Blog Post

Chapter 1: Identity - Why do teens seem strange online? (review by Vanessa Monterosa and Sable Manson)

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?

Vanessa MonterosaCalifornia State University at Long Beach

Sable MansonUniversity of Southern California



Boyd states that "the ability to navigate one's social relationships, communicate asynchronously, and search for info online is here to stay" (p. 27).  In the lives of teens, social media is now the cool hangout spot, and adults are in a frenzy to understand what this means and what it looks like.  Growing up in the digital age, teens are grappling with a number of matters, and social media only adds to the complexity of managing relationships and developing one’s identity.  Thankfully, boyd’s initial chapter helps readers begin accepting that in order to understand teen social media, we have to stop assuming we know what they are doing and how they are participating.  The internet is not going anywhere, and boyd’s first chapter requires that readers pause to take a moment to listen and really observe what the role of social media is in the lives of teens, especially at such a crucial point in their lives as they begin to define who they are. 

Key Concepts

Boyd’s first chapter of it’s complicated discusses two main ideas concerning teens’ online identity (development): collapsed context and audience. A context collapse occurs when “people are forced to grapple simultaneously with otherwise unrelated social context that are rooted in different norms and seemingly demand different social responses” (p. 31). The proliferation of social media spaces has increased the likelihood that teens will encounter people from different areas of their lives online; whether it is your mom commenting on your Facebook profile[1]or college admission officer checking your social media profile[2].  Related to the idea of collapsed context, boyd identifies the role of audience, real or imagined, in social media spaces. Many teens craft their online profiles with the audience they are trying to reach in mind, thus “the imagined audience defines the social context” (p. 32). However, due to the complex nature of privacy settings online and the public nature of many social media platforms, it is hard for teens to know who might also be watching.  Navigating collapsed contexts while considering multiple potential audiences can require significant social monitoring and social negotiation for teens compelling a more nuanced approach to self-presentation online.

In the second half of the chapter, boyd discusses identity work in networked publics citing literature on self-presentation, identity performance, and impression management to examine teens’ online identities.  Different social media platforms can influence the different ways “identities” are presented online, with some profiles allowing fictional role-playing while others encouraging a more nonfiction-oriented atmosphere.  Whether it is creating a Blood Elf Priest identity on World of Warcraft game or posting a selfie to their Facebook profile, teens are heavily influenced by their peers when it comes to how they use a particular site or what the appropriate social norms are.  Also, with the evolving nature of social media, everyday a new site or mobile app offers teens the newest way to connect.  Teens can traverse multiple social media platforms, each catering to a different aspect of their “real” offline identity; allowing identity performance through multiple, sometimes separate, digital personas.  Managing these different personas can also present it own sets of challenges.  Teens must consider what message they are communicating through their social media profiles[3], both in what identity they are curating online as well as their online associations, since impression management is a social process. Additionally, because social media is persistent, visible, spreadable, and searchable, teens will have to consider the long-term consequences[4]of how they present themselves online.

 Boyd’s final takeaway concerning teens, identity, and social media is that adults have to suspend what they think they “know” to understand teen's digital world and behavior. Boyd reminds readers to take a minute before judging teens, jumping to conclusions, or making assumptions concerning how representative a teen’s online identity may be. She offers the example of a Black student from South Central Los Angeles applying to an Ivy League institution, asserting his desire to leave the negative influence of his neighborhood, while his Myspace profile was filled with gang symbolism.  Rather than assuming that student was purposefully misrepresenting himself, boyd’s chapter on identity encourages us to consider how this student may be attempting to navigate peer and adult interactions online without consideration of the influence of the collapsed context and potential audience of social media spaces.

Unpacking Nuances of Teen Identity

Boyd recognizes that today’s youth are no strangers to managing multiple identities.  Throughout the chapter, boyd broadly discusses how identity perception and construction are influenced by digital engagement.  Returning to the example of the South Central Los Angeles student, the Ivy League institution was quite impressed with his application, but less thrilled with his digital identity—a social media presence dominated by gang symbolism and imagery.  This short but powerful anecdote demonstrated the intersection of race, class, and gender as they manifest and are perceived in digital spaces[5].  Another anecdote that also demonstrated these matters is that of Hunter, who is a geeky, Black teen living in inner-city Washington DC.  Hunter considers his cousins and siblings to be ‘ghetto’ while his peers at his magnet school are ‘geeks.’ Yet, on Facebook, these worlds collide and Hunter finds himself facing issues of being considered the “least black black person that they’ve ever met” (pg. 34).  So much more could have been unpacked from teen stories such as these, which demonstrates the need to continually explore these intersections. Although it may have been beyond the scope of the chapter, it would have been interesting to delve deeper into matters of identity surrounding religion, class, gender and race among teens.

