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.

clueless

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!

 

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Social networks, identity, etc

Often, academic discussions of social media describe a place where people can connect with each other in a multiplicity of ways, not just by using various tools and services, but also by how they present their identities and selves through these mediums.

For example, Michael Wesch’s talk Anthropological Introduction to YouTube (recorded and published on YouTube, no less) gives a sampling of YouTube culture, and the various ways its users interacted through vlogs and video responses.  As part of their study of YouTube culture, Wesch and his students participated by creating their own vlogs and interacting with the communities they were studying. Through this, they came to various insights about identity, authenticity, relationships, community, and  social networking.  “YouTubers” share small portions of their authentic selves through video–selves that are sometimes reflective, sometimes performative, sometimes narcissistic, and sometimes even fake.  And, others respond, subscribe, watch, and participate in those same activities in ways that are just as various.

Wesch’s talk was published on YouTube in 2008, long before Google and YouTube began to merge all of its social networking features into one account and require its users use their real names instead of psuedonyms.  With this in mind, I would like to know what Wesch and his students think about how YouTube culture has (or hasn’t) changed after the rules of how to use the site have changed.  “Media mediates human relationships“, afterall, and the YouTube culture that existed in 2008 made heavy use of pseudonyms and anonymity. I wonder if the same kinds of emergent communities are still possible now that YouTube asks its users to connect their accounts to their Google+ account, and asks everyone to use their real names.

Amber Buck’s article “Examining Digital Literacy Practices on Social Network Sites” looks at the literacy practices of one student who considers himself an expert at social media, and uses it frequently as an important part of his social, personal, and academic life. Buck saw how Ronnie “Filtered and processed his offline life through his online activities”, essentially using media to mediate parts of his life and connect with others.

What I found especially interesting and important is how Ronnie not only manipulates and plays with his identity on various networks by presenting some details in some places, but not in others, he also actively manipulates what personal information he shares, going so far as to give false information (e.g. saying that he graduated from Hogwarts) in order to make a statement about how his peers were using social media.

Robbie is shown to be sensitive to privacy issues and the question of who controls and owns his information.  These questions of privacy and control of personal information have grown since this article was published in 2012, and seem to go hand in hand with the use of social media.  At the time Robbie’s use of social media was being studied, Facebook had not yet implemented its controversial rules about requiring users to only use their real first and last names.  If these rules existed, Robbie’s playful interactions with friends and experiments with identity would not have been possible in the same way.

If media mediates human relationships, as Wesch says it does, I think it follows that media and social networks need to be flexible enough and open enough to allow people to form relationships and identities in all the different ways that human beings are capable of.

I find policies that dictate how users present themselves or identify themselves online to be terribly problematic and counter to the powerfully human and productive ways that people would otherwise use social networks.  Judging by the controversies these policies sparked and continue to spark, I know I’m not alone.

A response to these issues by danah boyd goes even farther and describes how dangerous these kinds of policies can be to the privacy and safety of its users, and not just to users for whom disclosing their real names is dangerous for political or legal reasons.  Some people have private but still very real reasons for wanting to be anonymous, including simply being a minor, or having unpopular opinions, or being a target of bullying, or feeling discomfort with what current news about the NSA suggest is happening with our private data.

What all of this teaches me is that I think it’s that social media, identity, and community are things that are not possible to separate from each other, and while that’s not a bad thing, it’s something to keep in mind when we think about what institutions, companies, or governments are providing the platforms for so much of our identity-creation, community-formation, and social interaction.  So much of what we do is captured and shared online, which does allow us to connect with each other in awesome ways, but it also means that all of that connection and sharing is mediated by the decisions that the social media companies make.

While social media may mediate human relationships, the companies that control that media may also be in a position to mediate and change us.  And, I am not sure any of us really knows what that means yet.

Michael Wesch made a very convincing argument for the connectivity of YouTube and, more specifically, the potential value in broadcasting to a vast and unknown audience.  I have never used YouTube for more than sharing iMovied slideshows with family and friends.  I didn’t really dial into the social connectivity of the site until one of my slideshows (of a camping trip to Lett’s Lake) showed 302 hits and a video clip of my daughter’s indoor skydive showed 159 hits.  At first I felt fear.  I was involved in a nasty custody dispute over my daughter when she was an infant and was forced into terminating all contact with her biological father.  It is for that reason I’ve always been very cautious about what and how I post to the web.  Over time I came to realize that we were not being cyber-stalked, that people were simply doing searches for “Lett’s Lake” and “indoor skydive” and these videos came back in their searches.  Suddenly I realized that my “channel” didn’t exist in the isolation that I had once imagined.  I honestly believed that no one would be interested in my videos unless I had specifically sent them the link – or unless they were a psycho cyber-stalker.  So, while my experience was different than speaking to the glass dot, I became aware of just how many people lay beyond it.  This realization can be both frightening and empowering.

Social networking sites, such as facebook, can also be frightening and empowering.  Who, in our generation, doesn’t have a story of some blast from the past coming to haunt them on facebook?  Scary for anyone who would like for their past to remain, well, in the past.  But there is a fascinating psychology behind the way that people develop their profiles on such sites.  As danah boyd points out, these sites offer the “opportunity to craft a personal representation”, something that is not so easy to do in face-to-face situations which require more immediacy in response.

These sites offer a way of collecting people that sit like window dressings on any user’s friend list.  Some people will accept and solicit friends in an attempt to get their number up, while others will carefully select who may enter the sanctity of their fb domain.  boyd, in “Why Youth (heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life“, suggests that, “by looking at other’s profiles, teens get a sense of what types of presentations are socially appropriate,” but savvy teens can also make moves that others may not in order to generate more social interest by who they have on their friend list, and what types of postings appear on their wall.  Facebook can be incredibly clicky in that you can see in your news feed that certain people’s wall posts and status updates generate an obscene amount of comments while yours may sit, if not unnoticed, uncommented on, which can make you feel on any given day like a HUGE loser!

Scrolling through your friend list on fb is kind of like looking at a bug collection in a shoe box – you can open the lid (or click on the link) and admire all the critters you’ve picked up along the way.  The only difference (ok, besides species and the fact that hopefully most of your fb friends are still alive and crawling around) is that the collection helps to tell you something about yourself every time you look at it.  Are your friend choices authentic?  Are most of your friends nerdy or hot?  How many of these people interest you enough so that you visit their profile independently?

It is all so interesting how we can be little sociologists on our own playground.  For more danah boyd check out her dissertation.