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Additional Pedagogical Resources: Examining Youth Publics through Media Analysis (by Jen Hardwick)

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

Additional Pedagogical Resources - Examining Youth Publics through Media Analysis

by Jen Hardwick


In the conclusion of her book It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens, danah boyd builds off of the work of Charles Baudelaire, who “wrote of flaneurs — individuals who came to the streets not to go anywhere in particular but in order to see and be seen” (boyd 203). Boyd argues that youth are “digital flaneurs”: they enter digital spaces “to see and be seen,” or “to be public and to be in public” (203). What this means and how it is enacted are largely dependent on the youth involved. As boyd outlines, youth enter digital space for a myriad of reasons including: to build audiences and gain followings, to observe and learn, to socialize with peers, and/or to engage in political activism (203-210).  As a result the digital publics that youth seek out — either as observers or participants — are as diverse as youth themselves.


The diversity of youth’s networked publics points to two important facts that are often overlooked in academic and media discourses. The first is that youth are not a monolithic group — while there are traits that tie them together, there are also numerous factors (including, but not limited to: race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexuality, cultural background, geographical location and education) that separate them. Given this, it is unsurprising that “what teens want from being in public—and how they understand publics—varies” (205). The second important fact is that digital technology is a tool, not an entity in and of itself. As boyd argues “Technology makes the struggles youth face visible, but it neither creates nor prevents harmful things from happening even if it can be a tool for both. It simply mirrors and magnifies many aspects of everyday life, good and bad” (212).  As such, youth’s networked publics can be viewed as a reflection of social values and frameworks that exist elsewhere. 


Boyd’s book provides an excellent opportunity to teach students about the vastly different contexts that inform networked youth cultures. In order to move this knowledge from theory into practice, I’ve outlined an assignment that encourages students to consider the reasons youth enter networked publics, examine how youth participate, identify the values and structures that inform youth activity, and think about the impacts. The assignment takes a Media Studies approach, and it is designed to be placed in conversation with boyd’s work. At its best and most successful, it will allow students to explore the diversity and complexity of networked publics and gain an understanding of the “broader cultural constructs and values that we take for granted” when looking at online activity (211). It will also allow students to build what the New London Group has called “multiliteracies.”  Multiliteracies refer to “the increasing multiplicity and integration of significant modes of meaning-making, where the textual is also related to the visual, the audio, the spatial, the behavioral, and so on” (New London Group 24). It is clear from boyd’s work that multiliteracies (sometimes called “new literacies” or “digital literacies”) are an important part of networked publics, so a multiliterate approach is ideal for analysis. 

In its current form, the assignment is best suited for third or fourth year students who already have a background in close reading or cultural analysis, and who have experience formulating arguments on their own. However, my intention in outlining the assignment is not to be prescriptive; rather, it is to provide a framework that those teaching It’s Complicated and digital youth culture can build off of.

As such, the assignment is highly adaptable and can be easily changed depending on the size of the class, the skill levels of the students, and the preferences of the instructor. Possible adaptations are listed below. 


Media Analysis Assignment: Networked Youth Publics


Danah boyd argues that youth are “digital flaneurs” who enter digital spaces “to see and be seen,” or “to be public and to be in public” (203).  This assignment invites you to think about how and why youth participate in networked publics, and to consider how their participation informs and is informed by cultures, values and communities.


Please choose a piece of digital media (YouTube clip, picture, meme, blog post etc.) that is an example of youth engagement in networked publics and consider the following questions:

  • What “public(s)” or communities are involved? Who is public and who is being in public?
  • What social values are present?
  • What social values are challenged?
  • How do the youth involved situate themselves?
  • What is the purpose of the media? 
  • What tools, devices and approaches are used in the media to achieve its purpose?

Based on your observations form a clear and contentious argument. This argument does not need to answer all questions; rather, it should offer a focused synthesis of what you have observed. Your essay should have four parts:

  1. A brief introduction that provides context (who, what, when)
  2. A clear and contentious thesis
  3. Body paragraphs that support your thesis through detailed analysis of the media you have chosen 
  4. A conclusion that summarizes your argument and explains what is at stake


Possible Adaptations

  • Instructors can provide specific sites of analysis (for example: Amanda Todd’s video about bullying; posts from F-Bomb or other teen blogs/zines; or Kate Yeash’s online music ) or students can choose their own. Media can be chosen based on discipline (for example, those in literary studies may favour materials that are heavily (inter)textual), for ease of analysis, or because of the presence of a particular theme (gender, political engagement etc).
  • The tools, devices and approaches students focus on can also be adapted: literary devices, visual devices, technical tools, theoretical approaches or some combination thereof are all options. 
  • Currently the assignment risks privileging “being public” over “being in public” because it focuses on cultural materials as opposed to behaviours. However, there are options to consider audience and interactivity (for example comments on a YouTube page) which would come closer to examining “being in public.”
  • Students can write a complete essay (of varying length) or they could simply be asked to answer the questions in paragraphs.
  • The assignment can be done as a group project, where group members have to answer different questions

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