danah boyd has good news for Google

danah boyd, It’s Complicated: Boyd’s book recounts her ethnographic research on the internet lives of American teens of different races and classes.  She challenges many of the simple conclusions popular in the media.  Teens do value privacy—but they don’t often struggle through the difficulty of making their ordinary posts/tweets private, difficulty that’s been deliberately created by the corporations interested in having people expose themselves.  The result: their ephemeral interactions are “suddenly persistent, creating the impression that norms have radically changed even though they haven’t.”  Instead, teens are trying new ways to get privacy, for example by controlling access to meaning/using code words, as disempowered people have long done.

Boyd constantly emphasizes teens’ relative (pun intended) lack of power in their lives.  Teens use social media to hang out with their friends, when their parents often cut off other ways of socializing because of fear of public spaces.  Teens, she says, mostly aren’t addicted to social media; “if anything, they’re addicted to each other,” and it’s this desire for connection that’s misdiagnosed as antisocial texting.  Teens are excluded from many physical spaces/parts of public life, but they struggle against this, using social media and other networked technologies both socially and politically.

Adult fears and mis-fears are a big part of the book.  “American society despises any situation that requires addressing teen sexuality, let alone platforms that provide a conduit for teens to explore their desires.”  But adult attempts to isolate teens from risks are damaging, undermining teens’ trust and eroding social ties: “When  parents  create  cocoons  to  protect  their  children  from potential harms, their decision to separate themselves and their children from what’s happening outside their household can have serious consequences for other youth, especially those who lack strong support systems. Communities aren’t safe when everyone turns inward; they are only safe when people work collectively to help one another.”

Boyd also critiques the rhetoric of teens as “digital natives” who are more savvy than their elders.  First, she unpacks the term “native”: “throughout history, powerful immigrants have betrayed native populations while destroying their spiritual spaces and asserting power over them.”  Then, she points out that teens aren’t necessarily knowledgeable about digital spaces (many have the same difficulty controlling their Facebook settings that their elders do) or about digital sources (they’ve been taught to distrust Wikipedia, but that just means they go to the next search result down, which is often worse):

[m]any teens I met assumed that someone  verifies  every  link  that  Google  shares…. Everywhere  I  went,  I  heard  parents,  teachers,  and  teens  express reverence toward Google. They saw Google as a source of trusted information  in  a  digital  ecosystem  filled  with  content  of  dubious quality.  More  important,  many  of  the  people  I  met  believed  that Google was neutral, unlike traditional news sources such as Fox News or the New York Times.
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