Part of Collaborative Book Review of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd
Review of Chapter 1, Identity – why do teens seem strange online?
Dani Spinosa, York University
I came to danah boyd’s It’s Complicated seeking advice, more than anything. It has been a while since I was a “teen,” but as I move slowly but surely into the world of digital scholarship, I couldn’t help but assume that boyd’s book might help me answer some questions I had about constructing an online identity, writing for a wide audience, and dealing with varying contexts. Both unfortunately and fortunately, her answer was a resounding “it’s complicated.” The book’s first proper chapter, “identity,” consistently refuses to fit itself into binaries of positive and negative, physical and immaterial, analog and digital, or healthy and unhealthy. Instead, boyd stresses that the question of context is central to the social media construction of an identity. As I work to create my own digital presence via a doctoral thesis produced through blog posts, I am often forced to confront the issue of context and audience: who do I write for when I write an academic blog? which identity I present to when I write there? It would seem that boyd manages to do a brilliant job of constructing a text that has both a clear idea of her audience, as well as a very undefined one. The text is both readable and challenging throughout, both personal/anecdotal and scholarly. I come to the text as a budding digital humanist, so I envy boyd’s ability to write for a wide-ranging audience; as a non-specialized reader I found the text easy to comprehend and navigate, but as an academic reader from a different field, I also found the text challenging and interesting. Its welcoming and engaging tone is enviable.
I do not mean to suggest in that opinion that the text is pedestrian, or that it doesn’t engage in difficult philosophical or sociological issues. In fact, I found that this first chapter in particular does a remarkable job of linking the supposedly banal issue of teenage use of social media with the larger issues of identity politics and digital humanism that permeate some of the most haughty and obtuse academic texts. I was struck, for example, with boyd’s reading of Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen. Boyd moves beyond Turkle’s brand of psychoanalytic scholarship, noting that Turkle leaves “room for arguments that suggested that the internet could—and would—free people of the burdens of their ‘material’—or physically embodied—identities, enabling them to become a better version of themselves” (37). My first reading of this sentence left me dwelling on the adjective, wondering what, precisely, made these new and pseudo-immaterial identities “better.” The suggestion is, I think, that the multiplicity inherent in the identity creation in social media leaves room for destabilized identities, which are, I would argue, especially crucial during the identity-formation that occurs in our teenage years. It is a question that, for me, recalls the issues of destabilized identities that appear in poststructural philosophy—notably in the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari—and that carry through to the radical left of political philosophy—for example, in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s work. While boyd never directly addresses the radical potentials of this destabilization (this would alienate some of her audience, and thus negate the readability and engaging nature that I signalled in my first paragraph), she does point in that direction, citing Perry Barlow’s 1996 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” Barlow argues that digital network allows for the possibility of “identities [that] have no bodies” which, to my mind, recalls Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the “body without organs” (BwO). As if embracing the radical potentials of this destabilized identity, boyd includes her own personal anecdote, arguing that she saw her teenage self creating multiple destabilized identities online, and thus made her a kind of “native” of this new digital world, a kind of deleuzoguattarian nomad.
And yet, as boyd notes, social media is not a free, ephemeral place where identities are left in flux to flourish and grow into the radical potentials of the multiple. In fact, boyd notes that in some ways, the permeation of contemporary teenage lives with social media can have the opposite effect, and it very often does. That is, alongside the presence of multiple identities is the need to quickly and effectively switch contexts and thus speak differently to different audiences. This task is much easier in the ephemerality of the spoken word. She writes that “[t]he ability to easily switch contexts assumes an ephemeral social situation; this cannot be taken for granted in digital environments” (34). Instead, social media archives and records the individual utterance. In this way, in can enforce societal norms in a way that is probably more effective that in-person communication; the many interesting and varied anecdotes that boyd includes—all taken from her own interviews with various teens—seem to demonstrate this well. Clearly, the multiplicity of identities afforded to the socially-networked teen is a double-edged sword. Each utterance is made permanent in a way that speech is not, and as such is exposed to a far greater audience, making context unclear and largely out of the speaker’s control. This was an issue that I hadn’t really appreciated until this point, largely because in literature departments, the digital world is viewed as impermanent and ephemeral in a way that the material print-based text is not. I was surprised, and excited, at the possibilities for deterritorialization and reterritorialization inherent in social media identities, and boyd’s book does an especially effective job of bringing this to light.
What I am trying to get across by bringing up these two apparently contradictory elements of teenage networked identity is that the issue is complex, irreconcilable, and still clearly in formation. The greatest praise I can give to this book is that it treats it as such. It is well-researched, informed, and insightful, but it does not claim to have all the answers, which—as an academic reader—is refreshing to read. What’s more, boyd is self-conscious and direct in pointing out that it is not her goal to provide answers for these discontinuities. In her introductory section, for example, she tells her readers that because social media is obviously still developing and changing, her concern is not to provide answers, but instead to look closely and carefully at an issue that is often treated with disdain or disinterest. Because “social media is actively shaping and being shaped by contemporary society,” she writes, “so it behoves us to move beyond punditry and scare tactics to understand what social media is and how it fits into the social lives of youth” (27). This first chapter does precisely this, treating a difficult, unclear, and “complicated” issue with respect, grace, and thoughtfulness. While she is always clear about her position as an outsider looking into this world, she maintains engaged and careful throughout. So, the text did not particularly help me to become a better writer of online scholarship, except by providing an example of how to write to a broad audience. But, it did show me that the control I have over the identity I present online is both radically multiple and frighteningly out of my control. I am sure I will become a better writer and scholar with this thought in mind, however long it’s been since I was a “teenager.”