Boyd, D. (2007) “Why youth (heart) social network sites: The role of networked publics in teenage social life.” In D. Buckingham (Ed.), MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Learning, Identity.
The author undertakes to find out how socially-mediated communication (the sort that happens in online social networks like MySpace and Facebook) are affecting the normal literacy development of “teens” and their psycho-social development. She finds (Boyd 2007) that young people today are “writing themselves and their community into being.” They are using the virtual communication spaces to “work out identity and status, make sense of social cues, and negotiate public life,” all of which were not available before the Internet-based “public existences” came online.
She points out that between advantaged and poor teens, there is no difference in the percentage of youth who have online “identities.” What is abservable is a significant difference based on the “digital divide.” Those students whose parents afford them the opportunity use social network as a place to “hang out,” “surfing the network, modifying their profile, collecting friends, and talking to strangers.” Those who only have access at school are likely to use their social networks as “an asynchronous communication tool.”
Boyd describes how students use the social networks to fulfill their developmental imperative of understanding oneself as a member of society and becoming skilled in social participation. In building their “profiles,” maintaining their “friend lists,” and carrying on their normal “teen” conversations that emerge in “hanging-out,” today’s users are doing what yesterday’s teens accomplished via phone calls, club, religious, and athletic involvement. The big differences that come with the digital social network are in the qualities of the communication itself. No longer is it “un-mediated,” and so limited in its scope, endurance, intended audience. Because social network communications are all
- replicable, and given in the presence of
- invisible audiences,
there are inevitably frustrated users whose intended meanings are not interpreted correctly.
When they build their profiles, users are “writing themselves into being,” constructing an identity in the public sphere. Boyd (2007) says that “the choice of photos and the personalized answers to generic questions allow individuals to signal meaningful cues about themselves” (10). Once they have spent the hours of time it takes to create a personalized “profile,” students have also been “socialized” into MySpace, that is, they have “learned both technological and social codes” (11). They have also had to develop their rhetorical skills, considering the complexity of their audience. In their older generation’s rhetorical training, audiences were more or less concrete–present and visible to the learner. No longer. With “invisible” audiences (“publics”) reading her work, the youth must imagine a complex set of possible readers and adapt her language accordingly.
When they communicate through the social network, students are forced to do what skillful writiers have always done–that is put into a verbal medium information that is “naturally” (or in an “un-mediated” space) conveyed through one’s body, in “movement, clothes, speech and facial expressions” (11). Learning how one is understood by others (feedback) is an important feature of literacy growth and development, and the social network allows for immediate and repeated opportunities for such learning. Boyd writes, “The process of learning to read social cues and react accordingly is core to being socialized into a society” (12). But beyond verbal literacy, students must learn social literacy–how to get along with and work well with other human beings in groups. Here is where social networks–in their friends lists and built-in “group structures”–provide learners the opportunity to “write their community into being,” or negotiate their social selves.
At the same time that teenagers engaged in social networks appreciate the access thereby to public life (an access that Boyd argues American society structurally denies its teens), they are also concerned with preserving some “privacy,” or a sense of control over one’s “personal,” or “individual” public performances. Many youths, according to Boyd, keep secret profiles that they use to exclude parents and other authority figures. But because of the qualities what they communicate now is persistent, searchable, and replicatable, they run the risk of imaging themselves “private” when they are viewable by anyone. The “long tail” of public discourse, whether conducted behind a fake persona or “openly,” makes any imagined “privacy” that members of social networks believe they enjoy illusory. And yet adults err when they try to protect their youth from participation in social networks. Boyd writes, “restrictions on access to public life make it difficult for you ng people to be socialized into society at large” (19).
Before giving her suggestions for educators, Boyd provides an interesting history of the relatively recent cultural development of the demographic “teenager,” (a term not even in public use until 1941). Segregating society into “teens” and adults served economic ends, a joint endeavor by the labor unions (who could not handle more workers) and social reformers (who wanted to provide for the maximal education of America’s youth), the new “teen” term also allowed marketers to begin exploiting a valuable demographic that could be manipulated and “sold” through psychological manipulation and institutionalized “walls” separating them from the rest of society.
Finally come Boyd’s suggestions:
- We should not ignore or ban social networking: “We are doing our youth a disservice if we believe that we can protect them from the world by limiting their access to public life. They must enter that arena, make mistakes, and learn from them. Our role as adults is not to be their policemen, but their guide” (22).
- We should be able to make some expression private, or at least not “hyperpublic.” Boyd claims, “there is an ethos that if it is possible to access a public expression, one should have the right to do so. Perhaps this is flawed thinking” (22). In other words, the fundamental right should be to a person’s privacy, and safeguards should be put in place to keep it secure.
I am intrigued by the prospect of turning the learning in my class more explicitly social through the use of social networks. According to new literacies expert Meg Ormiston, a “school-safe” program that provides the literacy and socio-emotional growth opportunities of a Facebook or MySpace is Edmodo. If students were able to conduct class business in a social network, the curricular goals of achieving certain literacy standards in reading and writing could be fulfilled, but also, students would receive valuable practice in the soon-to-be-on high stakes test skills of collaborating and coordinating with other learners online (allegedly on the PSAE in 2012 for 8th graders). If I am able to implement it without running into my school’s IT block on many social networks, I may give it a try. I like the way these networks co-opt the teen’s developmental imperative of becoming a social being–it could be a powerful tool for allowing a person to fulfill basic psycho-social functions while learning important curricular content. As Boyd says, being cool on MySpace is “part of the … general desire to be validated by one’s peers” (13). I wonder some of that same impulse could be channeled into explicit learning activities.
I am also glad Dr. Pate selected this reading this week, since I have been up against district administrators who lately are (I believe) overly concerned about the expression of students in the socially-networked public spaces of our class wikis. Being comfortable with and acknowledging the mistakes students will make (in spelling and grammar, as in socially negotiating one’s self) would seem to be in keeping with Boyd’s sensible advice to act more as the learner’s “guide” than his “policeman.”
Would my colleagues in the cohort be willing to share their thoughts on the extent to which participation in social networks has assisted them in their social development? And would they be willing to try–perhaps in another class in the cohort’s curriculum–a socially-networked mediation of our learning? I know I would be willing to try it. As with so much else this course has given me, the notion that I could make this tool work to increase student learning will depend on my getting the time to individually and collaboratively “tinker” with the applications. By using them myself, I can gauge their usefulness. I just don’t know how else to “get my head around” the dozens of resources and tools we’ve been given to consider.