanied by new fears, especially when they are not well understood.

Boyd challenges readers—and especially parents of adolescents—to put fear aside for a moment and consider why young people are engaging with these technologies. For most teens, social media and smartphones serve a critical relationship maintenance function. As boyd notes, “Most teens are not compelled by gadgetry as such—they are compelled by friendship. The gadgets are interesting to them primarily as a means to a social end” (p. 18). She supports her argument with more than a decade of ethnographic work talking to teens, parents, teachers, and other adults working with youth, as well as 166 formal interviews with teens around the country. Boyd’s passion for the topic is evident on every page and in every description of an interview subject. It quickly becomes clear to anyone reading the book that boyd is deeply invested in getting teens’ perspectives on technology and sociality “right”—when popular media have so often gotten the story wrong.

Boyd tackles a range of issues, including addiction, “stranger danger,” cyberbullying, socioeconomic inequalities, and digital literacy. Throughout, she highlights the inherent tension between privacy and publicity, diving deeply into the personal narratives of the teens she talked to during the height of MySpace and Facebook’s popularity among this population. It is here, within these anecdotes, that we hear the stories not covered by media. For example, sisters Ashley and Alice described very different relationships with each other and their parents; the discussion highlights how parents and teens can frame conflict in significantly different ways (bullying vs. “drama”) (pp. 129-130). Likewise, while Tara’s use of social media may seem like an “addiction” to outsiders, she views it as “a social necessity” (p. 84) to keep in touch with friends because her parents restrict her free time.

Boyd is perhaps best-known for her work describing networked publics—“publics restructured by networked technologies” (p. 8) and containing affordances and dynamics that facilitate new outlets for interaction and relationship formation. It is therefore unsurprising that her discussion of identity and privacy are especially engaging, as she deftly uses narratives to show how the structure of these systems and the context within which they are being used influence social outcomes. But an even more important discussion is found in the chapter on literacy, in which she contests the underlying assumptions of digital natives:

“The notion of digital natives…obscures the uneven distribution of technological skills and media literacy across the youth population, presenting an inaccurate portrait of young people as uniformly prepared for the digital era and ignoring the assumed level of privilege required to be “native” (pp. 179-180).

As with all of boyd’s writings, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The book will provide a quick read for anyone interested in the social impacts of communication technologies. She is adept at transforming sometimes-complex concepts into clear and accessible passages and has a gift for telling a strong narrative. If anything, I was disappointed by the amount of content in her book that I have read before in other venues, as this book covers 10 years of data collection and many of the topics have been covered in previous publications. On a more minor note, I felt myself wanting to see her reflect a more deeply on her findings at times and tie them back to theory, even though I recognize the strength of her work is in the personal stories of her participants.

This book is a must-read for parents trying to understand and navigate the many communication technologies available to and being used by their children, if for no other reason than to calm a pounding heart. More importantly, this book can help parents educate themselves about the real threats their children may face when navigating social applications and those that are imagined or exaggerated in media or urban legend. As boyd astutely notes, there are a lot of misconceptions about social media use and misuse, as well as a gap between what parents think their children do on these sites and the purposes for which they actually use them (pp. 84-85). Therefore, by educating themselves about teens and social media, parents can open a line of communication with their children about responsible use of technology.

CSCW 2014 paper: “You can’t block people offline”: Examining how Facebook’s affordances shape users’ disclosure process

I’m very proud of this qualitative paper I worked on this spring with UMD iSchool student Jinyoung Kim and will present at CSCW in February (in Baltimore–woot!). This study analyzes a robust qualitative dataset I gathered in 2011 as part of my comps but had to put aside when I began my dissertation research. So I was very excited to finally be able to dig into the 26 interviews that I *knew* held such rich insights about SNS users’ disclosure and privacy practices, their perspectives on their network and how they manage that network, as well as the cognitive thought processes behind the interactions (or lack thereof) that occur on the site.

For this paper–the first of at least two analyzing this dataset–we focused on how users balanced disclosure goals and risks by first identifying the goals and risks they perceived on the site (applying Omarzu’s disclosure decision model as a guiding framework) and then exploring the various strategies users employed to manage risks they associated with sharing information through the site. We categorized these strategies into four types:

