By Stefanie Panke
Editor, Social Software in Education
“Over the past decade, social media has evolved from being an esoteric jumble of technologies to a set of sites and services that are at the heart of contemporary culture.” In her new book, It’s Complicated, danah boyd, a researcher at Microsoft Research, assistant professor at New York University, and a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center, presents the results of her long-term, ethnographic research on how teenagers communicate, engage, immerse and interact in online communities and social networks.
Reading It’s Complicated is remarkably simple. First, access is easy, and if you prefer, instant and free: The publication is available open access online in PDF format or for purchase in various bookstores as print and e-book. Second, the book’s language and structure are both clear and compelling. boyd is an avowed activist and explicitly aims at wide distribution. She seeks to engage a large and diverse audience of scholars, educators, parents and policy makers.
Even if you are not interested in the online life of the American teen, I recommend taking a look at the introductory chapter. It offers a thorough overview of the historical evolution of social media and contemplates cultural and technical aspects of technology. Focusing on four affordances, boyd discusses how social media channels foster — not determine — characteristic use patterns. These affordances are:
- persistence: the durability of online expressions and content;
- visibility: the potential audience who can bear witness;
- spreadability: the ease with which content can be shared; and
- searchability: the ability to find content.
“Networked publics are here to stay,” boyd explains. Rather than resisting technology, she urges her readers to allow children to develop the skills and perspective to productively navigate the complicated social media landscape. Given that 73% of adults in the US use online social networking sites (Pew Internet, 2013), boyd has a strong point when she advocates fostering media literacy rather than condemning media use.
The book’s theme — understanding how social media are intricately interwoven into our day-to-day communication behavior and what this means for our cognitive, emotional and social well-being — reminded me of Sherry Turkle‘s Alone Together (2012). Whereas Turkle paints a bleak picture of technology getting in the way of closeness, boyd states that teens use digital channels primarily to connect with friends. As teenagers’ physical meeting spaces are more and more constricted, online networking sites offer the freedom to chat and hang out.
Both authors deploy similar research methods — qualitative, ethnographic field work — and have a thorough background in computer and web technologies. What is intriguing to me is that I find both perspectives interesting, convincing and valuable.
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