Why do youth share so publicly? Or, privacy as a process for agency

Note: This is part of collaborative book review of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd that I wrote with other HASTAC scholars.  My original post is here. The book is available as a free download on boyd’s site.

Early in her second chapter of It’s Complicated, danah boyd makes one thing perfectly clear: teens want privacy. To illustrate this, she shares a few pithy quotations from “Waffles,”one of many teens she interviews throughout the book:

“Just because teenagers use internet sites to connect to other people doesn’t mean they don’t care about their privacy. We don’t tell everybody every single thing about our lives. . . . So to go ahead and say that teenagers don’t like privacy is pretty ignorant and inconsiderate honestly, I believe, on the adults’ part” (55).

The rest of the chapter goes on to explain why adults —and the media at large —often misunderstand or understate this desire as they see teens negotiate what boyd calls in the introduction networked publics.

Networked publics are both the virtual common spaces arranged by social media (not unlike malls or parks) and the socially-constructed, imagined communities that develop from participating in them. For boyd, such environments are shaped by four specific technological affordances —persistence, visibility, spreadability, and searchability —that have always existed, but are amplified for teens who are using social media. It also serves as a convenient schema for analyzing and making clear the structures at play as teens do what they’ve always done: try to socialize their way into adulthood. In this sense Chapter 2’s focus on teens’desire for privacy stands in as an important metonymy for the ongoing desire to have more agency in their lives —as a way to assert control over their socialization in a network that is complicated by the affordances of persistence, visibility, spreadability, and searchability.

For example, the persistence and visibility of a teen’s Facebook feed allows for snooping parents or siblings to either monitor or even comment on a photo or status update. As spaces where context collapses (mentioned in Chapter 1), friends and family collide making it difficult to achieve any sort of intimacy. As a result, teens often switch between platforms for certain tasks —from Facebook to Snapchat or SMS —or abandon them entirely just to stay one step ahead of their parents. In a less common but more impressive example, one teen deactivated her Facebook account each time she signed off just to exert some control over the platform’s persistence and searchability —so that if anyone wanted to write on her wall, they’d have to catch her when she was actually online (and even then, she would delete it).

Still, boyd makes it clear that the more common situation is that teens control access of their public content through their discourse rather than through the interface. In one of the more interesting-yet-relatable sections of the chapter, boyd explicates the concept of social steganography:“hiding messages in plain sight by leveraging shared knowledge and cues embedded in particular social contexts”(65). This occurs through subtweeting, using pronouns strategically, referencing songs or other pop culture references, or other tactics that use a specific but shared context for its meaning to coalesce with a select few.

Yet a more paradoxical strategy is to overshare —to emote daily, to give a play-by-play on a breakup, or in the case of one LA teen, to post goofy selfies. For this latter teen it was a lot safer to share her images publicly because not only would she be in control of the context instead of her friends (who would likely take an opportunity to embarrass her), but also “her apparent exhibitionism left plenty of room for people to not focus in on the things that were deeply intimate in her life”(75). This is an important point since boyd makes a lucid case that these cases are ultimately about teens controlling privacy “in relation to those who hold power over them”(56) —parents, siblings, teachers, or even other peers.

As boyd puts it, privacy isn’t something to be had but something to be continuously strived for, “a process by which people seek to have control over a social situation by managing impressions, information flows, and context”(76). For teens socializing in networked publics this means doing whatever possible to control those affordances. And for boyd, it’s critically important to their psychosocial development, including their self-efficacy and self-esteem since “[p]rivacy doesn’t just depend on agency; being able to achieve privacy is an expression of agency”(76). Importantly, then, adult surveillance shapes teens’understanding of privacy; when good parenting is defined as striving for omniscience, as is often the case in our culture, it sets up a pernicious cycle of distrust that will haunt teens —and their parents —well into their adult years.

If there’s a limit to boyd’s chapter is that it doesn’t go far enough to explore some of nuances of these problems; although she justifiably harangues adults for homogenizing teens into a bunch of drama-whoring oversharers, as a young parent and longtime teacher, I found myself hungry for some of the more complicated examples where adults and teens were able to negotiate public/private thresholds that didn’t always pin one against the other.  Moreover, as a scholar interested in zines and other forms of alternative media, I became a bit depressed by the implication that the only way to socialize in networked publics is by using the fast capitalist tools of Silicon Valley. By her own admission, boyd “take[s] for granted, and rarely seek[s] to challenge, the capitalist logic that underpins American society and the development of social media.”This statement is indicative of boyd’s honesty in terms of audience, methodology and purpose throughout the book, but when teens are implicated in this logic throughout, it is hardly reassuring. For example, in Chapter 2 she notices that teens struggle to control their identity in the midst of “a media ecosystem designed to publicize every teen fad, moral panic, and new hyped technology”(55).

