Blog Post

Chapter 8: Searching for a public of their own (review by Angela Cirucci)

Part of the HASTAC Scholars Collaborative Book Review of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd

Review of Chapter 8 - Searching for a public of their own

by Angela Cirucci 

In her eighth and final chapter, searching for a public of their own, boyd discusses how teens look to online spaces for a sense of freedom and belonging. While many offline places exclude teens and while many parents place strict limits on where their teens can hangout, boyd explains that online spaces offer a new place for increased and enhanced social opportunities.

Instead of salvaging old offline spaces or fighting their parents’ wishes, teens are learning to create their own imagined communities online. As boyd generally shows throughout It’s Complicated, and specifically shows through stories involving cliques hanging out at a high school football game and friends socializing at a mall, teens are not constantly visiting social spaces for the entertainment or services offered (e.g., the football game or the shopping). boyd briefly describes her own experiences: “Back then, we never had any money to buy anything more luxurious than an Auntie Anne’s pretzel, but shopping was never the point” (p. 200). Indeed, teens are instead providing themselves with opportunities to learn what it means to perform social norms and take part in society. However, teens who are not welcome or are not allowed in offline social spaces have realized that online spaces can provide them with even more possibilities.

Creating imagined communities online, teens can both be in public and be public. The former, boyd explains, is fruitful because teens not only learn what it means to be a part of society but to also develop a sense of self. The latter, while not representing all online teens, describes those who desire a more pronounced image. These images, boyd continues, are often established under the commercial and celebrity culture in which we currently live, with many teens taking cues from reality TV stars and paparazzi portrayals.

boyd contends that teens are aware of the extremely commercial and limiting nature of social media spaces such as Facebook and Twitter, but that this caveat is accepted and carefully navigated due to the fact that teens’ offline spaces are full of advertisements and restrictions as well. Joining social media sites, they quickly learn to deal with invisible audiences and collapsed contexts, two concepts that boyd more thoroughly elucidates in previous chapters.

Maintaining a common theme that runs throughout It’s Complicated, boyd speaks to parents’ and others’ fears regarding the information that teens share online. The teens, not the structure of the spaces, she argues, define how private each social media platform is. How much each teen shares expresses how much they want to be a part of the public. Therefore, a space like Facebook may be extremely open for one teen who is part of a social group that friends many people and posts often. On the other hand, for another teen, Facebook may be a fairly private space where she and her friends maintain a small, tightly-knit community.

Although not often taken seriously, these spaces aid teens in learning what it means to be engaged and active members of our democratic society. A networked public does not have to be political; but, online social media spaces often allow teens’ political involvement to flourish. And, as with political discourse online in general, teens’ conversations online transcend their originating platforms and appear in offline publics as well. For example, boyd discusses teens’ exchanges on MySpace regarding HR4437, the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism and Illegal Immigrant Control Act. An anti-immigrant act, it was opposed by many teens. In particular, teens who were children of undocumented parents decided to speak out. They formed online communities to protest the Act. These online networks eventually gained enough momentum to enter offline spaces and culminated in a massive protest and California high school walkout.

Clearly, the digital networked publics in this case had a profound effect on society and should, as boyd argues, have had a profound impact on political discourse. Instead, however, the teens were punished, and “in admonishing the students, administrators told the press that the students should return to school, where they could have conversations about immigration in a ‘productive’ way” (p. 208). While much has not changed—teens are still not taken seriously in the public forum and parents are still experiencing moral panic with each new technological advancement, some things have changed. Teens can now create communities for themselves without even leaving their bedrooms. With mobile devices, they can be constantly logged-in to these communities, bringing their imagined audiences with them wherever they go.

Therefore “what teens do online cannot be separated from their broader desires, attitudes, and values” (p. 202). Digital and offline realities are only becoming more and more intertwined. Teens are not escaping reality online. Instead, they are creating and exploring new and old realities; “social media is providing a vehicle for teens to take ownership over their lives” (p. 212). If we see a problem, boyd argues, we cannot think that fixing the mirror is the solution. The solution, as it always has been, is to fix society.

boyd’s final chapter nicely rounds out the previous seven, illuminating how the topics of her previous discussions—privacy, addiction, bullying, etc.—subsist in the deeply human desire to both be social and to learn about the self. Often sheltered or simply banned from offline public networks, teens turn to online spaces to create and perform within networked communities. As she does both implicitly and explicitly throughout the book, boyd closes by stressing the importance of adults and teens learning from each other and working together in the creation and maintenance of networked publics.

I agree with boyd in that teens are not taken seriously enough, especially when it comes to their online performances. She certainly gives teens a voice in It’s Complicated that parents, the general public, and academics alike do not often hear or provide. Because adolescence is frequently the age of early adoption, teens are an important social group when it comes to understanding new technologies.

A question that I come away with after reading this chapter, and the book in general, however, is one regarding the structures of the online spaces that teens frequent and depend on for their social growth and personal reflection. boyd argues over and over again that teens’ usage of online spaces defines the spaces more than the structures do. Often, and in this chapter, she is relating this to the privacy of the spaces. So, yes, regarding privacy concerns, teens can decide for themselves how they will use the spaces regarding how much information they will input and how much information they will leave out.

However, there are other structural affordances that play an important role in the performance of self. Depending on the social medium, users are bound to display the self under certain guidelines. This is not a technologically deterministic argument—there are designers and programmers with distinct outcomes and marketing schemes in mind when creating spaces that teens then fold so seamlessly into their lives. I wonder if boyd does not pay enough attention to the ways in which these restrictions potentially alter the ways in which teens create and perform within their networked communities. While she does introduce the four affordances granted by social media technologies in her introduction—persistence, visibility, spreadability, and searchability—I would argue that boyd does not root her argument in these structures as much as I expected.

Additionally, because boyd so elegantly describes the ways in which other aspects of online communities can transcend the digital world and enter into our offline realities, I wonder how the identity and social norms proliferated online through structural decisions begin to alter culture expectations offline. Just because teens do not talk about these affordances, and perhaps are not even aware of them, does not mean that they are not a salient piece of the networked public discussion.

For example, although Facebook allows users to now choose from a plethora of non-binary gender affiliations, at sign up, new users must still choose between only female and male. Further, gender identity has become a salient issue in this space, perhaps putting pressure on teens to define their gender when they are not ready. Indeed, Facebook does not allow users to choose no gender—each must select “female,” “male,” or “other.” If “other” is chosen, each user must then pick at least one of the “other” choices. In addition, with all of the gender work Facebook is doing, there is no explicit space to define ethnicity/race/nationality. This omission may possibly lead some teens to assume that gender is more important than ethnicity/race/nationality, or that it is acceptable to guess someone’s background simply by looking at their profile picture.

Overall, I enjoyed boyd’s fresh take on teens and their performances within online networked publics. While this chapter can be read alone, it is most appreciated when read as the conclusion to It’s Complicated—some concepts discussed are not adequately explained simply because boyd has already done so in previous chapters. This chapter and the book in general are great for parents and educators—boyd brilliantly links teens’ everyday lives with traditional theories that may be common to social media academics but unfamiliar to other readers. Additionally, the book is also a must read for social media scholars—boyd reminds us that there are always different perspectives of which to be aware in the social media and identity discussion.

Please feel free to comment below. I would love to have a discussion with you regarding your thoughts on the chapter and my review. Thanks!

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