Review of Chapter 2, Privacy – why do youth share so publicly?
Kaarina Mikalson, University of Alberta
I first came across It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens when author danah boyd was interviewed on the CBC program Spark (you can find the piece that aired, “Networked Teens,” here, and the longer version of the interview here). In the interview, boyd and host Nora Young rehash some of the case studies and interviews that appear in boyd’s book, including some major examples from “Privacy -why do youth share so publicly?” They talk at length about the practice of encoding and what boyd calls “social steganography,” or the practice of “hiding messages in plain sight by leveraging shared knowledge and cues embedded in particular social contexts” (65). These are just some of the strategies teens employ to achieve privacy in the challenging world of social media. Boyd provides some detailed examples of how encoding works, but it is fairly straightforward. Though teens may be more consciously encoding their online production, it seems to me that such practices carry on well into adulthood. Song lyrics, quotes, and vague remarks consistently appear in my feeds. Regardless of the age of the users, encoding is consciously employed to exclude some readers and engage others.
As common as encoding may be for all age groups, among teens it is an issue of interest. This is the unspoken contradiction of much of the book: engagement with social media is common among adults, and this engagement includes connecting with strangers and sharing personal information. But when teens follow suit, it is a source of what boyd repeatedly calls ‘moral panic.’ It seems to me that this double standard has to do with the liminal space of the teen years: they have so much to offer–intelligence, curiosity, social energy–but they are not yet read as capable independent beings. Safety in social media is the major concern that parents, teachers, and journalists raise, and it is an issue that boyd addresses with extraordinary passion and sensitivity, particularly in the chapters addressing bullying and sexual predators. But the chapter on privacy digs deeper than safety concerns and confronts the power dynamics of adult-teen relationships. Though on the surface, privacy may be framed as a safety issue, boyd frames social media as yet another terrain where both adults and teenagers negotiate control and trust.
Early in the chapter, boyd introduces the moral panic around privacy and social media. The concern among many adults is that teens have an “unhealthy obsession” with privacy, particularly when it comes to withholding information from their parents, but are simultaneously performing a widespread “rejection of privacy” by offering so much of themselves online (54). boyd seeks to look beyond these “simplistic assumptions about teen privacy” (55). One of these assumptions is that teens have the agency to control their own privacy in social media. The assumptions boyd describes overlook other players in social media, including the industries and institutions that rely on social media engagement.
Boyd briefly draws readers’ attention to the technology executives behind these social media sites and apps: “Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg and Google chairman Eric Schmidt reinforce the notion that today’s teens are different, arguing that social norms around privacy have changed in order to justify their own business decisions regarding user privacy” (56). Though boyd does not dwell on the role of corporations in controlling privacy, it is an important observation to make and to keep in mind. There is tremendous pressure to engage with social media, particularly as these corporations become more established. My university demands that I use Gmail and encourages me to engage with multiple Google apps. It is just one of the institutions and organizations regularly pressuring me to expand my online presence and share my information. As these social media sites develop regularly, I struggle to keep up with their privacy settings and to maintain an online presence I am comfortable with. Teens face these same social, institutional, and corporate pressures to be online, and they simultaneously deal with their parents’ expectations around privacy.
Boyd acknowledges the pressure and struggle to keep up when she describes social media as “incredibly labor-intensive” (61). She further acknowledges the work of managing an online presence by defining privacy as “an ongoing process” (60). Privacy is difficult to achieve because of “the dynamics of mediated social situations–including invisible audiences, collapsed contexts, and persistent content” (61). Boyd provides examples of resourceful teens managing these invisible audiences, including the resonant example of Mikalah. Boyd and Young discuss Mikalah’s situation in the extended interview, but I will describe it briefly here. Mikalah lives in the foster-care system, and her Facebook account enables her to socialize, but it also makes her vulnerable to surveillance by adults involved in the foster-care system (70). She regularly suspends her accounts so that she can control her visibility and limit state surveillance.
Mikalah’s story reveals the nature of the invisible audience teens wish to exclude. They seek privacy, boyd writes, from those who hold power over them, “immediate authority figures” (56). Boyd performs an interesting analysis of trust between parents and children, as well as the rise of “intensive” parenting and how it is enabled and motivated by social media (72), but I will not dwell on these sections here. Instead, I want to go on to explore some of the issues boyd raises in another radio interview.
In an interview on CBC’s The Sunday Edition, boyd opens up to host Michael Enright about her own adolescence. She talks about her growing engagement with online communities, what she calls “her saving grace” from the drugs and suicide that claimed many of her classmates. Like so many of us, boyd met fascinating people online, who “showed [her] that the world was much larger than the community [she] came from” (“danah boyd”). She frames her online community as an alternative or supplement to the hypocrisies and norms of her small, immediate community, and it is clear that the Internet helped her cope with the limitations of her adolescent world. Throughout It’s Complicated, it is painfully clear how small the worlds of teenagers can be, particularly as frightened and eager parents shelter and over-schedule their children. Social media is an escape, or at least a different space where teenagers exert agency and expand their horizons.
Social media is also a site of non-hierarchal relationships, and boyd emphasizes this in her interview with Enright. Boyd argues that young people today “have very little access to adults who don’t hold power over them.” For boyd, online encounters gave access to a whole range of adults who shared knowledge with her and respected her. Working from her own experience, she advises Enright that parents should ensure they are not the only adult in their children’s lives. Teenagers require trusted, non-authoritative adults who can act as an alternative sounding board or support network. This resonates with Spark’s piece on “Crisis Texting” (you can listen to it here). This segment describes a shift in crisis counselling from phone calls to texting and messaging apps, with the aim of supporting teens and young adults. Guests Bob Filbin and Ron White make compelling arguments for this new form, and also detail its significant risks (including the privacy issues of archiving transcripts from text message conversations). Costs and benefits aside, social media is yet another space where teens are reaching out, and boyd, Filbin and White all seem to be working to ensure a responsible and supportive community reaches back. I experienced this first hand while writing this review, when a teenage acquaintance sought me out through social media. At that moment, social media was a means of safety, and I was able to help her negotiate her unstable domestic situation. I was reminded of how vital Facebook and other social media can be, particularly when phone access is a privilege, not a given.
Boyd’s chapter on privacy, like the rest of the book, is a well-researched and meticulous analysis of privacy for teenagers in social media, and it would serve many parents and adults well as an educational tool. Most significantly, boyd is opening up a really challenging discussion about what privacy in social media means for all of us. There are so many paths she could not pursue here, including the corporate nature of social media. She also makes important observations about the digital turn in education and the tension between deriding teens’ social media use and assuming they are networked in ways that will benefit their education (99). I am particularly grateful that she regularly acknowledges that not everyone has steady Internet or phone access, and we cannot make assumptions about technology’s availability. I am grateful for her thorough fieldwork and courage in tackling challenging social questions, and I look forward to seeing all the discussion and action that can emerge from such a relevant and provocative text.
boyd, danah. “Bonus: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.” Spark with Nora Young. CBC Radio, 11 Feb 2014. Web. 2 May 2014.
boyd, danah. “danah boyd.” The Sunday Edition with Michael Enright. CBC Radio, 13 May 2014. Web. 3 May 2014.
boyd, danah. it’s complicated: the social lives of networked teens. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. PDF file.
boyd, danah. “Networked Teens.” Spark with Nora Young. CBC Radio, 16 Feb 2014. Web. 2 May 2014.
“Crisis Texting.” Spark with Nora Young. CBC Radio, 23 Mar 2014. Web. 10 May 2014.