Any human being who uses the internet — that is, by definition, anyone reading this blog post — should make time to read It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by Danah Boyd (Yale University Press, 2014). I say this not only because we should all care enough to read nuanced, respectful examinations of the world in which our young people live and work — rare is the study of teenagers that so gracefully resists moral panic — but because It’s Complicated describes the social lives of networked grown-ups as well.
My sister Maggie, who works in Facebook’s e-crimes division (specializing in combating crimes against children), recommended Boyd’s work to me earlier this year in light of previous unsatisfactory reading on bullying, cyber-bullying and harassment. She’s been following Boyd’s work for several years now, and brought her in to talk with her team about teens, vulnerability, and human sexuality. Like Maggie, what I particularly appreciate about Boyd’s work is that she insists on the subjectivity of her interviewees, and doesn’t pull her punches about how the mainstream media only cares about the vulnerability of some (white, middle-class) teens. As the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, recently reminded us all, that selectivity costs lives — lives that matter. Highlighting another example of such inequality of moral and humanitarian concern, Boyd recently published a piece on trans victim of sex trafficking, Jane Doe, who was imprisoned as a result of her abuse. For both Brown and Doe, narratives of teen vulnerability to adult violence failed to protect them in the way they (supposedly) protect more privileged counterparts.
It’s Complicated challenges us to reconsider our social narratives about teenagers, technology, and the relationship between the two. Based on interviews with real-life teens (!) from a wide variety of socioeconomic contexts, Boyd’s work is organized around a series of identity and social questions, such as “Privacy: Why Do Youth Share so Publicly?” and “Inequality: Can Social Media Resolve Social Divisions?”. Each chapter pushes us to think beyond what we assume we know about how technology operates in society and in our own lives. Ultimately, we are encouraged to remember that the questions about our (virtual) social lives are not that different from questions about our social lives generally. The challenges and rewards of being part of the “networked public” of the Internet are many of the same we reap “in real life” as well. And teens — like adults — should be supported in their quest to become part of their communities.