  • Network regulation strategy: These behaviors limit the official recipient of disclosures and include leaving Friend requests pending, defriending, and hiding. Notably, many participants referenced pressure to accept Friend requests (or conversely, to not defriend someone they wanted to) because of their relationship with that person. This could be a classmate, the husband of a best friend, or a neighbor, but in these cases, the participant said s/he couldn’t engage in boundary regulation due to the nature of the offline relationship.
  • Targeted disclosure strategy: These behaviors involved sending content to a segment of one’s network, either by using the Friend List feature or using the advanced profile settings to place individuals or groups on a Limited Profile. In addition, people used Friend Lists to restrict specific people or groups from seeing content; for example, one user maintained a “don’t see” list that couldn’t see any of her status updates.
  • Self censorship strategy: These behaviors ranged from disclosure decisions resembling Hogan’s lowest common denominator approach to a more broad-based self-censorship in which users chose not to share certain types of content with anyone on the site. As the sample for this study was comprised of graduate students (master’s and PhD), many were motivated by specific self-presentation goals and strived to keep their profile as free from “drama” as possible.
  • Content regulation strategy: These behaviors include moving content from public to private channels (on Facebook or elsewhere) or communicating on the site in code, much like danah boyd describes in her work on social steganography. Some participants differentiated between the types of information they shared through public channels (e.g., Wall) and private channels (e.g., private messages), but a few said they regularly used these private channels to keep up-to-date with a small group of close friends. Likewise, a rarely mentioned strategy was to interact through the public channels but to talk in code, as one participant described when telling a story about how she and her friends talked about a professor they weren’t fond of by calling him by a made-up name (e.g., Dr. X).

Overall, this study expands our understanding of the disclosure process in online environments, which contain a number of unique affordances that affect how people think about and make decisions related to what and with whom they should share personal information. This study also has implications for research in the area of context collapse, especially when considering the various strategies individuals employed to manage the diverse groups of Friends they had on the site (the average number of Friends per participant was 500).

You can read the full study here and I hope to see some of you at CSCW in February!

Facebook’s “Circles”: How to create and use the Friend List feature

UPDATE (4/20/13): As this post has been receiving a lot of traffic in recent months and Facebook has changed the procedure through which to create and manage Friend Lists since this post was originally written (09/11), I’ve decided to update the post to reflect those changes. Most of these changes are in the steps users need to take to create a List.

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When Google+ launched two months ago, people went on and on about how amazing the Circles feature was, as if it was the coolest feature since sliced bread. Meanwhile, I grumbled (to myself and on Twitter and probably to anyone who was willing to listen to my grumbling) about the fact that Facebook had, in fact, rolled out this feature at least two years prior, and probably much earlier than that. The problem is that people (1) don’t know about Friend Lists, and (2) Friend Lists require a fair amount of fixed costs in terms of creating these Lists. For G+ users, on the other hand, they were able to throw all new contacts into appropriate Circles as soon as they added them to their network. It is worth noting that Facebook has made this process much, much easier in the last year or so, but the feature is somewhat buried in the site and Facebook has done little to promote the feature, even in the wake of G+’s launch in June.

Facebook has made a recent change, however, that you may have noticed. On your desktop or laptop, check out your News Feed and look below a status update, where you have the option to Like or Comment on a Friend’s post. You should now see one of these icons:

public update

The top icon (the cogwheel) informs you that this post is shared with a Custom List. This could mean that the user has merely placed one or more Friends on a Limited Profile, or it could mean that you are on a Friend List that the user has created. The second icon (the silhouette of two people) means that the post was shared with all of that user’s friends. The third icon (a globe) means the post was shared publicly, meaning anyone can see it.

This is most likely a response to G+, which tells you whether posts are public (i.e., shared with anyone who visits the page), viewable by extended circles (think friends of friends), or Limited (this could be everyone the individual has placed in a circle or specific circles). G+ even tells you who those people are.

Facebook isn’t telling you who else can see those posts, only if they are going to everyone or some subset of their network. That said, this is once again making me question why Facebook does not feature Lists more prominently, especially if Circles is being used as a point of differentiation between the two sites. I know some people are using Lists–in my prelim research (conducted in April 2011), I asked participants (who were domestic grad students at MSU), “Have you created “Friend Lists” so you can post updates just to a subset of your Facebook Friends?” and 17% responded that they had. But I think more people would use Lists if they knew how, so I have finally decided to present a step-by-step walkthrough of the process for those who may not know.

Why would I want to post an update to a List?

Think if there are times when you wanted to post something to Facebook but stopped yourself because you thought, “I shouldn’t share that because Person X would see it and might not like it” or “I shouldn’t share this because it would only be relevant to a few friends.” These are examples of ways in which Lists can benefit you and help you get the most out of your network. For example, most of my Lists are based on geographic regions because sometimes I share information about an event or have a question that only locals would be interested in or have information about. For example, last week I was having problems with MSU’s Content Management System. I wanted to see if anyone else was having problems with the system, but this question was only applicable to a subset of my network so I only posted it to my “MSU” List.

