This weekend, I read danah boyd’s (2014) brand new book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. Since my research interest is digital identity, I’m going to discuss boyd’s thoughts regarding identity below. But first, I want to give a general overview of several points boyd makes in the book because I think they are important to consider.
What I most appreciate about this book is that boyd offers an important social critique about adult reaction to digital social media use by youth, though her critique is much broader. boyd includes an honest assessment about how our society (particularly in the United States) is blaming digital technology for social ills we choose to ignore.
boyd accomplishes this social critique in a clever way. First, she discusses our cultural obsession with false binaries: social media is either good or bad in our society. Rarely do we discuss most social issues beyond such false binaries anymore in our society, and I believe boyd quietly lays this out in the introduction to the book, and then goes on to provide countless examples of this false choice in each chapter.
Secondly, boyd discusses the culture of fear that we have developed in the United States that make possible such false dichotomies and the mostly unwarranted fears about the impacts of digital social media on youth. As I read, I was reminded of Barry Glassner’s (1999) book The Culture of Fear. In that book, Glassner discusses how our culture creates pseudo-problems in order to avoid dealing with our real societal issues: ‘welfare frauds’ to avoid our fear of dealing with poverty; ‘road rage’ to avoid our fear of dealing with overpopulation or urban sprawl; ‘drug wars/abuse’ to avoid our fear of dealing with high levels of anxiety about disconnection, depression, or mental health issues; the list goes on. Glassner’s main point is that we create these pseudoproblems because they seem easier for us to deal with as a society than the larger systemic issues that produce them.
This is the same point boyd makes brilliantly throughout her book. She discusses the pseudo-problems or pseudo-solutions we attribute to the advent of digital technological spaces that are 1) mostly not really big problems/solutions and 2) that allow us to avoid dealing with larger societal systemic dilemmas that we consistently choose to ignore as a society.
Here is a sampling:
Inequality (Solution): The Internet was supposed to be the great equalizer. However, inequality is as high as ever. We believed the internet and digital technology would solve many equality issues that simply have not materialized. You hear this all the time, particularly in education: MOOCs and digital learning are supposed to solve the achievement gap and access problems facing higher education, but really such tools do little to alleviate larger structural inequalities.
Diversity (Solution): Digital social media are supposed to connect us with many diverse people, but the opposite actually occurs. We are more homogenized than ever, generally speaking, and this problem is only being exacerbated by algorithms that now make many more choices about websites you visit, people you might be interested in knowing, purchases you might like to make, etc.
Sexual Predation (Problem): We create pseudofears about online sexual predation and the risk to youth that often do not materialize. These pseudofears allow us to continue ignoring the real spaces where sexual assault occur in our society: in homes, by people we know, in places we used to trust, such as houses of worship or doctors offices. In other words, it is easier to imagine wiping out online sexual predators than to deal with legislation or solutions to those larger systemic problems.
Cyberbullying (Problem): boyd makes a bold move in talking about our bizarre fear of cyberbullying, and bullying in general. I’ll admit, I was skeptical of this chapter at first, but I tend to think she is right in her assertions. First, boyd believes that we have elevated all behavior to the level of bullying, and then she says that while we should protect victims of such bullying, we often punish and shame the bully’s themselves, who often are bullying as a cry for help. In other words, while we should protect victims of bullying, we also need to address the social issues impacting the bullies – a conversation we rarely have.
boyd discusses many other issues that are important to read about: privacy, the lack of serious discourse around digital literacy skills due to the myth of ‘digital nativism’ among youth, internet addiction, and anti-social behavior.
boyd’s main point is clear, however: digital social media has not really changed anything except the context where youth are engaged. The same social issues and workarounds that youth utilized in the past are present today, just in a new form. Therefore, boyd ultimately concludes that we must stop discussing digital technology as the root of problems or as a convenient scapegoat. The pseudo-problems we create are the same problems we have had in our society, just taking place in a new environmental context. This is a fascinating thesis. For these reasons, the book is well worth the read.