As boyd confirms, many teens often choose to participate and enact their digital identity in ways that are congruent with whom they are offline.  Thus, we appreciated boyd’s brief discussion of other digital spaces where identity is at the forefront of participation, such as massive multiplayer online (MMO) games.  Yet, we wondered if spaces such as these were also considered social media having never considered MMOs or sites like 4chan as social media, per se. For example, in spaces such as MMOs (i.e. World of Warcraft), players can take on the identity already provided by the game narrative.  Thinking about MMOs as social media (e.g. Facebook, MySpace, etc.) is most definitely food for thought. For instance, is there a different in identity development or presentation in an MMO where there are limited options for avatar creation[6]as opposed to Facebook where teens are more apt to represent themselves more accurately and interact with familiar networks? 


Despite the perceived freedoms of online spaces as opportunities to explore aspects of identity, issues of privacy and policing by parents and other adult/authority figures remain.  Teens’ social media engagement and participation is driven by how they want to present themselves to the audiences that matter—their peers.  However, teens often forget that their tailored digital identity can also be viewed by parents, family, potential employers, college admissions committee[7], and the list goes on and on.  When it comes to using these spaces as opportunities for identity exploration, it can be especially challenging for a teenager.  While digital spaces do offer opportunities for identity exploration and community building, it is easier for adults to participate in those ways as no one is heavily policing you as a parent would their child’s online activity.  The real world still has implications for online teenager engagement.  Adults often expect greater congruency of identity across digital spaces, and when online identity does not fit with offline expectations, many are quick to make assumptions about the nature of digital participation.  Teens are making a concerted effort to be mindful of their digital behavior and identity, but as boyd states, they just aren’t very good at it yet[8].

As boyd asserts the often-quoted idea that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Educators and psychologists have long identified the adolescent period of a person’s life to be a time of exploration and experimentation[9] Teens today still experience many of the same issues and difficulties of identity development however now their trials and tribulations are on display through social media. Many teens feels they must have some online presence in order to “exist.” However "trying on" different digital identities can be precarious for teens with every misstep and bad decision being displayed to the whole world[10].

Teens who are already struggling to understand who they are and who they want to be can be especially vulnerable, so it is important for adults to have conversations with teens about the nature of identity management online[11].  Teens should consider the potential for collapsed context within social media spaces as well as who their potential online audience may be.  It is important for teens to consider who might be their potential audience because individuals can misinterpret a particular act of online self-presentation. Adults can ask teens how their “online self” might or might not represent the people they are or want to be.  Boyd highlights an example of when a father named Chris engaged his daughter about online quiz about “What drug are you?” to discuss how a simple online post can be misinterpreted out of context.  Teens should be educated to know “who is watching” and be able to dictate appropriate privacy settings[12].  It is essential for parents, adults, and educators to provide the tools to help teach teens how to discern how much to share online and how to navigate the tricky business of identity in social media spaces.

Some tips and resources adults should utilize and share with teens when discussing identity, social media, and privacy[13]online

Most importantly adults should support their teen concerning online identity, social media, and digital privacy. Many teens would never consider “opting out” of social media practices so adults, parents, and educators must help prepare teens for their online networked lives. This means both celebrating their creativity and endurance while also teaching them the skills needed to traverse the digital landscape of identity, social media, and privacy online.

[1]Parents on social media collapsed context - My Parents Joined Facebook Tumblr

[2]In College Admissions, Social Media Can be a Double-Edged Sword – New York Times (November 11, 2013)

[3]What does your Twitter Avatar say about you?

[4]How to delete things from the internet: a guide to doing the impossible

[5]HASTAC Crowdsourced Book Review project

[7]They loved your GPA, then they saw your Tweets – New York Times (November 9, 2013)

[8]Understanding Your Online Privacy: A (really long) Infographic

[9]Adolescent Identity Formation – Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)

[12]Some Privacy, please? Facebook, Under Pressure, Gets the Message – New York Times (May 22,2014)

[13]Pew Research Center – Internet Project (May 21, 2013)“ “Teens, Social Media, and Privacy”

[14]Teen Clinic 101: Managing Digital Dirt and Keeping your Online Identity Clean

[15]The 3 C’s your Teen Needs to Know –

[16]  Pew Research Center – Internet Project (August 15, 2013)“ “Where Teens Seek Online Privacy Advice”

[17]Pew Research Center – Internet Project (May 21, 2013)“What Teens Share on Social Media”  

[18]Pew Research Center – Internet Project (May 21, 2013)“How Teens Share information on Social Media”

[19]Pew Research Center – Internet Project (May 21, 2013)“Teens on Facebook: What they Share with Friends”

[20]Pew Research Center – Internet Project (August 22, 2013)“Teens and Mobile Apps Privacy”

[21]Itunes Preview – Managing Your Online Identity by Common Sense Media


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