Unmediated Publics? Those are So Last Millennium.

In “Why Youth ❤ Social Network Sites,” Danah Boyd explores why teenagers are drawn to social networking sites, what they express on the sites, how the sites fit into their lives, what they’re learning from participating on them, and whether or not their activities online are equivalent, different, or supplementary to in-person friendships (119). Boyd’s research mostly focuses mainly on MySpace-using teens, aged 14 to 18.

(Sidebar: Boyd has the most awesome job, ever! I would love to do this research; I wonder if she needs a Research Associate to help her out? I will be available starting in June, but I digress…)

“…Social network sites are a type of networked public with four properties that are not typically present in face-to-face public life: persistence, searchability, replicability, and invisible audiences” (120).

Boyd’s description of “public” in reference to social networking is very interesting: She describes it as not just a collection of people who may or may not know one another, but also something that is “quite similar to audience as both referred to a group founded by a shared text, whether that is a worldview or a performance” (125). Specifically, Boyd refers to two types of networked publics – spaces and audience as connected through technological networks, such as MySpace or, most recently, Instagram. These networks (mediating technologies) mediate communication between members of the public.

Mediated Publics – Inquiring Minds Want To Know

So, what separates unmediated publics from networked publics?

  • Persistence: The Internet never forgets! Code: Your embarrassing moment or terrible public break-up are probably going to be there forever. Future employers can also dig up dirt from your red cup-enhanced party days.
  • Searchability: You can run, but you can never hide. You have a digital footprint, and folks will find you.
  • Replicability: (Wuh-oh!) Rumors spread quickly and indiscriminately. Also, folks can quickly and easily plagiarize (hence: heavy use of turnitin.com amongst teachers).
  • Invisible audiences: Lurkers abound, stalking your page. Or maybe you’re the digital stalker…

Essentially, these mediated publics are very … well … public, and in an especially widespread fashion. And while this can be problematic for most of us older folks, it’s especially challenging for young whippersnappers to navigate. This is especially the case as teenagers tend to have even less of a concept of how magnified their public exposure is, and the potential downfalls of that exposure.

In light of these potential downfalls, why do youth venture into the exciting and potentially dangerous land of social networks? In short, they want to socialize! Instead of hanging out at Valley Fair Mall, like my friends and I did back in the Stone Age 1990s, today’s youth connect via heavy social network use.


Social networks also “enable youth to connect with peers in new ways…to extend the friendships that they navigate in the familiar contexts of school, religious organizations, words, and other activities” (Ito, et al, 2008, p. 1). Basically, they’re always “around” in digital form, and there’s no parental gatekeeper taking messages via landline or portable phone, 1998-style.

Clair Huxtable

“Hello? I’m sorry, but Monica can’t accept phone calls after 10pm on a school night…”

Furthermore, Amber Buck, in “Examining Digital Literacy Practices on Social Network Sites,” argues that social media platforms allow students to represent and cultivate their identities, not only through intricate pages, but also through the messages they transmit via Tweet, meme, or picture (2012). Social networks give teens the opportunity to practice image management through something other than wardrobe, car selection, or other more “traditional” status markers. And most of all, social networks give teenagers more agency over how and when they will “hang out” with friends and acquaintances. Of course youth ❤ social media sites!



6 comments on “Unmediated Publics? Those are So Last Millennium.

  1. You should totally email Boyd and totally get on the research assistant brain train!

    I think social networking is interesting because it comes with a lot of contradicting purposes or appeals. People use these spaces to have an personalized individual profile that highlight’s their unique identity, but also to gain access to a larger public sphere where everything is shared and view-able . At the same time, these unique profiles don’t seem very unique when everyone has one. It’s a weird woven realm of private and public. I mean, yeah, I can make my profile different by adding personalized images, music, backgrounds…etc. But it loses it’s appeal when millions of other people have similar features. I don’t know…that’s just how I feel about it.

    I also think it’s interesting that your “unmediated public from networked public” bullets seem so negative and almost scary, haha. I can’t run or hide, rumors, lurkers; oh my! Which, yeah, is totally a thing. It prevents me from posting or uploading certain things because I know who’s watching…I have people from work and family on my Facebook…can’t post crap all willy-nilly. We have the opportunity to express ourselves however we want, but we, for the most part, refrain from certain actions, depending on who’s watching. Hmm… We are our own gatekeepers? But we’ve always been our own gate-keepers, right?


