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The era of Facebook is an anomaly

Researcher danah boyd talks about teens, identity, and the future of digital communication

danah boyd’s SXSW keynote is sold out. When it’s over, a dozen fans rush the stage.

These fans aren’t young groupies hoping to get a closer glimpse at their favorite rock star, but full-grown adults hoping to hear one more word from boyd. She’s one of the world’s sharpest authorities on how teens interact with technology, and for many, her word has become canon for understanding why teens do what they do.

The stage-rushers are e-marketers, digital strategists, and marketing gurus, but many of them are also quite likely parents. “Why are teens creating multiple identities online?” one asks. boyd looks a little exhausted. After a 30-minute talk on her new book It’s Complicated, the sum of a decade of research and over 150 interviews with teens, boyd already allowed another 30 minutes for Q & A.

But she’s smiling. This isn’t her first rodeo, having already made herself famous for past SXSW keynotes and years worth of scholarly papers on teen behaviors. boyd’s day job is at Microsoft Research, where she helps make sure Microsoft doesn’t miss the beat on privacy and social media trends. She argues that many of the challenges Microsoft faces aren’t about technology, but are instead about understanding the social dynamics of how people interact today versus when Microsoft was founded.

Because to boyd, social media isn’t new. It’s just the latest scapegoat for America’s obsession with overprotection. She took a few minutes to speak to The Verge about her new book, human nature in the age of Snapchat, and where Facebook fits in an increasingly fragmented social landscape.

In your preface you say "the kids are alright." What do you mean by that?

My frustration about how we approach young people is that we think that everything must be so much worse because of technology. The funny thing is that we’ve had these moral panics for every generation. Comics were ruining everybody, rock and roll was ruining everybody, MTV was ruining everybody — we’ve had this in many different iterations. Part of the story of the book is that by and large, the kids are alright. The reason I say "by and large" is because the kids who have been fine are still fine. Privileged kids are relatively fine. The thing that I struggle with is that because we get so obsessed with focusing on relatively healthy, relatively fine middle- and upper-class youth, we distract ourselves in ways that don’t allow us to address the problems when people actually are in trouble.

Itscomplicated"We use this visibility to panic rather than using it to figure out new ways of helping young people."

Those young people make themselves visible online as well. I think about this woman whose case I got involved with. Her name was Tess, and she lived in Colorado. She and her boyfriend at the time killed her mother. The media coverage of this was at the height of MySpace, so the media coverage was "Girl With MySpace Kills Mother" which is always really like, "What the hell? What does this have to do with MySpace?" So I went and looked at it. People said she was a troubled kid, and that’s why she was on MySpace, and that’s why she killed her mother, blah blah blah. So I found her MySpace. For a year and a half she had documented abuse she faced at home, her attempts to run away, her attempts to get help, her confusion and frustration, her own mental health issues. She was a mess, and she was putting it all out there.

I was talking to a bunch of her friends and I said, "You guys saw this, why didn’t you say something?" One of her best friends said, "We did, regularly. The school told us it wasn’t their problem. They told us that they blocked MySpace, and they couldn’t look at it. They didn’t know what we were talking about."

Meanwhile, as the case unfolded, what we learned was that the school had seen her come to school with black-and-blue marks, which they reported to Social Services, but by the time Social Services would investigate they’d say there wasn’t enough evidence to proceed. All this evidence was clearly documented on social media, which is really frustrating to me, because here’s this young woman who’s crying out for help all over social media, using this new tool, really trying to find somebody to pay attention. And nobody’s around.

And this is why I struggle with these tools; they mirror and magnify the good, bad, and ugly. We use this visibility to panic rather than using it to figure out new ways of helping young people.

Is it just human nature to be skeptical of these scary new technologies?

Nothing is more nerve-racking than capitalizing on the fear of adults about their kids. That’s one of the problems; we need to be resisting that culture of fear if we want to actually get anywhere. We need to step back and think about what we’re doing and the consequences of our decisions. It’s not like our conversations about security in this country. We can go hog wild and spend all of our resources trying to make it marginally more secure, but we will never make the world entirely secure. We will never make anything entirely safe. The question is, what is the level of resources, time, energy, money that we want to spend. There are diminishing returns on this.

