I was one of a fortunate few who attended a stimulating and thought-provoking session by renowned social media researcher Dr danah boyd yesterday at RMIT. danah has done an enormous amount of research into how young adults view social media and she has conducted countless interviews with teenagers. The topic was how young adults view privacy in a world where everything seems to be public.
danah began by speaking about mythbusting privacy. How young people understand privacy is different to how we understood it when we were young as the world is totally different now. For teenagers, it’s essential to be part of the social world. In our day it was hanging out at the mall. Today, the equivalent is being on Facebook.
There is an expectation from all young adult to be participating in social media. If they are not, there must be a good reason not to be on it. They think, it’s free, so why not be on it?
Young adults are doing the things online we did offline when we were teenagers; making friends, hanging out. Awareness and presence drives participation. Teenagers are engaging in social grooming, learning social norms and how to conduct relationships and how friendships get formed in public places. Young peoples right to roam has been radically decreased in three generations. Constrained now locally. Parents want them within their sight. Social media use is a byproduct of this.
Young adults often see Facebook as a scrapbook of social life; a way of bringing bedroom culture (posters, media, etc) to an audience.
We are seeing an intersection of people, technology and practice, where people come together, restructured by technologies. Online expressions are automatically recorded and archived. It’s different to what were used to when we were teenagers.
The fact that online materials can be easily duplicated and not knowing whether something is original or a duplicate changes dynamics.
Searchability of teenagers is now great; visibility of content is great. Teenagers are now searchable by people who hold power over them (admissions officers, bosses, etc.)
Scalability. Even though huge audiences are out there, there are blogs that have 0 readers. Things that make them look like fools are the things that have scale. But not all audiences are visible. Not necessarily co-present. How do we navigate audiences when we don’t know who they are or when they are our audience? They might read a blog post written years ago.
Collapsed contexts: lack of boundaries makes it difficult to maintain distinct social contexts. Blurred. Young people are struggling to make sense of broader contexts as well. Peer norms and adult norms and very different.
Private and public are difficult to maintain as distinct. Sense if agency, make a decision and assert that decision. How do we control this?
There is a huge shift around information and who can access this information. Defaults have changed. We need to make a decision about what to share. Many teenagers are now sharing online public by default, private through effort. They find it easier to share everything than decide what to share. They feel other people can filter rather than them choosing what to share. They often upload all of their photos then select one or two to delete.
Young adults want to participate in a public choice of privacy in a public environment. But there is confusion about what constitutes privacy. Respect, personal, exhibitionists. Sharing is seen as a way of closeness, so sharing passwords is quite normal. Up to 50% older teens share passwords. This was generated by adults, parents wanting their children’s passwords. So sharing passwords is signalling trust to special friends and boyfriends/girlfriends. Cultural forces around trust and safety.
Who belongs and who doesn’t? Who should read and comment on a post? Some teenagers think just because a post is publicly accessible, doesn’t mean it’s for you. This means you parents and teachers (and other relatives).
Privacy strategies. How do you know if a Facebook status is meant to be addressed to you? Young adults say it’s a certain way you talk. One young adult created lists for suitable audiences as his interests were varied and he would be teased by some friends for some interests. So he separated those by using lists.
One young adult found that things she forgot about that occurred in the past were brought up. So she deleted posts and comments daily, after friends had time to read them. One girl deactivated her account daily so adults couldn’t see her updates.
Teenagers also feel that parents shouldn’t comment on Facebook posts as it scares everyone else away. So, often teenagers work around by hiding in plain sight. One example was a girl was feeling depressed, but as her mother was her Facebook friend, she couldn’t say she felt bad online or her mother would annoy her. So she posted the song lyrics from Always look on the bright side of life. The encoded message achieved privacy in a public environment. Her mother thought she was cheerful. Anyone who’d seen the Monty Python film knew she was upset.
Although danah has access to social media sites, she often doesn’t know what young adults are talking about due to the codes they use.
Dramatic actions online include teasing right through to harassment. We see bullying, kids see drama.
Shifts in visibility. Increased ability to see into lives of YA. They are seeing and being seen. You’re invisible unless you share and participate. This prompts them to share and be present. Young adults are now learning to expect surveillance. Parents, teachers, adults, governments are looking over their shoulder. Value of privacy still very important to YA but it’s achieved differently.
Young adults are now hacking the “attention economy”. They often think “what can I do to get attention?” Trolling is a part of this. They often feel that anybody who becomes famous becomes a target because they have visibility and the young adult may not. This has been normalised through reality tv.
Those who don’t want to or don’t have access to social media is about 7% of teenagers in USA. Religion is a good explanation for this. However, some young adults make a conscious decision to opt out. Opting out of Facebook has a few reasons. Parents is one reason. Some kids feel they don’t need to, they are already popular enough. Some feel so marginalised already, they don’t want to be marginalised online as well. Some feel they need a clean slate for a sports scholarship. Some people have an emotional exhaustion to Facebook updates; it feels like a job rather than fun.
Google+ Circles can be good not to overflow everybody or blow up your friends’ feeds.
Twitter is used in different ways. To participate with celebs. Participating in trending topics is fun. Strong third is protected accounts. Share updates with small group of trusted people. Quite clear who is following you.
Young people feel they are oppressed as a group. There is no safe environment for queer youth online, they are not getting the support the way they were a decade ago. There have been suicides in the US after the “It gets better” campaign. But there was no structural support to the campaign.
The Internet magnifies everything. We see things that we didn’t see before. How do we make sense of it? Teenagers need to understand the world is messy. Things out there aren’t all good and we can’t protect them from it all.
Bullying statistics haven’t changed with rise of Internet. Bullying is worse at school. Adults panic because we can see kids being harmed. If kids don’t come home with a black eye, we don’t know what happened. Easier to blame technology.
There is pressure for kids to only relate to people they know. Adults need to support shared interests. Marginalised youth want to share personal stuff. MMORPG seems to be a good place to share. Harder to find online communities.
Real names debate. We act differently at work, home, etc. so we could use different names for different aspects of our lives.
Note: danah changes quotes from YAs so they can’t be googled. No unintended visibility. Never connects journalists with young adults.
There are interest driven communities and friendship driven communities. But fear mongering in the media has made it impossible for young adults to join interest driven communities as there are ‘strangers’ on these sites.
Parenting is an ongoing process. We should be working on all of this long before they go on the internet. Trust and communication are the keys. Parents need to ask questions, such as “Why did you do this?” “Did you achieve what you wanted to achieve?”
How to we change the fear culture spread by the media? Statistics don’t combat fear. One story can make things spiral out of control. How do we challenge moral panic? We need media literacy.
Health and wellness is at the centre of all this. We need to teach critical thinking rather than dos and donts. We need to teach the possibilities about how to engage well.
danah also feels that educators should have a second Facebook account (without any private content) so that students can connect with their teachers if they have problems or issues. Accept their friend requests, but don’t friend them. Passwords can be shared with Principals for transparency. This would especially be important over long summer holidays when teachers are not available face to face.
A podcast of the session will be available shortly. For an in-depth blog post on the session, see Jenny Luca’s How do you deal with a world that is messy? danah boyd at RMIT.
Podcast of danah’s presentation available here.