Youth, Social Networks, and the New “Public” Space (danah boyd at Berkman)

For a long time (well, since roughly 6/26) this Berkman Video of danah boyd has sat in my “to watch” queue.

danah boyd at Berkman

I finally got time to watch it on the train on the way to New York last week. It was well worth the wait, and I’d really encourage you to go watch it if you’re interested in social networks or youth culture in the U.S. Danah got a lot of press earlier this year for her post/essay on social class issues in MySpace and Facebook, to some of which she’s also written a response.

Fast forward through all the room introductions (sorry to those who were in the room, but I don’t think that makes for interesting viewing to one who wasn’t there) and get to the core of the discussion.

Here are my quick notes on the bits I found most interesting – these are really more like raw search engine terms that will hopefully connect people to the video than cohesive notes (see also Ethan Zuckerman’s much more complete notes):

What Web 2.0 is really about is the shift from a sociality organized around topics toward a sociality organized around friendships / relationships – people who I know.

Early adopters of social network sites were self-defined geeks, freaks, and queers. Tech savvy youth, alternative youth seeking places to gather without prejudice.

Friendster became more mainstream quickly – which drove out fringe users. Friendster went about trying to make people behave by canceling accounts. But not all the users wanted to play by the rules – fakesters existed for good reason – ie, the Harvard U fakester (this was before you could identify groups — the Harvard U fakester profile was used to connect people in an ad hoc group). They killed people who were playing around, but in the process they killed lots of good profiles too.

MySpace – planned as a Friendster clone, but more loose with rules. Indie Rock folks were targeted as an audience, in part because they had been kicked off Friendster. Some of the key features that are still on MySpace came from this era – the individual profile URL for example. The first set of users were musically inclined – tracking bands. First emergence of code in MySpace forums – MySpace knew within 24hrs of it occuring that people were pasting html and javascript in the forums but chose to allow it. “Copy/paste literacy” – someone else’s term. Leads to some interesting stuff, since people didn’t really know what they were copying and pasting.

danah’s using “social network” site as opposed to “social networking” – focus on a place where people write into being their social network – not use it to meet new people.

Basic characteristics of Social Network sites:

  • -Profile (inherited from dating sites)
  • Friends (not the same as friends in the offline world)
  • Public comments (saying things very publically about other people) – started as testimonials on Friendster but got turned into communicative space. (Table salt and pepper fakesters writing to each other). (66% of comments on Facebook are on the wall, not via private messages)

How are network publics different than the kinds of publics “we” grew up with:

  1. They’re Persistent. They stick around.
  2. They’re Searchable. You can find things. So can your parents.
  3. They Offer Replicability – copy and paste from one space to another. Negroponte’s digital bits come to life. This is one of the best ways to bully – copy and paste conversation from IM and edit.
  4. They Have Invisible audiences – you don’t know who is watching. These are mediated spaces.

It’s a question of context. Context sets expectations (formal and informal). Context used to come from topic – socialization on usenet of what is ontopic and offtopic. Example alt.tasteless and cat recipes, cat shaving, cat skinning, etc. By the time the boom was over, there is no more “like minds effect” on the internet and conflict is certain.

Joshua M – No Sense of Place – Stoky Carmichael and the issue of how to go on TV – how could he speak a neutral voice? He chose, and ever since we think of black power as anti-white.

This generation in growing up with celebrity style publics – where everyone can be famous among 15 people, but now know which 15.

Depression era – Labor Unions, Compulsory education at High School level (14-18) gets created, in part as a way of keeping laborers out of the workplace. Keep kids away from labor organizers and out of the workplace – leads to age segregation. This is also where a new kind of bullying occurs because of the lack of older folk. “Teenager” itself is a 1941 creation.

(In some ways the whole pedophilia issue is about the anxiety of teenagers knowing adults – why is this such a megatopic right now?)

Children’s Society in Britain is tracking this issue of fear – no real correspondence in the US.

Playdates – one version of the kind of control now being exercised.

Young People are turning to these network publics in part because they have no actual public to go to.

Why do people write public comments? In large part because the defaults are public. But also because there is a visibility issue – you need to be seen commenting, you get replies, etc.

On MySpace, to get rid of comments, they just delete the person, which deletes their comments.

The difference between the profile with 30 friends versus 900 friends is a question of what imagined audience is. Facebook’s “private” setting means just my friends – which is not admissions officers and law enforcement.

There are two audiences youth don’t want:

  1. People with direct power over them.
  2. People who want to prey on them – the more realistic fear here is less sexual predators than spammers and marketers.

How do they avoid them?

  • – Artificial walls / lies.
  • Demand the way the world should be – get out. No mom’s allowed, etc. This is where the “public” gets difficult – we want to be public but only to people like us, not to parents or teachers.
  • Ostrich. Pretend that if we can’t see the invisible audience they don’t exist.

