Social Media Scholar Speaks About Cultural Implications of Youth Online Networking

“I’m that lame adult that you really don’t want to friend,” said danah boyd, social media scholar and principal researcher at Microsoft Research, in her talk discussing youth social networks last Thursday evening.
boyd, who styles her name with lowercase letters, is the founder of research institute Data and Society and author of “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.” She came to Andover to speak about her work using the internet to map cultural progress and trying to understand it as a whole. Her talk focused on how young people navigate social media and the cultural implications of those social systems.

“I was online at a time when there were very few people online and it certainly wasn’t cool. For me, it was an escape valve to get out of my environment because it was an opportunity to connect with people from around the globe,” boyd said in an interview with The Phillipian.

boyd finds her interactions with social media have shaped the way she observes modern youth culture.

“For me, for social media, it’s also about my friends, it’s also about my community, and I use Twitter in the most lame, adult way possible which is to broadcast. That’s the reality of it. I wish I was cooler, but I’m really not, my world is filled with kids’ pictures,” said boyd.

Working as an ethnographer for the past ten years, boyd studies customs of individual groups of people and cultures. Her research is largely based on a combination of qualitative analysis from quantitative data.
“The interesting thing about my work is that because I’m an ethnographer, I spend a lot of time embedded within communities. The questions I can answer are fundamentally descriptive, about trying to understand trends and patterns. But I also have a background in computer science, and one of the things I spent a lot of my time doing in the early stages of my field work were analyzing and randomly sampling across huge amounts of data sets,” said boyd in her presentation.

Although a researcher in social media, boyd finds social media to have both positive and negative cultural impacts.

“[Social media] is simultaneously a way that allows you to connect and have so many more opportunities than we’ve ever had to socialize, to do a variety of things. And it can also be very costly. A lot of it comes down to how it fits in your community and in your world, and I think that’s what makes it tricky,” said boyd in an interview.
boyd’s research has led her to further examine the collection of data in the context of social justice. In particular, boyd cited “Spit and Acquit,” a DNA collection program based in Orange County, Calif.

“For a lot of minorities in Orange County, [local law enforcement] made a deal: They wouldn’t be charged [for traffic violations] in return for turning over genetic material. And so what we are seeing is the development of large databases primarily of black and brown individuals across this country pulled in for genetic material as a way of understanding their entire social structure,” said boyd.

boyd’s work in criminal justice has led her to research data accessibility in search engines as well.
“When people search for black names in the United States, they are far more likely to click on criminal justice related advertisements, particularly because we have a lot of racist assumptions in the United States about why somebody’s name might appear that way…Google is not trying to be racist, but it learns society’s racism and feeds it right back at us,” said boyd.

“The systems and the dynamics that we see around us are actually fueled by a whole set of interactions that go outside of your own decisions and your own value systems but start to pull in the value systems of many other people,” boyd continued.

boyd also addressed the connections between cyberbullying and drama over social media during her talk.

boyd further discussed how a teenger’s potential experience with cyberbullying may be a part of a larger theme in the context of their individual worlds.

“[Young people] understand a lot of their experience through the language of drama and the importance of drama is that it doesn’t position them as a perpetrator or a victim, it positions them as having agency with a huge and complex social dynamic,” said boyd. “It doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt, but it means every bullying intervention we go after completely misses the point because a lot of how their dealing with it and experiencing the different dynamics is a series of social dramas that get played out as they try to make sense of the world.”

boyd currently works at Microsoft Research, New York University Media Culture & Communication, and the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society.