An Interview with Social Media Theorist danah boyd

As designers and entrepreneurs, we spend much of our time building new tools that enable people to interact online. In our rush to develop our ideas, however, we often neglect to think about the implications of what we’re creating. How do our tools affect individuals? What about society?

It seems like most literature on the subject flocks to one of the extremes: either social media has no effect on society, or it’s a cultural shakeup of apocalyptic proportions.

Some academics are bucking this trend and providing thoughtful, sound scholarship on the subject. Among them is social media researcher danah boyd, a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center. In her own words: “I am an academic and a scholar and my research examines social media, youth practices, tensions between public and private, social network sites, and other intersections between technology and society.”

In anticipation of the release of her new book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, we spoke to boyd about social media, society, and a creator’s responsibility to the people they serve.

Tell us about It’s Complicated, and your area of research in general.

For the last decade, I’ve been examining different aspects of social media with an eye towards teen engagement with each new generation of tools. I approached this topic as a scholar with an interest in how people understand public life but I kept hearing from concerned parents, educators, journalists, and other adults about “kids these days.”  After spending multiple years trying to share my research and help quell various myths, I decided I needed to write a book.

It’s Complicated takes some of the most prevalent cultural anxieties about teenagers and social media and untangles truth from fiction while putting teens’ practices into a broader context.  Some of the key questions that are addressed in the book include: “do teens care about privacy?” and “how has the internet changed bullying?” and “aren’t teenagers digital natives?”  In addressing these topics, I help shed light on why teenagers are so enamored with social media and other digital technologies.

How do you think the mad scramble to create the latest and greatest social network has affected society?

People want to socialize. Social media allows people to connect, maintain relationships, and share media. Unfortunately, there’s a disconnect between what people want in terms of social media and what the industry is seeking to do. People turn to tools because that’s where their friends are. But when they also have to navigate acquaintances they don’t like and people who hold power over them (think: parents, bosses) at the same time, it can get rather dicey. When contexts collapse, people scramble to find a new home to hang out with their friends without having to deal with awkward situations. This is often a problem for companies who are evaluated in terms of the number of users they have and their sustained engagement. It’s very difficult (if not impossible) to be the site that’s used by everyone for everything. The dominance of Facebook was, in many ways, an anomaly. Now, there’s a lot more fragmentation which fits with people’s social dynamics a lot better. Unfortunately, it’s not as comfortable for those who are making the latest, greatest tool because their business depends on sustained engagement, not having users bounce around.

In terms of society, what we’re seeing is an extension of what we’ve always seen – cool places where people gather and socialize. The difference with social media is that it involves a lot more typing and a lot less alcohol.

How responsible should the creators of emerging technologies be in considering the effects of their products on society and users?

Technologies do not determine societal outcomes. It all depends on how people use those technologies and for what purposes. When sites and services launch, they’re often used in ways that are quite different than they were designed to be used. Responsible companies watch what their users do and iterate, trying to enable their users to do more beneficial activities and trying to discourage that which is more harmful. There is no silver bullet for addressing this design challenge. It’s a process and a hard one at that.

Thanks to danah boyd for taking the time to speak with us. You can preorder her upcoming book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens on Amazon. It will be released on February 25, 2014. In the meantime, check out some of her other insightful writings on social media, technology, and society.

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