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Researcher as Teenager: Parsing Danah Boyd’s It’s Complicated

23 July 2014 6 Comments

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?


  • Stacy Konkiel said:

    Cory Doctorow organizes a sort of book exchange for librarians/schools that want copies of his book and folks like yourself who are willing to buy a copy for them: http://craphound.com/makers/donate/

    Maybe danah would be interested in doing similar?

  • Eva Amsen said:

    One reason I think the networks for scientists don’t work is that any attempt at creating a “facebook for scientists” assumes that scientists will use it 24/7, but in reality what scientists want is to be mostly left alone to work, and only occasionally talk and share information. (The opposite of what many teenagers want?) That kind of interaction is much slower than the Facebooks of the world would like interaction to be. The Node worked well (and still does, after I left) because it’s just one blog, and therefore quite slow-paced. Many people just dip in and out of it, and don’t want constant instant work-related social interaction. And if they do, they can get that on Twitter/Facebook!

  • Science in the Open » Blog Archive » A Prison Dillema said:

    […] meaning to read Danah Boyd‘s It’s Complicated for some time (and you can see some of my first impressions in the previous post) but I had held off because I wanted to buy a […]

  • Cameron Neylon (author) said:

    Yes, that’s exactly the kind of thing I had in mind. I’m a little surprised someone hasn’t actually built a service to do this though. It seems like a logical kind of thing that could work. Register an interest in a book, register an interest in buying a copy, connect people together.

  • cameronneylon (author) said:

    There’s definitely something that has to do with timeframes and the degree of interaction. For things that move slowly you need most people to be coming in relatively infrequently, for those that move fast most people have to be there all the time or at least regularly.

    There’s a real sense in which the flow of time makes a big difference particularly as the interactions are asynchronous. And there is a tendency for “success” to look like everyone being there all the time. I agree that for researchers there needs to be a pace that works. I disagree with the characterisation of “…mostly left alone to work, and only occasionally talk…”. Its just that most of what has been built doesn’t necessarily connect people with the people they want to talk to, in the spaces that they want to talk to them in and at the right frequency.

  • URLs of wisdom (2nd August) | Social in silico said:

    […] Why haven’t social networks for scientists really worked so far? Cameron Neylon reconsiders the reasons after reading danah boyd’s “It’s complicated”. “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.” […]