Blog Post

Chapter 2: Privacy - Why do youth share so publicly? (review by Jamie Henthorn)

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


Review of Chapter 2, Privacy – why do youth share so publicly?

Jamie Henthorn, Old Dominion University

danah boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Life of Networked Teens addresses how teenagers use social media and perceive their own rhetorical audiences. Her chapter on privacy reveals a multitude of nuanced strategies youth employ when sharing online. boyd’s chapter also makes apparent how diverse youth understandings or rhetorical audience are, and the ways in which their family and social relationships affect their approaches to sharing across social media.

Establishing the Context 

Before I begin my review of this chapter I want to highlight some of the conclusions boyd has come to in the previous chapters as a way to clarify her arguments in this second chapter because she builds on those observations in this chapter. In her introduction, boyd observes “Unlike me and the other early adopters who avoided our local community by hanging out in chatrooms and bulletin boards, most teenagers now go online to connect to the people in their community. Their online participation is not eccentric; it is entirely normal, even expected” (4). Significantly, teens often go online to connect with people they already know. They use social media to augment in-person relationships and extend the feelings of connectedness they have when they are away from their social circles. Additionally, boyd notes, “Many teens are not nearly as digitally adept as the often-used assumption that they are ‘digital natives’ would suggest” (22). Youth participate on social media, but they often lack the understanding of how social media works. 

What Teens Mean by Privacy

Privacy is undoubtedly a loaded word. What we mean by privacy changes in different contexts. Teens must navigate what they as individuals mean by privacy, how their peers view privacy, and what their parents and other adults mean by privacy. Instead of trying to make blanket statements about teen perspectives on privacy, boyd works to push against societal narratives about the issue: “The idea that teens share too much—and therefore don’t care about privacy—is now so entrenched in public discourse that research showing that teens do desire privacy and work to get it often ignored by the media” (56). boyd mentions that companies like Facebook use these assumptions to defend complex and ever changing privacy policies and qualifies this assessment with examples of how different teens perceive privacy differently. Essentially, teens are more interested in keeping posts private from their parents than they are government or corporate structures (57).

boyd’s research shows youth wanting their peers to view, share, and comment on content across different social media. Some parents and adults are invited to view these spaces (particularly Facebook accounts) but youth would prefer that their parents not comment on posts and shared media. boyd cites Erving Goffman’s assertion of “civil inattention” wherein we conscientiously ignore conversations that do not involve us when we are in public spaces. Many teens feel their parents have not carried this practice into online environments. Their parents argued it was their right to read and comment on any content their teens shared online, from LiveJournal to Instagram. Many teens feel that even though they are posting publically online their parents should contentiously ignore those posts. One way teens conflict with adults is to practice what boyd calls “social steganography” (65); teens hide messages for specific audiences in statements that can only be interpreted by parties who know a great deal about the conversation.

Finally under the umbrella of social steganography, youth are often expected to have an online presence of some kind, be it a blog, a Facebook post, or a Twitter following. In a networked society, teens have the opportunity to hide significant parts of their lives because they have control over what they make public as active social media users: “In a world in which posting updates is common, purposeful, and performative, sharing often allows teens to control a social situation more than simply opting out” (75).

Review and Cultural Impact

Overall, I found boyd’s chapter to be exactly the kind of work that is necessary in researching teens’ use of digital media. I have been asked countless times as a new media scholar how teens use new media and this chapter makes apparent that teens do not do so in a unified way. They assess the rhetorical situations they are in and make decisions based on what they hope to accomplish with the resources available to them. It seems strange but necessary to continue to stress that adults also use social media in varied ways and to therefore conclude that there is no one way for any group to approach social media. To do so is to objectify a population and, as boyd points out, leads to mainstream media coming to inaccurate conclusions about a populaton’s use. The chapter finally makes clear that a generation raised on Web 2.0 perceives privacy differently than even I do, only being about one year or so too old to be a participant in boyd’s earliest studies. boyd’s chapter is a thoughtful and engaging look at the ways in which youth perceive both their audience and notions of privacy. boyd’s methodology treats her participants with a great deal of respect and provides the quality examples that aid her in getting to the research question. The qualitative data she presents highlights how complex it can be to navigate multiple identities online and how online social behaviors are still being determined across generations. In the work presented here, I see parallels to Illana Gershon’s The Breakup 2.0, a qualitative analysis on technology and acceptable breakup procedures amongst college students. Both scholars point out that proper netiquette is still determined mostly by smaller in-person communities where individuals seek out others they know to find affirmation for their own approaches to online use.

One thing that I would have liked to see more of is a deeper analysis of how youth navigate the privacy policies or particular affordances of multiple social medias in order to find their own sense of privacy or control over their online identities. Her observations that youth are often jumping to new social media to avoid the gaze of adults make it clear that the individual media is less important than the practices youth adopt. At the same time, discussions of Facebook’s rather fluid approach to privacy policies dominate the chapter as the example of changing privacy policies. Yet several other social media are prone to issues of privacy breach as well. For instance, it is easy to create an identity for someone on Twitter as a joke amongst friends. Similarly, an individual’s image and tweets can be stolen and used by an unknown party. Should someone adopt a teen’s identity online and use it in a way the teen did not expect, a (current or future) employer can then later find that account, putting the youth in a situation he or she did not invite. I bring this up to highlight the connection between internet knowledge and privacy. Jumping from media to media, teens are expected to have an expertise of digital media that many teens do not posses.

Gershon, Illana. The Break Up 2.0. New York: Cornell University Press, 2010. Print.


1 comment

In all honesty, they're expected to have an expertise that goes beyond the skills that most adults possess....