We do this thing with kids where we try to keep them safe from every form of danger. Not only do we have diminishing returns in terms of time and energy, but we have unintended consequences just like we do with security, which is that we’ve eroded [kids'] opportunities to learn, to participate, to make sense of this world. They need this to come of age. We make it very difficult for them to be public. We make it very difficult for them to be a part of our political life. And we justify it through everything from brain science to mistakes that they’ve made and stupidity.

There’s an increasing gap between the teenage years and the first point in which a middle- or upper-class adult has a child. It used to be that people were having children at the age of 23 or 24. By and large middle- and upper-class parents are having their first child in their 30s. You remember certain parts of your teen years, but you don’t really remember.

Why have teens taken to such a great variety of apps and services to communicate with each other? Is fragmentation okay?

"The era of Facebook is an anomaly."

The era of Facebook is an anomaly. The idea of everybody going to one site is just weird. Give me one other part of history where everybody shows up to the same social space. Fragmentation is a more natural state of being. Is your social dynamic interest-driven or is it friendship-driven? Are you going there because there’s this place where other folks are really into anime, or is this the place you’re going because it’s where your pals from school are hanging out? That first [question] is a driving function.

There was this one teen girl I talked to, a total One Direction fan. Twitter was her One Direction space. What that meant was that her friends all knew about her Twitter account, but they weren’t into One Direction, so they weren’t on Twitter with her. But they all were on Instagram together because that was a fun place where they were sharing photos. And what she was sharing on Instagram was not about One Direction because that just wasn’t the place for it. Meanwhile, they were also doing crazy things on Tumblr, where they were part of a little maker community.

Whereas in the Facebook era, you have to balance all these audiences simultaneously. You’re saying, "Are you going to get angry with me because I posted about One Direction? Are you going to think I’m lame because I’m posting this maker stuff?" Where does this fit? And I think that’s a lot of the reason why when you start to fragment your audience, you start to think about what you’re looking for, you’ll go to different spaces, and it parallels what we do as adults. You go to different bars when you’re in the mood for different things. You see different people when you want to go listen to music or when you just want to have a quiet drink with a couple of friends.

Where does Facebook fit in to the picture? Are teens actually quitting?

I don’t think people are quitting Facebook. There’s quitting Facebook and there’s just not making it the heart and center of your passion play. I’m of an era where I grew up and the notion that "You’ve Got Mail" was exciting. Everything about email — we would race home after school and be like, "What’s on email" and this is great. It was like little gifts from the heavens. My relationship to email is not like that these days. That doesn’t mean that I’ve left email, but it’s not a place of passion, even when awesome things like a birth announcement come in. That’s awesome, but that doesn’t make me love email. That makes me love my friend who just had a baby.

The weird thing about Facebook and the dynamics of it becoming a utility — which [teens] really despise — is the fact that it becomes this backdrop. It’s not the place of passion. It’s really valuable when you want to reach everybody, it’s really valuable when you don’t have somebody’s cell to text them, it’s really valuable when you need to contact somebody in a more formalistic structure. That social graph is still extraordinarily valuable — that has the potential to really be long-standing. With that said, Facebook could screw it up, and I wouldn’t put it past them. But I think by and large they have the chance to make that work. The difference now is that they’re a public company.

A public company is required to make more money for its investors, ideally on a quarterly basis. To do that it has three options: expand user bases, which is one of the reasons you start seeing investments into getting more people online, because they need more eyeballs for ads; increase more revenue per person, and we certainly see pressure on that, in terms of advertising dollars; and third is move into other arenas, basically have other places where people spend other parts of their time. This is why we see Instagram, this is why we see WhatsApp.

People seem very afraid of their kids creating different identities on different social networks. Why are teens doing this, and should their parents be concerned?

"The thing about having everything linked to this universal identifier as though that’s real is just not real. That's not how this works."

