For all the ways that adults enhance real-life relationships with social media, many have a hard time believing that online connectivity is anything but terrifying in the hands of teenagers.
In her new book It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (February 25, Yale University Press), Microsoft principal researcher danah boyd addresses the fears and misconceptions that adults have about teens' use of social media, revealing that online networks can be a lifeline and a safety valve for a generation under extreme pressure.
Based on 10 years of research, including conversations with teens across the country, boyd explores the motivations and even sophisticated etiquette that governs teens' online behavior, and explains how adults—including businesses looking to attract a teen audience—can ditch the fear and condescension, and embrace teens' complicated but important relationship with technology.
FAST COMPANY: What got you interested in studying teens' use of social media?
DANAH BOYD: I was among the first generation of young people to really grow up online, and I studied computer science because of that. When I was in grad school, I started looking at how things have changed with the rise of things like instant messaging. Later I decided I would start analyzing what was happening with the early social network sites—I was really looking at the rise of Friendster. Then I decided, you know what, I think I’m done with the social network sites and I’m going to go and re-think what’s happening with youth culture. My advisor had gotten some funding to look at teens and technology, and learning. I thought it would be a really interesting project, but at that point nobody had really thought about teenagers and social media in any particular way. I was still tracking what was happening with Friendster, so I was really tracking the beginning of Myspace. So I had the great fortune of basically watching teen adoption and departure from Myspace; the whole sort of cycle of it. And then I watched, of course, the rise of Facebook, and the book ends up leaving off in the beginning of the decline of Facebook for teenagers.
What do you think is a major factor that made people switch services en masse like that?
The switch from Myspace to Facebook was particularly interesting, because Myspace was great, but especially for teenagers, it had a lot to do with the media narrative around how Myspace was a very dangerous place. You know, the idea of being public was a terrible thing. And so Facebook was very much narrated as a private space; as that media narrative started to pick up, Myspace got narrated as a "ghetto" and that was really phenomenal to see.
There is a chapter, actually, in the book about the race dynamics that unfolded around that phenomenon in particular. Because there was a lot of racist language that emerged as that switch happened. And that’s very different than what happened with Friendster to Myspace, and it’s very different than what’s happening right now. Because now they’re doing multiple things—it’s not like if you’re on Instagram you’re not on Tumblr. You use Whatsapp for this group, and you use Snapchat for these friends. It’s like a complete mess right now. Which is actually delightful.
What do you identify as the major differences between the way adults and teens use social media?
There are things that are similar. The thing that is really different has to do with how your life is configured in relationship to technology versus other opportunities. As an adult, you have the ability to go out and hang out with your friends when you want to. Yeah, work may get in the way; yeah, you might not feel like it; yeah, you might be too busy, but you still have a choice over your time and your schedule in a way that young people do not. Their lives are very heavily configured and structured. Their ability to get together in unstructured time with friends is extremely difficult.
On top of that they're dealing with immediate experiences of people who hold power over them and have the right to control their lives. As adults we have employers, we have people who give us crap, but those power dynamics are not the same as when you're a teenager. Even though we might go to work, we might have a 9 to 5 job, we can take sick days, we can modify things, or we can frankly lose our job. When young people don't show up at school, that's a violation of the law. And also New York is a skewed reality, so is San Francisco. Kids in the suburbs, they have to rely on their parents to get them someplace. They have very few financial resources, not just because some of them are poor, but because they can't even get a job. So social media for them is a release valve. For us it might be fun, but for them it's very important.
Your book addresses etiquette issues that teens brought up, where they believe that adults should respect privacy and not check their kids' social network activity even if they can technically access it. Do you think this attitude is sophisticated or naïve?
Both. It's more like they are trying to define the contours, the boundaries, the edges of their world. They're trying to figure out how to make it work. What they know is that they want to hang out with their friends. They want the right to be left alone. They hear these languages of freedom as part of American society, and they don't feel like they have any. Sometimes what they do to make it work is stupid, sometimes it's naive, but often it's quite innovative and it highlights that strength of character. It can be really goofy or silly, they can do really crazy things in delightful ways. The other thing is that many teenagers care deeply about their parents' concerns, they respect them. They're trying to negotiate that, like 'Don't you trust me?' They're not just doing it in a state of rebellion, they're really trying to negotiate their emotions and try to create a way where they have independence, and they also have the ability to respect the people they're trying to negotiate.