Despite these limitations, I’m finding It’s Complicated accessible, engaging, and important for parents and teachers as they seek to better understand how technology affects their relationships with teens. This chapter in particular not only paints a vivid picture of several teens negotiating privacy in the digital age, but also shows how timeless that struggle really is.

Suarez on materiality & “the coalescence of human intention”

Suarez commenting on the 1785 promissory note from the French

As part of their Critical Connections series, the Special Collections at Syracuse sponsored a pretty amazing lecture last Thursday by book scholar and Rare Book School director Michael Suarez called “‘Industry Need Not Wish’: Benjamin Franklin’s ‘The Way to Wealth’ As a Publishing Phenomenon.” This was followed up with a 2-hour discussion on Friday with Prof Suarez that allowed about 12 of us talk with him more intimately about the lecture and get a close look at some other important texts associated with Franklin in the late 18th century that the SCRC has in its collection.

I wasn’t familiar with Suarez and since I didn’t have time to read his most renown work — the 1,400+-page tome, the Oxford Companion to the Book — I opted instead to read the 30+-page  “Historiographical Problems and Possibilities in Book History and National Histories of the Book,” which is a surprisingly accessible article for outsiders (like me) who are not familiar with the field of bibliography. And when you read this, everything about Suarez’s approach makes sense. As he puts it, book history doesn’t really belong to any one discipline, but “as a multidisciplinary practice that is necessarily collaborative” (170). Not only did he touch upon this throughout his lecture and workshop but he showed it, walking us through the transnational life of Franklin’s most popular book, The Way to Wealth (TWTW) with grace, style, and joy. Dare I say it was one of the best lectures I’ve attended at Syracuse. Maybe ever. No wonder dude is also a preacher.

The extent of my knowledge about books from this period is limited to a phenomenal social history of Christmas I read last December so I can’t really put much of the lecture in a larger context. But put simply The Way to Wealth was a wildly popular anthology of aphorisms collected from Franklin’s 25 years of Poor Richard’s almanacs. Between 1758-1800 it went through 144 editions — that we know of. Of course it was popular because of the textual accretion from a quarter century of publishing Poor Richard’s, but also, according to Suarez, because it was cheap print. At the time, books like TWTW were printed through a jobbing press, which was quick and easy for the printer to make. (What surprised me is that in the 18th century colonies, most books were imported from England. Publishers in the states would take about 12-18 months to print a book because it took longer to make a profit from them; jobbing printing took priority.)

By contrast, in France, where Franklin became a celebrity, his works were printed on vellum, treated as an Enlightenment text (incidentally, I had many flashbacks to the HBO miniseries John Adams during this lecture).

What they had in common, however, was that Franklin’s book was a fashionable commodity. Back in the states, it became bundled with other important texts and sold to former agrarian workers who were urbanizing, becoming literate, and seeking (or rather, were told they should be seeking) civilizing texts. Sometimes these books had advertisements right in them (Suarez gave an example of a list of patented medicines to be sold at the end of one edition of TWTW). The most fascinating aspect of the lecture for me was the tension between what these books said and what they actually did. That is, it seemed to me from the lecture that the materiality of book in commodified form contradicted Franklin’s aphorisms about thrift, meritocracy, and savings:

  • Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise
  • If you would know the value of money, go and try to borrow some; for, he that goes a borrowing goes a sorrowing
  • Sloth, like rust, consumes faster than labor wears; while the used key is always bright

Suarez closed the lecture with what he later described as a “pivot,” showing  a series of statistics on illiteracy in the US, making the case that we should fight, among other things, to fulfill the promise of making literate the 32 million adults who can’t read. As a member of the LOC’s Literacy Advisory Board he said the issue was near and dear to his heart.

But having started the lecture with the overwhelming figures for student debt and having walked us through the ways literacy was literally fashioned in both America and France, it indeed felt like a pivot.  Literacy, of course, is more desirable than illiteracy (as Suarez pointed out in the discussion), but I found myself wanting to reach for Elspeth Stuckey’s 1991 book The Violence of Literacy once I heard this. Essentially, Stuckey does not see literacy as necessarily liberatory since  ideologies and contexts cannot be separated from words, including when literate people use them: “the society that fixes the worth of speakers fixes the worth of their words also” (92). Thus, the violence of literacy is found in the processes that seek to mark and dehumanize subjects, through such discursive practices as academic research and the systematic collection of data used for surveillance. Both are targets for Stuckey because both “regulate relationships” through literacy.  For me, this is exactly what TWTW did for the newly urbanized working class of the 18th century. The increased privatization of the University is perhaps the 21st century manifestation of this tension. Rather than provide money to the colleges to support programs like we did in the 60s with open-admissions, the neoliberal reality is that students take out loans to support their own literacy, taking on a sizable debt that never leaves them.