The not-so-simple steps to set up Facebook Friend Lists

Now before I get into the (recently made much more complicated; /shakes fist angrily at Facebook) details, it’s important to note that Facebook has decided to use their handy algorithms to auto-create a few standard lists for you: “close friends,” “acquaintances,” and lists based on geography and affiliations like universities you’ve attended. You should be able to find these on the left side bar under “Favorites.” If you click on one of these lists, it presents you with a feed of content just from people included in this list. Look on the right side and in the top right of the page is a pulldown menu titled “Manage List.” This gives you three options: (1) Rename the list to something else, (2) edit the people who are on the list (the default popup screen shows people on the list and you can click the “X” in the top right to delete the person; alternatively you can change the view to all your friends and click on friends to add new people to the list; and (3) Choose update types, which allows you to select the type of content that appears in the feed. As an FYI, you can do this on a Friend-by-Friend basis by hovering over a Friend’s name, then hovering over the “Friend” button,  then clicking on “Settings” (not complicated at all, right?!?). I regularly do this for Friends who post game updates, music updates, and other posts too frequently. On the right side of the List page, there is also a useful feature, “List Suggestions,” which may save you the time of scrolling through all your friends to see who should be added to the List (again, algorithm magic is at work here).

manage list

So that helps you with the Lists that Facebook has created for you. But what if you want to create a List from scratch? This has, unfortunately, become a bit more complicated in the last year or so. So follow these instructions and you should be set.

1. First, figure out what List you want to create (is it coworkers? local friends? soccer buddies?). Pick one of the Friends who will be on that List and go to their profile page.

2. On the right side, click on the wheel icon.   You’ll see several options. Click on “Add to Interest Lists.”

interest lists

3. Click “New List.”

new list

4. You now have a (unnamed) List with exactly one person on it. To add more people, select “Friends” and add additional people to the List. Then click Next. Here you’ll enter a List name (e.g., “Work Friends”), decide the visibility of that List (Public, Friends, or Only You), and create the List (by clicking Done). The visibility component is relatively new and reflects G+ in terms of giving you the option of allowing your Friends to see who else is on a given List.

create new list

It is important that when you accept new Friend requests, you remember to add those Friends to any appropriate Lists. Facebook makes this simple: once you “confirm” a Friend request, a button labeled “Add to List” will appear. Click on this and you are presented with a checklist of all your Friend Lists. Remember that you can also add friends to Lists by visiting the List page and adding through the Suggestions (as was noted above.

new friend-list

*IMPORTANT* There is another way to create a List that I thought Facebook had gotten rid of and only discovered after creating these new instructions (based on Facebook’s help instructions). It’s buried, as much of the information about Friend Lists are. However, on your home page, if you look on your left sidebar and scroll down, there should be a “Friends” section. If you hover over it, a “More” button should appear. Click that and it should show you all your Friend Lists. In addition, on the page there should be a “+ Create List” option, in which you enter the List name and start adding Friend names. This is the original way you would create Friend Lists.

Posting an update to a list

Now that you have created a Friend List, who do you use them? This is a relatively simple process as well. Return to your homepage or profile page. Click your cursor in the status update box and you will see a pulldown menu immediately to the left of the “Post” button. If you click on this, you will see a number of options, including: Public, Friends, Custom, and Only Me.

post-friend list

If you select Custom, a pop-up box will appear. Under “Make this visible to,” select “Specific People” from the pulldown menu. A text box will appear and you need merely type in the name of the List you have created. Alternatively, you can select individual people through this option. You can also block access to specific people or groups by entering a List or individual(s) in the “Hide this from” line. Select “Save Changes” and you are ready to post a Custom update!

Another important note is that with this recent change, Facebook also decided that it would retain your setting for all subsequent updates until you change it. So you need to be aware of what your settings are before posting so that you don’t accidentally send a post to the wrong group.

And that, my friends, is how to create and use the Friend Lists feature in Facebook. The existence and use of these kinds of features are central to many of my research questions, so I am always happy to talk about the pros and cons of using them. Feel free to ask questions or post comments below.

Using technology to get answers to your questions: better or just quicker?

In my opinion, one of the most wonderful things about the Internet is the sheer glut of information available. Of course, you (nearly) always have to take a “buyer beware” approach to information you find online, especially when moving beyond organizational websites (and sometimes even when you are on those sites). What makes all of this information even more valuable, however, is the ability to query the system, to ask a question on any conceivable topic and receive feedback from other individuals. Sometimes, on “friend”-based sites such as Facebook, you can pose a query to a given set of people, i.e., your Friend network. In other cases, queries shoot across the intertubes and can be answered by a complete stranger.

