Review by Godfried Asante, University of New Mexico
Its Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014. 296. Non-Fiction.
Its Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens provides an interpretation of the roles social media play in the lives of many U.S American teens. The author, danah boyd (who prefers her name to be spelt in lowercase letters) documents how new communication and information technologies have influenced teens’ lives. In addition, she addresses the anxieties and contentions on the negative effects of technology on teens’ lives, which has dominated the discussions on communication technologies and teens. She argues throughout the well-written book that teens’ engagement with technology is complicated. She challenges current general assumptions on the effects of technology and presents new interpretations on how teens perceive issues of privacy, context, and public engagement.
boyd begins by tackling the notion of identity online. She argued that the ability to understand how context, audience and identity intersect is important to understand how teens make sense of who they are online. She writes, “the internet has not evolved into an idyllic zone in which people are free from the limitations of the embodied world” (p.53). Thus, teens have to navigate a complex system of social negotiation in which contexts are networked and collapsed, audiences are invisible and anything can be taken out of context. In the second chapter, boyd examined teens’ conceptualizations of privacy. She explained that unlike privacy advocates and other politically conscious adults, teens want the right not to be monitored by their parents and guardians. In this vein, the concept of privacy and publicity as opposing concepts is blurred. She wrote, “privacy doesn’t depend on agency; being able to achieve privacy is an expression of agency” (p.76). So for teens, achieving privacy from adults and not necessarily from social media audiences is a way to express their agency. The third chapter deals with the concept of addiction. boyd argued that critics and skeptics of technology makes it seem as if teens are addicted to technology, but teens are actually addicted to each other. In expanding her argument, she explained that teens like adults are social, however because of restrictions on their movement due to security and safety, they utilize technology to achieve sociality, which may seem alien to some adults.
Fourth chapter deals with the misconceptions about the perceived dangers that communication technologies apparently expose teens to. She pointed out that TV shows such as To Catch a Predator evokes unnecessary fear among parents who eventually place even more restrictions on teens. She advised that if we want to make the world a better place, we need people to pay more attention to what is happening in their immediate surroundings rather than propagating distracting myths. The fifth chapter explored the nascent problem of cyber bullying on social media. boyd asserted that networked technologies mostly complicate how the public understands bullying. She argued that technology is not the cause of bullying, although social media has changed the dynamics of bullying. Teens use social media to seek attention and visibility, so recognizing the mental state of teens that prompts them to engage in acts of meanness and cruelty can help research devise effective interventions that work. The sixth chapter tackles inequality and social justice by examining specific issues of racism and segregation already embedded in the educational system. boyd discovered that although mostly white teens asserted the stereotypical mantra of having many racial minority friends in schools, their Facebook and Myspace profile friends proved otherwise. She opined that “in a technological era defined by social media, where information flows through networks and where people curate information for their peers, who you know shapes what you know” (p.172). To conclude this chapter, she stated that social media will not radically change structural inequalities because reducing structural inequality rests on people’s ability to make new connections which was not apparent in the teens’s profile she examined and interviewed. However, the internet is instead laying bare the social divisions already entrenched in our society. In the seventh chapter, boyd argued that it is dangerous to automatically assume that youth are automatically informed or digital immigrants. She asserted that becoming literate in a networked age requires hard work which age has no bearing. In the final chapter, she concluded the book by asserting that the integration of technology into the social fabric reveals cultural fractures. Teens’ use of technology highlights some of the challenges that society faces as technology gets integrated into daily life.
This book has several strengths; first boyd employs both academic and nonacademic literature and language to help readers from all backgrounds understand her argument about teens’ use of technology. From the introduction, she defines unfamiliar words she utilizes to make her arguments, such as “networked publics,” “complicated,” “participation.” She defines “networked publics” as publics which are constructed through networked technologies. In addition, she clearly defines public to non-academic readers as an accessible space “where people can gather freely” (p.9). Another strength of this book lies in the author’s knowledge of how teens manage their social lives outside technology use. Her academic and professional background coupled with her previous research makes her current analysis on teens’ use of technology very heuristic. Aside from her rich analysis, she contextualizes her arguments in each chapter with specific examples and current research. In addition, she takes into consideration race, class, socio economic statuses of the teens she writes about in developing her arguments, rarely seen in most academic books. Her analysis goes beyond what teens do with technology to why teens use specific technologies and what prompts their necessary engagement with that specific technology. danah boyd provides more than lip service to issues of racism, segregation and structural inequality perpetuated through social media. She delves into how colorblind ideology permeates social media, which ultimately leads to information inequalities.
This book examined the roles Facebook and other social networking sites play in constructing and structuring teens’ social lives in schools and at home. However, less emphasis is placed on the political economy of these sites which indeed contributes to the illusion of a public, audience or privacy that teens experience for marketing purposes. boyd explained that teens learn different social skills through their participation and interaction with friends online. Nonetheless, less emphasis is also placed on what kind of potential “social skills” teens can learn online if the dynamics of social relations is structured differently online.
Overall, this is a fantastic book for both academics and non-academics alike. The author clearly shows her long trail of knowledge of teens’ lives and technology and makes a persuasive argument. She addresses an important issue in the twenty-first century, which is how to manage identity in a networked world.
Godfried Asante is a second year doctoral student at the Department of Communication and Journalism, University of New Mexico. He teaches a class in Organizational Communication, Professional Communication and Intercultural Communication. His research interests include: Intercultural Communication in Organizational contexts, Social media, Critical race theory and Queer immigrants. He has published a book chapter in Critical Articulations of Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation, edited by Sheena Howard.
© 2014 Godfried Asante, used by permission