(This is part 1 of my discussion of boyd’s book. Part 2 is here).
boyd’s latest book is It’s Complicated: The Social Life of Networked Teens, and it made me think, a lot. She has put together a veritable fuckton of research that looks at just how teens interact online.
As with most of boyd’s work, this argument is data driven, but it also offers some incredibly rich and nuanced ways to look at some of our most cherished cultural narratives. Her main focus is that simplistic looks at how any of us function in our highly technologically mediated culture are at best useful and at worst harmful, and she uses our standard tropes about how this generation is all screwed up as a benchmark to examine what really goes on in teen digital (and real) life.
She builds off Sherri Turkle’s work (which I blogged about here), which she references directly. She shares Turkle’s concern for the millennial generation, but she doesn’t share her pessimism. Instead, boyd puts out a call to arms that challenges all of us to think beyond cliches:
Growing up in and being a part of networked publics is complicated. The realities that youth face do not fit into neat utopian or dystopian frames, nor will eliminating technology solve the problems they [teens] encounter. Networked publics are here to stay. Rather than resisting technology or fearing what might happen if youth embrace social media, adults should help youth develop the skills and perspective to productively navigate the complications brought about by living in networked publics. Collaboratively, adults and youth can help create a networked world that we all want to live in. (212)
Again, this sort of call I think opens space for universities to partner with 7-12 grade programs to look at what young people need. boyd (like Turkle) is careful not to assume that she knows that answers, but she asks lots of questions, and great ones, that get to the root of the inadequacies of our current ways of thinking about digital culture.
I’ll talk more about these inadequacies in a subsequent post, but I’ll finish this one with a term that she coins that is a useful beginning point: context collapse. Although she doesn’t take full credit (as she discusses in her own blog here), her writing is the first place where I saw someone attempt to describe the ways that digital culture enhances contextual cognitive dissonance:
A context collapse occurs when people are forced to grapple simultaneously with otherwise unrelated social contexts that are rooted in different norms and seemingly demand different social responses. (31)
In particular she identifies the myriad of locations in social media where this type of collapse can occur, especially for young people who are looking for a public space that they can share with friends (since, as she documents, many other physical public spaces have been denied them). This negotiation of contexts is tricky at best (some business colleagues and I just published a chapter in a book on digital discourse that identifies how even adults fail to make these moves successfully), and teens in particular will struggle. boyd doesn’t blame teens for this, however; instead, she notes (in a beautifully Birmingham-school way) how teens are actually often pretty smart at moving between contexts, and adults often don’t understand just what and why teens did and do.
Because, yes, we often fail to see what they did there…