Obviously, there are pros and cons to employing technology for your question-based needs. One of the points we stress in our research again and again is that social network sites like Facebook are especially well-suited when it comes to bridging social capital. Social capital(1) is a construct similar to that of other forms of capital (e.g., financial, human) that describes the benefits accrued from one’s social network, and bridging social capital (as coined by Robert Putnam) is concerned with benefits that are found in a diverse network of weak ties, such as access to novel information. Since Facebook opened its network to everyone, we have seen a great diversification of network composition to include family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and more. As the average Facebook Friend network includes 130 people (according to Facebook, at least), it is pretty clear that these networks include a number of weak ties who, consequently, are different from us in terms of knowledge, experience, etc. By creating features that allow users to easily communicate with the network, users are able to tap into that diverse knowledge when they have questions, especially when no one within their core of connections has an answer.

Sociologist Mark Granovetter–who is probably cited in just about everything I ever write these days–wrote about the various benefits we receive from different types of network ties and argued that the strength of weak ties is that they can access individuals and networks that we are not immediately connected to by bridging the gaps between networks (what Ron Burt refers to as structural holes). Granovetter applied this to the process of getting a job: within your strong tie network, most of the information is redundant; however, by accessing your weak ties, you are likely to hear about more opportunities.

Search technology has fueled the ability to get answers to questions fast. For example, if I type “How much wood can a woodchuck chuck” into Google, I get 28,000+ results (and learn the answer is about 700 pounds). The benefit to using a search engine such as Google over your online or offline social network can be found in speed and diversity. Oftentimes, you cannot immediately reach a member of your social network (or a known expert on the topic) immediately. Furthermore, no matter how diverse your network is, they probably don’t have an answer for everything (if they do, I’d like to met you).

At the same time, however, there are a number of drawbacks to using more global-based services to find answers to questions. First, as much useful information as the Internet contains, it contains far more worthless–and potentially dangerous–information (boo!). The ease with which content can be posted to the Internet is certainly a two-edged sword; anyone can post to the Internet (yay!) but those people may be ignorant of some of the facts or–worse–malicious in their intent. Sometimes, weeding through all the trash to find an answer is not worth the time or effort. Even more importantly, I feel that we sometimes ignore the fact that humans are extremely complex individuals, and many of the questions we ask cannot be answered by entering some keywords into the searchbar.

This last point reveals one way in which social networks can be more beneficial than search engines. If I pose a question to my Facebook Friends, many of them can incorporate information they already know about me into their response. This is certainly beneficial when I am asking advice-based questions, such as if I should go see a specific movie this weekend, vs. a more fact-based question. So therefore, one could suggest that I use Google for all my objective questions and Facebook for all my subjective questions. However, there is another issue to consider when using a SNS for question asking: in order for me to receive answers from my network, I must make certain disclosures. But what if it’s a sensitive subject (e.g., health-related)? What if is a question about a specific subgroup of my network (e.g., dealing with an annoying coworker) and there are members of the group in my network? I could post these questions to an online discussion forum, shrouded in pseudonumity, but then I run into the same problem of asking more personal questions of people who don’t have the benefit of my background to help them provide the best response.

The main reason I’ve been thinking about this today is because I just received access to the (still in beta) Facebook Questions feature. The basic breakdown is this: you post a question and tag it. Anyone on Facebook (to my knowledge) will be able to view your question and respond to it. Your name does not appear to be listed with your question, although the names of responders are linked to their comments. You also have the ability to send a question to a friend, even if it’s not your question. So basically it’s just like many of the other question-based sites (e.g., WikiAnswers, Yahoo! Questions) but with real identities tied to responses.

I find a few things really interesting about this. First, not identifying the question asker appears to be an attempt to encourage posting of more sensitive questions. Second, identifying responders may be an attempt to legitimize responses and discourage “bad” responses. One thing I’m curious about is if there will be a way to tie the question to your network, so you can pose a question to both your friends (and be identified so they know they’re responding to you) and the 500 million other Facebook users (and remain anonymous). Of course, this could be done by posting the question as a status update and through the feature, but everyone knows that humans are lazy.

So what is the benefit of using Facebook Questions over a Google search? I’m very interested to see if my second point regarding legitimacy actually has an effect on increasing question posters’ trust in responses. I’m also really curious to see what kinds of questions come to dominate Questions, as the feature falls somewhere between asking your network and using a search engine. In addition, will the decision to link real identities to responses discourage some users from posting comments, even when the topic is innocuous? For me personally, I struggle with the idea of having my real name linked to posts that will be forever written in the annals of the Internet. Only recently have I created a public Twitter account attached to my full name, and even now the only place you see my full name on this site is if you download my CV. But maybe I’m hyper-sensitive about this and normal people won’t care (based on some of the things I real on Lamebook and Failbook, it seems that many people don’t care if their friends and everyone else sees all their dirty laundry).

