Part of Collaborative Book Review of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by Danah Boyd
Review of Introduction
Megan Farnel, University of Alberta
The introduction to danah boyd’s It’s Complicated establishes, with boyd’s typical mix of humour, wit and clarity, the project and scope of the study. In the preface, boyd explains the motivation of the project through the tale of Mike, a fifteen year old, white male. An avid user of YouTube, Mike faces a constant level of fear and confusion from his mother about his use of the Internet, and requested that boyd “tell [his mother] that [he’s] not doing anything wrong” (iii). The book, boyd says, is her attempt to do “just that”, to “describe and explain the networked lives of teens to the people who worry about them” (ix). Though by no means a purely celebratory text, then, boyd establishes early that her primary alliance is with the teens featured in her ethnographic study, that the text is not intended to explain the perils of the Internet to teens in a prescriptive or alarmist fashion, but for them to those who don’t understand, or refuse to listen, to teens themselves.
This goal is also reflected by boyd’s stylistic and citational strategies in the text, which she outlines in the introduction. The book, she tells us, “is written with a broad audience in mind”, and as such frequently elects to provide evidence through “numerous touchstones and references” (26) rather than academic literature. Readers interested in pursuing the latter material are invited to draw upon the “extensive bibliography” (26) accompanying the text. While the book functions no more as a prescriptivist manual for adults than it does for teens, boyd’s foregrounding of accessibility and her decision to align herself with many of the subjects whom she is studying work to similar ends: to replace sensationalist and problematic narratives about digital media with accessible, nuanced, and responsible information that can help parents, educators, and even teens themselves better understand the factors shaping the online lives of teenagers.
The introduction provides an in-depth introduction to many of the topics featured in the book, including fears about Internet addiction, sexual predation and the myth of teens as ‘digital natives’. However, a central thread uniting them is the dynamic interactivity boyd posits between teens’ online and offline lives. An episode opening the text, in which boyd describes observing a high school sporting event from the stands, already suggests the importance of this online/offline hybridity. While many teens were using their phones during the game, she notes that they “were not directing most of their attention to their devices”, but rather “sharing the screen with the person next to them, reading or viewing together” (3). Not only did the adults in the crowd, those most likely to express concerns about youth’s use of digital media, seem more likely to become truly removed from the event before them by their own mobile devices, but the teens’ use of their devices in this episode illustrate one of the central tenants of the book: that teens use what boyd calls “networked publics” out of a fundamental desire for connection and belonging, an attempt to “be part of the broader world” (10).
That this desire for belonging occurs online is also necessarily connected to offline activity, she notes, because “increasing regulation” in spaces like malls “means that there aren’t as many public spaces for teens to gather” (21). The fact that teens’ desires to belong are so frequently mediated through digital media, then, is inextricably bound to the fact that offline sites which once hosted teenagers are now intensely monitored, and at times completely restricted for teens. Likewise, far from the “color-blind and disembodied world” (23) the Internet was initially imagined to be, boyd notes that offline indicators of systemic inequality and tension are frequently reproduced, even enhanced and amplified, online. At the same time as focusing upon online interactions, then, part of what boyd identifies as making digital relationality so complex is the fact that it is rarely, if ever, neatly or wholly removed from offline realities, particularly for teenagers.
As an overarching structure which outlines the forms and consequences teens’ online interactions take, boyd introduces four affordances which she identifies as central to the text: “persistence”, “visibility”, “spreadability” and “searchability” (11). The permanence of much online material combined with its often easy and public accessibility, she tells us, create social dynamics which are unique to these spaces. At the same time as attending to the materialities of these spaces, however, boyd’s central claim is in other respects very simple, surprisingly so, perhaps, and also not dependent on or determined by those affordances at all: “Most teens are not compelled by gadgetry as such—they are compelled by friendship” (18). Again, boyd reminds readers that to understand teens’ online behaviours requires a better comprehension of their broader lives, beliefs and desires.
The introduction to this text functions as a clear, thorough, and accessible indicator of the argument, politics, and goals of the book. Perhaps the only factor I anticipated arising in the introduction, and the text as a whole—which did not—was the role of teen sexuality, not in the context of sexual predation, but in terms of technology playing a central role in mediating sexual desire amongst teens. Even the title of the text, itself (I assume) a play on Facebook’s famously ambiguous ‘It’s Complicated’ category for relationships, suggests the potential for a sexual presence which, while not always a component of teen friendships, is certainly important. While I wonder about the absence of this factor, and how boyd’s identified focus on “friendship” and “flirting” (21) might participate in the continued asexualization of children and teens, I would also guess that this is at least partly owing to the method and aims of the text. While teens might feel comfortable speaking to a researcher about how and why they use particular platforms and strategies to speak with their friends, many might be far less comfortable discussing how they conduct romantic relationships in the same spaces. Furthermore, given enduring fears about child sexuality, boyd’s aim to abate the concerns of many parents about teens’ online presence might very well be negated by a recognition that teens do, indeed, have sex; that it isn’t always exploitative and unhealthy; and that sites like Facebook and Twitter play a role in those relationships. So ultimately, the community boyd is working so hard to encourage others to understand might best be served by her emphasis on friendship over consensual sexuality.