No, in fact, this is one of the weird oddities about Facebook. Let’s go back to Usenet. People had multiple nicks, they had a field day with this. They would use these multiple "identities" to put forward different facets of who they were. It wasn’t to say that they were trying to be separate individuals. Who you are sitting with me today in this professional role with a shared understanding of social media is different than how you talk to your mom. She may not understand the same things you and I are talking about. At the same time, if you were talking about your past, I’d have none of it and your mother would have a lot of it. This is this moment where you think about how you present yourself differently in these different contexts, not because you’re hiding, but because you’re putting forward what’s relevant there.

The idea of real names being the thing that leads you — that’s not actually what leads us in the physical space. We lead with our bodies. We adjust how we present our bodies by situation. We dress differently, we sit differently, we emote differently. The thing about having everything linked to this universal identifier as though that’s real is just not real. That’s not how this works.

That’s one of the things that teenagers struggle with about Facebook: how to deal with multiple contexts simultaneously. Usually we address context collapse using alcohol in face-to-face environments, like at weddings. Online we don’t have that, so we have to deal with a lot of awkwardness. So of course people are going to have multiple identities.

Did Snapchat invent "ephemeral" messaging? Did its success surprise you?

I had some conversations with Evan [Spiegel] early on, and I was totally cheering him on, because I had talked a lot about how persistence had become normative. I had certainly thought about ephemerality, and I’d watched a lot of teenagers doing things trying to make things ephemeral. They would use Facebook and delete things to try to make it a real-time activity. We saw worlds of chats, old-school chat, where things were by and large ephemeral.

What was beautiful about Snapchat was that it wasn’t just that they were leading with ephemerality. They were demanding that this was a social norm. People say, "But you can find ways of recording it," and of course you can. That’s just not a big deal. When you’ve got a way to record this, you’ve got a way to violate the social norms of what we had. It’s like when I tell you something that you shouldn’t tell anybody, and then you go and tell somebody my secret.

In hindsight, Snapchat’s role in our lives feels logical. It’s a way to share a photo, moment, or secret that won’t last forever on a server somewhere. Are there are any other ways people communicate that you think haven’t yet made the transition to digital?

"What was beautiful about Snapchat is that it wasn’t just that they were leading with ephemerality."

In hindsight, everything looks obvious. One of the reasons why all of this visual stuff (like Snapchat) is coming down the line right now is because people don’t want to be searchable all the time. Text is searchable. That causes its own set of dramas. We’ll get to visual search, but this moment is challenging the norm, this thing that had become so assumed. In terms of scale, we have gotten to a point where you can speak to everybody, but you know not everybody is paying attention, and the people who are paying attention aren’t always who you want them to be. So one of the things we’re going to have to start playing with is a new model for how to negotiate privacy that isn’t just an access control list.

You’re talking about the friending model, and how over a long period of time that might not work. Facebook was made for college students, after all, but what should we do about the massive friends lists we’ve accumulated that stick with you once college is over?

I think back to this amazing service called Cobot, years ago. It was a little robot that would sit inside LambdaMOO. This is archaic internet history. Cobot was this little robot that went around and collected massive amounts of data about all of the interactions that would happen in LambdaMOO. It upset everybody that Cobot was collecting all of this stuff because it wasn’t giving back to the community. So the programmers made an agreement on what they could do to make Cobot actually valuable and not just a sponge for content.

It was agreed upon that Cobot would be implemented in a way where it could answer questions about the community and about the data it collected. People said okay, so, "Who does Ellis talk to the most? Not me? What?" Drama drama drama drama. What ended up happening was that because you could ask Cobot all these questions about the community, it completely fragmented the community, because it meant that the realities of the data did not align with our artificial understandings of the social community. And this is one of those challenges that we have over and over again in these social environments, which is that we have these fictions that we hold on to that are extraordinarily valuable and that make us feel loved and a part of a community, and part of the social dynamic. It falls apart under deep inspection.

This is one of the challenges: in a Facebook world, this would be seen as lying, as deception. The idea that if you aren’t being talked to the most, you should know it. Actually, no. There’s a lot of ways in which social dynamics are about agreed-upon fictions, and agreed-upon fictions have value. Oral histories that are completely fabricated have value. They’re what gel us together as people. The challenges of things like memory is that they’re imperfect. That’s part of the beauty of it.

This interview has been condensed and edited.