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: Facebook Makes the Heart Grow Fonder: Relationship Maintenance Strategies Among Geographically Dispersed and Communication-Restricted Connections

In this CSCW paper (my second at the conference), I analyze a subsection of data from my dissertation, focusing specifically on the question of how (a) one’s use of Facebook and (b) Facebook-derived relational outcomes may vary between geographically dispersed vs. geographically proximate Friends, as well as between Friends who rely primarily or solely on the site for communication vs. those who use alternate channels such as phone calls, emails, and face-to-face interactions.

To analyze this question, I had participants in my study log into Facebook and select a pseudo-random* Facebook Friend for whom they would answer a series of questions. These included a number of questions related to relationship maintenance strategies they could engage in through the site (e.g., sending birthday wishes, communicating about a shared interest), their perceptions regarding the extent to which their use of Facebook affected the quality of the relationship, both in terms of how close they felt to the other person and the relationship’s stability, general relational closeness, frequency of communication through a variety of Facebook-specific and other communication channels, and other measures. To read the full study’s methodology, see my dissertation.

The findings for both geographic distance and use of Facebook as the primary communication channel were the same: when controlling for a dyad’s existing level of relational closeness, participants reported engaging in a greater amount of relationship maintenance strategies through the site and believed the site to have a more positive effect on their level of relational closeness and relational stability with the Friend for whom they were responding. What this finding in particular, and my dissertation to a larger extent, support, is that there are specific types of relationships that benefit more from using the site as a relationship maintenance tool. This likely has to do with a number of factors: for example, in my dissertation, I found that weak ties who were highly engaged in relationship maintenance behaviors on the site saw the site as much more beneficial than strong ties who were highly engaged in these same behaviors. From this finding, it is a small jump to Haythornthwaite’s work on media multiplexity, whereby stronger ties use a greater quantity of communication channels.

However, in this study, I controlled for relational closeness, meaning these differences emerged regardless of how close participants rated that relationship outside of their use of Facebook. This suggests that something deeper is going on. Much as the work of Keith Hampton and Barry Wellman more than a decade earlier argued that email was supplementing other forms of communication when “richer” forms were unavailable, Facebook may be filling that void now–and why not? It’s ubiquitous, mobile, easy to use regardless of age, and easy to share content like photos and videos. And as Hampton recently noted, SNSs like Facebook have this quality and being persistent and pervasive, perhaps changing the relationship lifecycle forever.

If you want to learn more about this paper, you can read it here, and you can come see me present it at CSCW 2014 in Baltimore this February!

*Because of the way Facebook’s algorithm works for Friend display, generating a truly random selection would be difficult if not impossible. For more on this method of participant selection, see this paper by Ledbetter et al. (2011).

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!

Presentation on Social Media in Higher Education

This afternoon, Nicole Ellison and I presented some of our research on the use of social media in higher education, discussing results from three studies (two of which I have worked on) at the Instructional Technology Brown Bag Seminar Series, sponsored by MSU Libraries, Computing, and Technology and the MSU College of Natural Science. The presentation was video recorded and can be viewed here.

More information about the seminar series can be found here.

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.


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?


(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).

My thoughts on narcissism and social media

Popular media has been giving significant coverage to a recently published article on the relationship between narcissism–a personality trait that captures admiration or love of  self–and use of social network sites (SNSs).  This line of research is not new (see here and here[pdf], for example), but it brings more attention to an ongoing discussion regarding Gen Y, technology, and the “downfall” of modern society. More broadly, it considers long and ongoing questions related to the potential negative impacts of new technology on individuals, groups, and relationships.