    • Despite the ever-changing forums and media spaces, the consistent factors remain: the youth form their identity, negotiate status, and socialize on media sites. Whether it is regulated or unregulated mediated or unmediated, the youth of today are constructing their identities for the public and private eyes to view, engage, and judge. Students try to create their identities in their own self imposed borders, where they get to pick and choose who they interact or not interact with online: parents, family, peers, or strangers. Danah Boyd argues that we as teachers or parents will do a “disservice” to the youth if we attempt to protect or censor them online. She argues they need to make mistakes and learn from them as a way of maturing, guiding, and navigating the real world. Idealistically this sounds amazing, students can safely make mistakes and explore their selves online without serious consequences, however, I have a hard time agreeing with this. I am not a parent, but I am middle school teacher and I see the serious implications of media sources and peer unmediated interactions. Over the last two years our school has dealt with gossip sites that update students with the gossip of the school and serious causes of slander and bullying. We have serious bullying on sites with gang mentality that two students have changed schools and one students attempted suicide. I think it is detrimental to approach social media sites as a let them be kids and they will work it out.

  2. I often wonder about what will happen to our own students as a result of unmediated public spaces. I can’t imagine (from the types of things I saw posted in my undergraduate career) that many people will be safe without proper online etiquette information. But then, I wonder, what this means for us as Composition Educators.

    I mean, we can address privacy and lasting information in our classroom, but is it our job to educate people about unmediated public spaces? I’ve always been a fan of utilizing New Media in our classroom as a way of presenting students with the tools necessary for success outside of our classroom, but at what point do we draw a line? I guess I worry that this conversation might get really hairy – especially because I’m not sure myself where to draw a “line of appropriateness” between unmediated social spaces and the networking that many of us advocate.

    Ultimately, your post made me happy I have a very minuscule online footprint compared to most. What do you think about all of this Monica? I know that I am not as scared of online environments as some because I have been raised with them in the background of my life – but I was also raised by my grandmother, who is skeptical of most online interactions (too much Dateline and the like). I want to know the opinion of an – respectfully – older student than myself: what should we be doing to address this in our Composition classrooms? The unmediated social space you discuss may function as a cautionary tale or as a context that allows for student agency and exploration (read as learning). Is this a place where we can propel learning or a place better left out of the classroom?

    And if we do embed things like public blogs into our classrooms, how do we do this in a way that is not only productive, but also not harmful to a student’s online representation of themselves? Learning is messy and we often learn from being “wrong,” but what about “trolls?”

  3. I think you touched on something that can be sort of terrifying and cautionary about having an online presence. Our digital selves are always there perpetually (unless a website goes bunk like MySpace did) and can be accessed by anyone who knows where to look. A future employer can examine how someone was a hard partier or view an inappropriate post on Facebook thereby damaging your employability. I always think that people have more sense about this, but then there are tons of posting lists about people getting fired from their jobs because of being blind to how public their own profile is. This can be a good thing because many of these people do very shitty things, but at the same time, it creates a situation where we cannot escape our mistakes.

    I don’t know if it is our responsibility to teach students to be aware of these aspects of their online presence, since as you said, “there’s no parental gatekeeper.” I definitely think this would make a powerful short form class or a workshop on managing one’s online presence. It is definitely something to have students consider as they choose their topics. Even if you use a username, the people of the internet always find ways to connect the dots and identify a person. This is why I have always been hesitant about posting many things on Facebook or creating content like a blog or vlog (besides all of the toxicity that comes along with becoming even remotely popular).

    All of this social space online has evolved and changed so fast; I wonder what many of these studies and research projects on the newer spaces teens use would look like. Is it much the same or has the culture changed? Since nearly everyone with access to an online device uses this type of media, do we actually become isolated in smaller communities now? Maybe I’ll discuss these in my own blog post haha.

  4. Hey Monica,

    Great post and love the earlier responses. Monica, you said that “Social networks give teens the opportunity to practice image management through something other than wardrobe, car selection, or other more “traditional” status markers.” Zach and Scott responded by questioning the teacher’s responsibility to manage and construct their online image. I feel that composition instructors have an obligation to help students write in a classroom and outside a classroom. In this case, more students are using social networks to compose their thoughts and share their views. I think our classrooms should serve as a platform for students to experiment with their words and ideas so that they become more aware of how they may be viewed in the outside world. We can help our students analyze the rhetorical situation and their audience when they write so that they make decision informed by critical analysis.

  5. Pingback: Concerns About Identity in Social Media | Teaching Writing in a Digital Age

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