This is the way they have to socialize – it isn’t necessarily the most optimal way, but often the only accessible way.

Cellphones – totally locked down – this is interesting because users prefer the online social network because those aren’t locked down. Email is for talking to parents.

One of the reasons social networks outside the US are more profile oriented – because here we pay to recieve SMS – elsewhere people use SMS to communicate and the network just for the profile.

Ethan – one of the analogies you use is the Mall – which is part public but also very private – which makes them interesting legal cases. But all these social network sites are similarly partially public and owned by private companies. Do the youth your studying care? Are they aware of that commercialization?

db – I wish. It’s actually very accepted. “If its got ads on it it will be free forever” They are so used to being blasted by ads they don’t think twice about it.

Class dynamics on MySpace/Facebook – working class, marginalized kids (freaks, music kids, etc) are on mysapce – college-bound, “good” kids are on Facebook – this plays out in part between different schools, between different neighborhoods in schools, etc. The military banned MySpace but not Facebook – they banned what soldiers are using not what officers are using. REcruitment is done via myspace – and youth talking bad abotu the war may be what’s behind that block.

Cultural aesthetics – facebook seems less commercial because it looks modern and controlled, as opposed to myspace’s wackiness. MySpace is still about bling – and it is ok for the ads to match that aesthetic.

The difference between having Tommy Hilfinger written across it and knowing what a Prada bag is.

The youth don’t know a public that is not commercial.

What is this evolving into?

db – the tech industry is obsessed with Web 3.0, and immersion, and 2nd life and WOW.

I think the next level will be mobile. I think the question is can we do it – given the way mobile is structured in the US.

Growth and fragmentation cycle – investors require infinite growth but that doesn’t necessarily match what is best for the community.

Facebook is gaining the older audience but losing the younger audience. They ran into this even when college students were upset that they added high school students.

Cluster effects – you need entire groups to participate. Not everyone created their own sites – people share passwords and check each others messages, and play with each other – they don’t want secure “my site, my password” stuff. People create profiles for their friends who can’t or don’t.

What about youth subcultures who *are* reacting negatively to the commercialism of the culture? What about networks that are using these technologies to organize against this? Other possibilities exist.

I’ve been working on this as well – on the edges – in order to look at what is next you need to look at the edges not the center.

db – I’m just not seeing it among high school students – I wish that I was, but I’m not.

What about the possibilities of temporary autonomous zones – there is power in these.

db – but people build social cues into these environments. WoW is one of the few exceptions where guilds for example are age diverse. Otherwise people are signaling their age / class / gender / race in all kinds of ways.

The challenge is that what is at teh edges is not what becomes mainstream – things get modified on their way to the mainstream and lose imuch of their edge in the process.

Kids are told that all adult strangers are bad and evil. Kids are afaird to talk to me, even though I’ve got all over. I don’t know how to break that in the online world.

The adults are just not doing a good job navigating the future for you – you need to become the navigators for them. Hawaiin political movement – charting hawaii’s future.

What about Gender?

db – It’s amazing how many of the boy’s profiles were created by their girlfiends in part in order to be the first in the top eight. None of it is really surprising which is why I haven’t written much of it up.

Boys are much more likely to collect strangers, more likely to friend porn divas, etc.

Homophilly? (Birds of a feather stick together) – Homophilia? It is clear that people are more likely to meet people that are like them – the more you have in common the more likely you are to become better friends.

Interaction with people unlike you – social network sites are helping reinforce this, but it is the absence of real public experiementation in the first place. We’re losing that across the board not just in social networks. In fact social networks *may* enable more interaction in unexpected ways.

Pew research – the 7% who are not online, 75% of them don’t want to be online.

Parent info sharing – this is really being driven by 30s parents having kids later. I’m not seeing real activity among teen parents that is different than other teens use. Not really seeing a teen parents group rising up.

So what do we do?

db – well, for one thing there is the defensive – bills to ban these sites in congress in various forms.

Education – help people get literate about how to use these sites and how to manage them. Innuit morality play – how would you feel it? Why do x rather than y?

In terms of law, the number one request is to stay away – so much of the legal intervention is around sexual predators – if we’re going to do something let’s actually enforce the laws about sexual predators rather than talking about the danger.

We need digital street outreach – the equivalent of clean needles and condoms distributed to youth.

IT would be great to have a street outreach online – people just hanging out talking to kids at risk looking for attention (but this runs up against the stranger danger problem in that youth won’t talk to adults).

Ethan – the bingo for today is Paris Hilton, Needle exchange, and Jerry Fallwell.

danah’s also become a Berkman Fellow for the 2007/2008 school year, so hopefully we’ll get more opportunities to follow her research.