Although it might be difficult to do so, many of us can remember a time when the words “Internet,” “social media,” and “digital information” didn’t mean a damn thing to us. Sure, these concepts have been around in some form or another since the late 60s, but the Internet and all that comes with it is a relatively recent phenomenon. Which means that, unlike generations of people alive today, future generations will be born into a world where the Internet and digital technology will describe fundamental aspects of their realities from the get-go. It’s actually already happening. I mean, just take a look at all the three-year-olds streaming YouTube videos on their parents’ iPhones. The Internet is here to stay.
danah boyd understands this concept.
A social media and youth researcher affiliated with Microsoft Research and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, boyd has spent much of her adult professional life researching the ways in which adolescents use digital technology and the Internet, and how these technologies influence the social behaviors of teenagers and their interactions with peers and adults.
She’s compiled more than a decade’s worth of ethnographic research and interviews into a book published at the end of last month, entitled It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. In her book, one of the main arguments boyd posits is that, while the temporal circumstances of today’s generation of adolescents might differ from those of their predecessors, their desires aren’t very different; they want to establish and maintain meaningful relationships with other people, and they want to do so without the interference of adults and other authority figures. In other words, they want what every teen has always wanted, since the dawn of time: privacy. However, due to factors outside of their control, like restrictions on mobility and mounting societal and familial pressures, adolescents today have less opportunities for unmediated social interaction with their friends. Which is one of the reasons why, boyd claims, teens spend countless hours on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other “networked publics,” as she calls them, because they have no choice but to navigate this new digital realm if they want to participate in the societal landscape that characterizes this particular moment in history.
boyd’s research begs an interesting question: can the same conclusions be drawn about other age groups who have experienced the same exposure to and developed the same familiarity with digital media and the Internet? What about the individuals who don’t identify as teenagers but still participate in and consume social media as a means to maintain social connections? I’m no longer a teenager. I don’t have the same limitations on mobility that most teens face: I don’t have a curfew, I have a car, and I have the means (most of the time) to buy gas. If I choose to, I can get in my car at any time of the day and drive somewhere to meet a friend, and we can hang out and catch up and do whatever we want, within reason, free from fear of prying authority figures like parents and teachers. Genuine, face-to-face interaction with others isn’t outside my grasp, the way it can be for some isolated adolescents who turn to social media and the Internet as a recourse. So why do I find myself checking my social media accounts on my smartphone constantly throughout the day, sometimes even when I am in the presence of a flesh-and-blood person whom I made the effort to meet with? I mentioned that I’m not a teenager anymore, but it wasn’t so long ago that I could be considered one, and my adolescence definitely happened during the moment when social media and the Internet were being shaped into the experience people encounter on the Web. Is this a behavior I developed during the days I first learned to use social media when I was a teen, or is it indicative of a broader, more universal experience that does not need to take the age of digital technology users into consideration? Perhaps a more pressing question: is it possible to maintain the same intensity of social connection with others without the use of social media accounts and the Internet? The answer to that last question seems like it should be a resounding “duh!” Except friendships aren’t real until they’re Facebook-official. Right?
I honestly don’t know where to find the answers to these questions. It’s obvious that “it’s complicated,” but not just for teens. The good news is that, since the Internet doesn’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon, researchers like danah boyd and her contemporaries will continue to investigate the impact of the Internet and digital media on the social lives of teens, adults and everyone in between. So maybe we’ll have the answers to these questions sooner than we think.
And they’ll probably be found on the Internet.
In the meantime, if you’re interested in danah boyd’s research and the interesting discoveries she makes and conclusions she draws, grab a copy of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens here.