On the subject of Facebook, boyd rolls her eyes. Yes, she's there, but she finds it a very hard space to manage.
"I have to simultaneously deal with professional situations, friends from the past, friends from the present all in one environment and I don't share the same thing in those worlds. For me it's a world of context collapse," says boyd.
"Context collapse": boyd isn't sure whether she or a fellow social scientist coined the phrase, but she refers to it a lot. She says, like adults, teenagers are figuring out how to present themselves in different contexts. One of the chapters in her new book is all about why teenagers seem to behave so strangely online. "They're trying to figure out the boundaries with regard to their peers. So what is cool? What is funny? What will get them a lot of attention good or bad?" says boyd.
As they get older, says boyd, they want to look even cooler. Sometimes that's reflected in the name they use online. "So you'd see people being like 'carebear3344' and then they'd realize that they're no longer 13 and talking about Care Bears is no longer cute. So they have to write something more sophisticated. So then we pick up a Jack Kerouac reference and all of sudden somebody's Darma Bum," says boyd.
To write It's Complicated, boyd spent about eight years studying teenagers and their social media behavior. She traveled to 16 U.S. states. She visited different communities, rich and poor, urban and rural. She interviewed over 160 teenagers, promising them confidentiality.
High school students in Washington, DC are all too familiar with some of the issues boyd raises in her book. They don't call it "context collapse," but they've experienced it. Fourteen-year-old Faith Sydnor says she and her friends use social media to talk to each other, which is why they've left Facebook. " 'Cause older people are getting on there. We want our own social network to ourselves. I guess so we won't get in trouble," says Sydnor.
Teenagers, boyd writes in her book, are "desperate to have access to a social world like that which adults take for granted." Jamahri Sydnor — also 14 — thinks a lot of adults don't understand that her smartphone is a place to relax and have fun. "My phone is my escape from all of the things at school and other things that stress me out," says Sydnor. "So I think that being on your phone is a good thing. And like games, social networking, it's a good thing because you can escape."
For the most part, boyd says, teenagers are doing online what they've always done. The difference now is that — if that teenager isn't careful — the world can see it. For her book she also talked to a lot of adults: Parents, ministers, teachers. Once, an admissions officer from an Ivy League school contacted her about an essay they'd received from an African-American teenager from South Central Los Angeles. "He wrote really beautifully about wanting to leave behind the gangs that surrounded him growing up," says boyd.
The school loved the essay. But then they checked out his Myspace profile and found out it was full of references to gang activity. boyd says the admissions officer asked her 'Why would he lie to us?' "And this question was fascinating to me," says boyd, "Because — I didn't know this particular kid — but, my guess, having spent a lot of time in this region of Los Angeles — is that he was working on survival." She believes it's possible he needed to affiliate with a gang for his own safety."And so what happened was Myspace became a place of performing those gang affiliations," says boyd. "Those Myspace pages were never designed for the college admissions officer. And so here's this college admissions officer not understanding the context in which this teen is operating."
Context is everything, says boyd. She believes teenagers' behavior online is often misinterpreted without it. Amanda Lenhart, a senior researcher and director of teens and technology at the Pew Research Center, agrees. Lenhart says boyd digs deeper. "She goes out and she does the legwork and spends the time to talk with these kids and then takes the time to glean it and digest it and put it out there for the rest of us to use," says Lenhart.
Author dana boyd says she was going to call her new book Like D'oh!, because so many of the teenagers she interviewed think all of this is obvious. But instead, perhaps to help adults feel better, it's called It's Complicated: The Social Lives Of Networked Teens.
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