While none of the studies I’ve referenced above establish causality, media stories I have read suggest that sites such as Facebook are, in fact, making today’s youth more narcisstic. Take, for example, the headline, “Facebook Feeds Narcissism, Survey Finds” from a CNN article about the recent study. In response to this, I (first) get an exasperated look on my face and (second) direct the authors to the following xkcd strip:

As to my exasperation, first let me comment on a pet peeve of mine. As I have been in media in one form or another now for more than a decade, I understand that catchy titles draw in readers; however, bad reporting of data and not acknowledging limitations of studies often leads to gross exaggeration of research findings. Academic studies are typically written in a way that make them inaccessible (both literally and cognitively) to the average person. This is a major reason we have journalists: to transcribe technical findings into a format that nearly anyone can understand. Due to either a lack of knowledge on the part of the writer, the desire to write a more “interesting” story, or sheer laziness, this process often ends like a game of “telephone,” with the final story only somewhat resembling the original. And while I don’t expect your average newspaper or broadcast news writer to understand the technicalities of a newly published stem-cell study (heck, I would barely understand that), distinguishing between correlation and causation is essential to accurate reporting. Furthermore, it is essential that when reporting significant findings (such as those which could have an impact on policy down the line), writers acknowledge potential limitations to the findings, such as issues of generalizability, small sample sizes, or small effect sizes.

Okay, back to the findings. The most recent study found positive correlations between various components of a user’s profile and narcissism. Unfortunately, the coding of profile components appear to be seriously flawed for a number of reasons. First, coding was only performed by the author, which prevents inter-coder reliability from being established and potentially introduces researcher bias: because the author is also the coder, she could unconsciously have coded content to reflect the findings she wanted. Another concern is that the author provides no details regarding if she created a code book or, assuming she did, how she established criteria for coding. For example, she states that use of positive adjectives such as “nice” and “funny” in the About Me section of the profile were coded as indicators of narcissism, which I find to be a bit of a stretch. Likewise, she coded the use of photo editing software for the profile picture to be an indicator of narcissism, which raises two concerns from me: (1) photo editing software is often not easy to detect, and (2) in cases when it is, it may be serving an artistic purpose rather than an egotistical one. Because the author had no interaction with participants regarding why they made decisions regarding content choices, it is impossible to make assertions as to the reason behind these choices.

A second point related to this and the other studies I have seen on narcissism and SNSs relates to the technology itself. SNSs are centered on sharing information; they are designed with the intent to simplify the process through which users can post content to an audience. Facebook prompts users to post status updates with the query, “what’s on your mind?,” which is a direct request for information about the individual. Therefore, we need to be especially careful in creating operational definitions of what constitutes  narcissistic content in order to make sure we are measuring what we set out to measure and not merely capturing standard practices on the site. Furthermore, research should work to establish behavioral norms on the site — what a researcher perceives of as “narcissistic,” such posting a specific type of photo, may in fact be the norm for that given group.

A third consideration to consider when interpreting the results of this and other studies on narcissism and SNSs is the choice of population. Early research on SNSs (and, to be honest, the vast majority of current research as well) tends to employ college student populations, most likely because college students were the primary users of the site and college students are a convenient sample for academic research. College students are, in many ways, in a four-year transition from youth to adulthood, a period that J.J. Arnett refers to as “emerging adulthood.” It is unsurprising that people at this age are self-absorbed — not only are they trying to figure themselves out, but they’re apt to try a variety of ways to fit in, which probably requires a bit of self-promotion.

So is “Generation Me” a more apt name for Gen Y (as at least one book has suggested)? Or have advancements in technology merely made young people’s narcissistic tendencies more public than previously possible? While only research can answer this question, one study provides some initial insights: a recent meta-analysis of studies conducted between 1976 and 2006 found no relationship between cohort and egotism, individualism, self-enhancement, or self-esteem. In other words, kids today are just as caught up in themselves now as they were when their parents were there age; they simply couldn’t share their thoughts on how awesome they were with the rest of the world as easily.

In looking forward, an important next step is to conduct more research with non-college student populations and to identify ways of studying new technology adoption and use over time so as to address questions related to the types of changes in beliefs and behaviors that social media may be effecting. I’ll be presenting research in November at the National Communication Association’s annual conference on how adult users (ages 25-55) negotiate the tensions between using Facebook to obtain social capital benefits and concerns related to making those disclosures. I also hope to employ multiple methodologies (both qualitative and quantitative) in some future studies so as to achieve both breadth and depth of findings. More on that as it develops, but I should probably stop talking so much about myself, lest you think I’m narcissistic. 🙂

Why I quit Farmville… and why I think you shouldn’t

I need to make a (somewhat embarrassing)  disclosure. Yes, I once played Farmville. And Cafe World. I started playing out of both curiosity and the sense that I needed to try it out because of its relationship to my research; I stayed because it hooked me the same as it hooks millions of other players. Yes, I wasted hours planting and harvesting virtual crops and “cooking” virtual dishes. I never took to the creative aspect of the games by trying to create the most aesthetically pleasing space (mainly because I’m not very artistically inclined) and I never posted about it to my News Feed (because that is quite annoying). Instead, it was the competition that kept me–I certainly took a small pleasure from “beating” fellow network members at leveling up, at least in the beginning. After awhile, even that becomes a chore as levels take days, if not weeks, to increase just one level.