My own research on digital identity in college students was both supported and challenged by boyd’s book. In her introduction, boyd discusses four aspects of digital social media platforms that I believe are critical in our new approaches to identity research. Digital platforms are persistent, visible, spreadable, and searchable.
Though I have not utilized this language specifically, I have discussed how digital social media platforms do disrupt the traditional spatio-temporal realities of our lives, which is why I argue that we need a new way of discussing identity research on college students that moves beyond representational, positivist epistemologies to a complexivist epistemology focused on identity emergence (if you are interested in a more elaborate discussion of these points, I hope you will attend my paper presentation at the upcoming ACPA – College Student Educators International Conference in Indianapolis, March 31 from 3:30 – 4:45 in Marriott Indiana D).
What I found most striking, however, was boyd’s discussion of the socially constructed nature of digital social media platforms. I must admit that after reading this book I was buying a bit into the technological deterministic arguments made by Lanier (2011) and others, who stated that digital social media platforms actually restrict and reduce our identity through their digital architectural design. While boyd does acknowledge that platforms dictate in some fashion our use, she also articulates a position that despite digital architectural limitations set up by the platforms, each site still becomes socially constructed.
This happens in two ways. First, as youth develop their profiles or interact with a platform, they often have an imagined networked public in mind. Usually, this is the group of people who they are friends with on the site (which is why youth often post information that many adults find absurd, and why adults become paranoid about issues of privacy, etc). Tied to this point is the reality that our profiles and digital identities are also created by others in our networked public(s): as people comment on our posts, repost or retweet, tag us in photos, etc. Often this is the part of our identity we do not personally control, but it is socially constructed identity.
Secondly, youth still may post false information about themselves online in an effort to control the space, create personal agency, or simply to object to the information a particular platform seeks to acquire about them. Examples of this might include choosing different names for oneself, choosing different locations where one lives or date of birth, or even a specific screen name or Twitter handle.
Though this does happen, boyd is careful to note that this is not the norm anymore. In fact, youth are attracted to social media as locations to interact with their friends in a society that has continued to restrict their freedom and free time based on a culture that both fears for the safety of youth and also fears youth (I imagine that Henry Giroux would have a lot to agree about in this portion of boyd’s book).
Finally, I was struck by what boyd discusses as the management of digital identity that youth deal with. In this part of her chapter on identity, boyd solidifies my own argument about why college students participate in multiple platforms: because each platform contains a specific networked public. boyd discusses how many youth have to ensure that identities and contexts do not collapse in on one another. In other words, there can be challenges when digital identity contexts interact with one another.
This was the winning quote for me:
“Most teens use a plethora of social media services as they navigate relationships and contexts. Their seemingly distinct practices on each platform might suggest that they are trying to be different people, but this would be a naive reading of the kinds of identity work taking place on and through social media” (p. 38).
I agree. This is why my dissertation work will be looking at college students engaged across multiple platforms. I believe this will help inform our understanding of identity in college students more holistically.
Digital social media contexts do seem to have changed the ways that youth work through identity issues, but in many ways, things remain the same. This is the point of boyd’s book. The same issues facing youth in dealing with identity issues continue to confront the youth of today. The only difference is these identity issues are unfolding in the environmental contexts of digital social media environments.
Since this post was so long, I thought I would end with a final note that I believe boyd was making. As opposed to the days of the early internet, when anonymity in chat rooms and other gaming platforms was more prevalent, most youth today actually do present true identities online. The mythology that many youth are presenting inaccurate portrayals of self are mostly untrue. These points about the shift in the cultural context over the past two decades made me think of this song:
boyd, d. (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Glassner, B. (1999). The culture of fear: Why Americans are afraid of the wrong things. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Lanier, J. (2011). You are not a gadget: A manifesto. New York, NY: Vintage Books.