You talk about the shift from the early days of the Internet in which users were largely anonymous on social sites, versus today where they are almost hyper-identified. Why do you think teens are so much more willing to be identified now, or does it really depend on the purpose of the service they're using?
This is an interesting backlash moment. Because teens are using social media to talk to their friends, when the pressure of Facebook started to drive towards having to use your real name, they were like 'Sure, my friends know who I am.' And then when college admissions officers started reading their content online, we started to see a switch again. Teenagers' use of Instagram or Tumblr or Twitter, those are not using real names at all.
From what I've seen from teenagers, because they're primarily using this as a way to hang out with their friends, the name stuff is not the issue—the issue is the searchability. The issue is the people they don't want in their business looking them up. And that's where the point of frustration has been.
My adult Twitter experience is more of people using it for professional communication or news sharing or brand building or comedy. How do teens use Twitter differently, and what do adults need to understand most?
The first thing you would notice if you were following teenagers is that you would not see very many links. Which is radically different than our world. They're doing a lot of interacting and engaging around celebrities, pop culture, really funny trending topics that they think are interesting, I'm sure you've seen some of the crazy hashtags. And of course with Instagram, hashtags have become even stronger on Twitter. Hashtags are content in and of themselves. I'm not sure if you saw that SNL sketch that was like 'hashtag, how are you today?,' etc. There's a degree to which this is kind of true when you look at teen content. They're also more likely to have protected accounts, and use it to talk to a small group of their actual friends. To them Facebook is everyone they ever knew, and Twitter is something they've locked down to just a handful of people they care about—which is often the opposite of how adults use them.
A lot of the teens I talk to, they'll have like 30 followers. It's a small world for them, as opposed to trying to grow large followings. There are teens who are themselves microcelebrities, which is a different game. There are also a lot of teens who use Twitter around interests. An obsession with One Direction, and just talking to other One Direction people. That becomes Twitter, and then they'll use Instagram with another group of friends. This one girl I talked to said, 'Yeah, if you're not into the things that I'm into, don't follow me on Twitter.'
For businesses, social media is obviously a very important marketing tool. For companies that want a teen audience or teen consumers, what do you think they generally misunderstand about teens' use of social media?
The story with marketing and young people is the story with marketing and adults. When people are looking for information, they're much more open to advertising than when they're trying to hang out with their friends and you're getting in their way. Branding and being recognized as a brand is a lot about being an authentic participant in those spaces. Young people are totally aware of when a company is making a YouTube video just to sell to them. They're not dumb, they totally get this. The thing is, it's funny when they're on YouTube and seeking it out, it's not funny when it's getting in the way of talking with their friends. So businesses always have that delicate balance.
What's interesting is that as a lot of young people are running away from their parents into a variety of apps, they're also running away from marketers. That will be an interesting battleground in the next couple of years, because that creates monetization issues for the app creators. Because you make this too markety, and guess what? It's one of those weird things where I think that people want to treat social media like Times Square, where there's advertising everywhere on it, and that just makes it as unappealing as Times Square.
The other thing that it's really important for marketers to realize is that very few of today's youth have access to part time jobs, which makes it very hard for them to get their own money, they have massive stress over the potential cost of college. You're going to see companies feel as though they're losing teens because the fact is they're losing a certain amount of flexible spending right now. It's not because young people are harder to reach, it's because they're actually in a much harder space monetarily.
Your book sets out to explain teens' use of social media in part so that adults are less anxious about it. Are there things that you still think adults should legitimately be concerned about? Or is it no different than any of the millions of other things that we worry about that might be real risks but are part of growing up?
Recognize that teens are under a tremendous amount of stress and pressure. Don't add to it, and help them frame ways of being calmer. Help them engage productively, helpfully with the technologies around them and with opportunities to hang out in face-to-face environments. The thing for me is it's less about focusing on the technology and more about focusing holistically on a particular young person and how they're doing. There are young people out there who are really doing poorly. Use the technology to figure out who's not doing okay, and figure out ways to intervene. Because most of the reasons they're not doing okay are classic—different kinds of stress or pressure, different kinds of family abuse. Mental health issues, peer social insecurities. Peer relationship dynamics, which is all the bullying issues. Let's not get distracted by the technology, and realize that technology is showing us what's happening in kids' lives, and use that as an opportunity to make a difference in their lives, as opposed to thinking that if we make the technology go away we can solve problems. Because that is not at all the way this works.