How do you feel about the Questions feature? Would you use it? What kinds of questions do you think are best asked to your online social network? What kinds of questions should never be asked on Facebook?

Note:

(1) For a discussion of different forms of capital, see Bourdieu’s seminal piece [pdf], which was published in “The sociology of economic life” (2001).

Update on stuff and junk

It is time to revive this blog. Yes, I realize my last post, dated more than 15 months ago, stated that I was going to blog more. However, I am now entering the third year of my PhD program, which means a few things: (1) my class-load has significantly decreased, and (2) I have a *lot* of writing in my future. As I prepared to return to Michigan for the new semester, I made a list of things I wanted to do when I got back to Lansing to help me be as productive as possible, and one thing that certainly helped me to be thinking creatively and critically while writing my master’s thesis was this blog. Keeping a blog related to my research interests helps me stay abreast of current issues in my field and to go beyond just a basic intake of information to considering how a specific piece of information fits into the bigger picture.

Because of this, I have made it a personal goal to blog as least twice each week during the next academic year on topics related to my area of specialization. And what, you ask, is my specialization? I study how online communication technologies impact relationships between individuals and groups, and how these technologies enhance, supplement, or detract from offline relationships. A lot of my research looks at the role of online social networking–and specifically the role of Facebook–in relational maintenance (see my CV for specific pieces I’ve written). However, my interests expand far beyond social network sites to online games, instant messaging, video chat, email, etc. If it involves computer-mediated communication, I’m probably interested in it.

This upcoming semester, I’ll be working on a number of projects that relate to these interests, and I’ll blog about my progress on them as I go along. And, on a positive note, I recently had three papers accepted to HICSS 2011 (Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences), which means a trip to Hawaii this January (woot!). The papers cover a wide range of topics: social network games, the relationship between bonding social capital outcomes and Facebook use, and the relationship between the avatar creation process and expectation of future interaction. Once those manuscripts are finalized, I will post .pdfs to my CV.

New blog name and plan of attack

My first year as a PhD student is quickly wrapping up…a little too quickly considering the workload I have left. But I thought I’d write a brief post to let people know (1) I’m still alive after somehow surviving my first Michigan winter, and (2) I plan to revive this blog to early 2008 levels over the summer.

First, you may notice the blog rename. I had grown tired of the “welcome to oblivion” name, as it had no relevance to my writings and was merely an obscure reference to a sci-fi book I was reading when I first started this blog. Thanks to @whatknows for suggesting I go with something more simple and “academic-y.” Next time I see you, I will be bearing cookies. The reason for the new name is rather obvious: (1) I study social phenomena, albeit only in relation to technology; and (2) I am obsessed with my name.  :) As many media outlets are now so kindly pointing out, I must be a narcissist since I have Facebook and Twitter accounts.

So what will I be writing about in the upcoming months? Most likely my primary focus will be on social gaming, specifically MMORPGs. At some point I want to put up some background research I did last summer for the Pew report on teens and gaming that did not make it into the final version. I’m also working on two projects currently that focus on identity and interaction in World of Warcraft. Otherwise, I hope to stay on top of current tech news related to social network sites, with maybe a post or two related to social capital (another summer project) thrown in here and there.

But since I’m already procrastinating by writing this post, I should probably hold off on writing any more until the second week of May. That is assuming, of course, I survive the next three weeks. Sigh.

Too bad “pluggies” never caught on … maybe the yuppies ate them

So I just came across a chapter in the book Culture in an age of money: The legacy of the 1980s in America, which refers to pluggies, “those who are plugged in but tuned out” (p. 84). Basically, it is referring to the rise of “me” technology in the 80s that allowed people to lock themselves in their homes and be completely asocial. This includes the rise of VCRs, video games, and computers.

I think the term makes complete sense, and as it is not encompassing of an entire generation, it may be more fitting than the typical response of, “that’s all of Gen X” or Gen Y or Gen Now, or any of the other innumerable names for those of us in the 18-35 age range. However, when I did a google search for the term, it only came up with ~2500 results, which means “pluggies” never caught on. Maybe the idea of yuppies, which originated around the same time, just overwhelmed people’s abilities to divide society up into groups so much that people couldn’t afford another denomination. Or maybe society just agreed the word is kind of silly.

So has anyone else ever heard of pluggies or come across the term in reading?