Then one day earlier this year I quit on impulse; I removed all game-related applications from my Facebook. And I felt a relief when I did so, like I had taken out the trash, trash that was starting to stink.

Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little on that last statement. But I did feel some relief when I quit playing the games, like I no longer had to hide a dirty little secret–that I played the most annoying game on the Internet–from my friends.  Why was I so loathe to admit to playing games that 240 million other people do? Why is Zynga (the company behind these games) the source of so much wrath, its games stigmatized by many? And to take a step back even further, what benefits (if any) could be accrued through playing these games?

While Zynga founder Mark Pincus is nothing if not a shrewd businessman (his company is set to clear $500 million in revenue this year and the company reached 100 million users years quicker than Facebook), his games also excel at inciting a deep-seeded hatred by non-players. If you Google “I hate Farmville,” 124,000 results pop up. A popular YouTube video spoofing a Farmville commercial opens with, “Are you tired of playing games that are fun?” And while I agree that Farmville and its cousins are not the action-packed games you often see on PS3 and Xbox these days, they’re certainly not anything new. People have been playing simple games like this for years: whether it’s Solitaire or the Adventures of Lolo, there is a slightly competitive element, but in the end, it’s merely just another way to pass the time.

I think why people hate these games so much is because of sharing abuse–as one interview participant noted in research I conducted at the beginning of the year, she hated that her friend kept “polluting her page” with constant updates about Mafia Wars. It should be noted that in March, Facebook changed some of its policies to halt the influx of notifications from third-party applications like Farmville–and that these changes are attributed to a multi-million-user decrease in players of these games between April and May 2010. But the onslaught of updates throughout late 2009 and early 2010, coupled with people not knowing that it was easy to hide all those updates from their News Feed, was certainly enough to try even the most easy-going person’s patience. And, unfortunately for Zynga, the games became synonymous with words ranging from irritating to devil-spawn.

My research team–led by the awesome Yvette Wohn–recently had a paper accepted at HICSS 2011 that looks at the potential positive outcomes associated with social network game (SNG) play. Employing qualitative methods (consisting of in-depth interviews with 18 adult Facebook users ages 25-55), we found some recurring game-related themes emerge across interviews. While some non-players may see SNGs as anti-social, players in our study repeatedly referred to social aspects of gameplay. We found three ways in which these games benefitted relationships between various sets of individuals on the site, which we classified as initiating, maintaining, and enhancing. Below is a (very brief) summary of findings related to these three types of behaviors.

  • Some individuals forged new relationships through SNGs. At first, these “friendships” were created so as to advance within the game, but oftentimes game-related interactions led to real relationship development and interaction outside of the game.
  • Many individuals play these games with existing offline friends as a relational maintenance strategy similar to the short communications that may occur through other communication channels in Facebook, such as wall posts of status updates. Especially for friends or relatives who were geographically dispersed, in-game interactions such as gift-giving acted as an alternative way to say “hi” or “I’m thinking of you.”
  • Finally, some individuals noted that gameplay allowed them to strengthen relationships with previously distant (or non-existant) ties. Establishing common ground through the game led to interactions that would most likely not have occurred without the impetus of shared gameplay.

So maybe Farmville isn’t evil after all. I know people love to hate on it, but these games represent yet another option in our relationship maintenance toolbox. Just because the tool is there doesn’t mean you have to use it, but it’s pretty apparent that beyond simply providing many people with entertainment, it may actually be serving a positive function for users looking to form new relationships and maintain–and even enhance–existing ones.

That still doesn’t mean I’m logging back on, but I guess I won’t diss it so much anymore.

I’ll post a pdf of the full paper once in a few months.

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.