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.

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