Danah Boyd on teens, Facebook, "social stenography," and the future of privacy

There are far too few advocates in the world for teenagers navigating the difficulties of dealing with shit IRL, and even fewer who give a shit about how teens actually relate in digital spaces. As for researchers who manage to make sense about the way real life and digital life interact -- well, there's pretty much only one must-read digital ethnographer, and that's Boston's DANAH BOYD. Her research into youth culture is unlike anything else we've read, and from her perch across the river at Microsoft, she's consistently offered stunning lessons drawn from talking to real kids -- often living in troubled situations -- that buck the conventional wisdom in ways too strange for fiction. 

This month, Wired highlights one of our favorite Boyd anecdotes. Posted to her blog over the summer, it's about a teen she calls Carmen, who has broken up with her boyfriend and comes up with an ingenious method of posting that news to her Facebook page. As Boyd notes, Carmen knows her mom reads her Facebook page. She wants her friends to know about the breakup, but she doesn't want her mom to freak out:

The breakup happened while [Carmen] was on a school trip and her mother was already nervous. Initially, Carmen was going to mark the breakup with lyrics from a song that she had been listening to, but then she realized that the lyrics were quite depressing and worried that if her mom read them, she’d “have a heart attack and think that something is wrong.” She decided not to post the lyrics. Instead, she posted lyrics from Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” This strategy was effective. Her mother wrote her a note saying that she seemed happy which made her laugh. But her closest friends knew that this song appears in the movie when the characters are about to be killed. They reached out to her immediately to see how she was really feeling.

Boyd uses the term "social stenography" to describe the way Carmen solves the problem -- a message hidden within a message, allowing teens to "hide in plain site." This fall, she followed up with reports both small and large. In October, she noticed Nashville teens were replicating the "MySpace Top 8" concept on their Facebook accounts by claiming their BFFs as siblings. yet another ingenious Facebook coping mechanism: teens who don't just logout from Facebook, but who deactivate their FB accounts when they're not online. By placing their accounts in a technological purgatory, they prevent others from being able to view their profiles or post on their walls -- while preserving all their friends and data. When they come back online, they reinstate the account. Here's Boyd's account of her conversation with an at-risk teen who used this approach:

I asked Shamika why she bothered with Facebook in the first place, given that she sent over 1200 text messages a day. Once again, she looked at me incredulously, pointing out that there’s no way that she’d give just anyone her cell phone number. Texting was for close friends that respected her while Facebook was necessary to be a part of her school social life. And besides, she liked being able to touch base with people from her former schools or reach out to someone from school that she didn’t know well. Facebook is a lighter touch communication structure and that’s really important to her. But it doesn’t need to be persistent to be useful.

Boyd -- an ex-hacker, ex-raver, and Ani DiFranco fangirl -- was chosen to give the opening remarks at SXSW Interactive in 2010, and she'll be back again this year

| More

 Friends' Activity   Popular 
All Blogs
Follow the Phoenix
  • newsletter
  • twitter
  • facebook
  • youtube
  • rss
Latest Comments
Search Blogs
Phlog Archives