Researcher as Teenager: Parsing Danah Boyd’s It’s Complicated
I have a distinct tendency to see everything through the lens of what it means for research communities. I have just finally read Danah Boyd’s It’s Complicated a book that focuses on how and why U.S. teenagers interact with and through social media. The book is well worth reading for the study itself, but I would argue it is more worth reading for the way it challenges many of the assumptions we make about how social interactions online and how they are mediated by technology.
The main thrust of Boyd’s argument is that the teenagers she studied are engaged in a process of figuring out what their place is amongst various publics and communities. Alongside this she diagnoses a long standing trend of reducing the availability of the unstructured social interactions through which teens explore and find their place.
A consistent theme is that teens go online not to escape the real world, or because of some attraction to the technology but because it is the place where they can interact with their communities, test boundaries and act out in spaces where they feel in control of the process. She makes the point that through these interactions teens are learning how to be public and also how to be in public.
So the interactions and the needs they surface are not new, but the fact that they occur in online spaces where those interactions are more persistent, visible, spreadable and searchable changes the way in which adults view and interact with them. The activities going on are the same as in the past: negotiating social status, sharing resources, seeking to understand what sharing grants status, pushing the boundaries, claiming precedence and seeking control of their situation.
Boyd is talking about U.S. teenagers but I was consistently struck by the parallels with the research community and its online and offline behavior. The wide prevalence of imposter syndrome amongst researchers is becoming better known – showing how strongly the navigation and understanding of your place in the research community effects even senior researchers. Prestige in the research community arises from two places, existing connections (where you came from, who you know) and the sharing of resources (primarily research papers). Negotiating status, whether offline or on, remains at the core of researcher behavior throughout careers. In a very real sense we never grow up.
People generally believe that social media tools are designed to connect people in new ways. In practice, Boyd points out, mainstream tools effectively strengthen existing connections. My view has been that “Facebooks for Science” fail because researchers have no desire to be social as researchers in the same way the do as people – but that they socialize through research objects. What Boyd’s book leads me to wonder is whether in fact the issue is more that the existing tools do little to help researchers negotiate the “networked publics” of research.
Teens are learning and navigating forms of power, prestige and control that are highly visible. The often do this through sharing objects that are easily intepretable, text and images (although see the chapter on privacy for how this can be manipulated). The research community buries those issues because we would like to think we are a transparent meritocracy.
Where systems have attempted to surface prestige or reputation in a research context through point systems they have never really succeeded. Partly this is because those points are not fungible – they don’t apply in the “real” world (StackExchange wins in part precisely because those points did cross over rapidly into real world prestige). Is it perhaps precisely our pretence that this sense-making and assignment of power and prestige is supposed to be hidden that makes it difficult to build social technologies for research that actually work?
An Aside: I got a PDF copy of the book from Danah Boyd’s website because a) I don’t need a paper copy and b) I didn’t want to buy the ebook from Amazon. What I’d really like to do is buy a copy from an independent bookstore and have it sent somewhere where it will be read, a public or school library perhaps. Is there an easy way to do that?