During the 2-hour discussion we considered Franklin’s own wealth, especially in contrast to Jefferson, who was born privileged but died in poverty (the opposite of Franklin). Although it seems there were several complicated reasons for Jefferson’s poverty the discussion implied he spent too much money on books and wine. You could do worse than squander a fortune on those two goods, but it was a helpful analogue to larger class tensions that have existed since the rise of capitalism. And as we looked at some amazing pieces from the SCRC having to do with Franklin — a 1775 sermon from the same press as the Declaration of Independence and a 1785 promissory note from the French that bankrolled the war — I wondered that without this larger historical context we were unintentionally perpetuating the myth of exceptional individual.

That said, I was felt privileged myself with the opportunity to take an evening and morning to learn more about Franklin, 18th century print culture, and the materiality of ephemera, which Suarez described as the “coalescence of human intention.” In terms of my own interests, Suarez reminded me that such coalescence — when it comes to literacy at least — might be best understood to take place through the commodified form of books, zines, laptops or ipads.

Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Age

Stuart Selber’s Multiliteracies for a Digital Age (2004) develops a tripartite approach for teaching computer literacy, drawing from: (1) the functional approaches that treat students as users of tools, (2) critical approaches that treat students as questioners of cultural artifacts, and (3) rhetorical approaches that treat students as producers of hypertextual media (25). A key problem for Selber is reinserting a humanist, or what he calls “post critical” (3), edge into the more positivist orientations of digital work — stances that too often “consider technology to be a self-determining agent” (8). This instrumental view of technology (a term borrowed from Haas and Neuwirth) views technology as neutral and leads two problematic perspectives in English departments (and other depts imbued with liberal humanism): they either jettison everything tech because hermeneutics and close reading is their business, or embrace it but only as a handmaiden to the larger agenda of textual study.

MFDA is broken into five chapters: Chapter 1 outlines the recurring problems with computer literacy as currently articulated and deployed at universities; the middle three chapters sketch functional/critical/rhetorical approaches to literacy; the last chapter, Chapter 5, addresses the implementation of said approaches both across a program (i.e. one class per approach) and within individual courses (i.e. one assignment/unit per approach). Within each of the middle chapters, Selber provides helpful parameters for each approach. For example in Chapter 4, on rhetorical literacy, he considers how persuasion, deliberation, reflection, and social action all might play a role in teaching students how to design interfaces using a “thoughtful integration of functional and critical abilities” (145). In general, this is a praxis-oriented book and a text I’ll go back to when it comes to rethinking and/or developing curricula on digital writing.

I won’t dedicate too much space to my personal connections to the book, but there is one I want to mention. Selber begins Chapter 4 by introducing Johnson-Eiola’s discussion of production/connection from his article “Negative Spaces: From Production to Connection in Composition.” By emphasizing connection in our classes, J-E informs us, writers might “write with fragments,” focusing on “reorganizing and representing existing (and equally intertextualized) texts — their own included — in ways that are meaningful to specific audiences” (135). This reminds me of the difficulty in focusing on both — production and connection, or composition and circulation (see George & Matheiu) — and how important it is to consider shorter forms in curricula that want to do both. For example, in my DIY Publishing course last spring, asking students to produce a zine in 5-6 weeks privileged form(s) and arrangement, but it didn’t leave much time for content and the sort of inventive work that might help with it (actually, the same can be said for other aspects of the course, including our work with new media). Thus, it is important to be open to short forms and visualization, and other ideas of connection and curation so teachers have time to support students who have trouble making objects and texts.

In terms of how this book aligns with others I’ve read from the list, Selber, while critical, is interested in working from within institutions, offering a different approach than someone like Sharon Crowley, for whom the entire institutionalization of universal requirement of FYC is the essence of the discipline’s problem. That said, while Crowley critiques the entire structure, she is also clearly writing from within it. And what I appreciate about MLDA is its ability to use theory to richly qualify the recommendation it makes about practice. This seems necessary since Selber’s audience is broader than the traditional comp/rhet crowd — a strength and a weakness of the book. A strength because it is able to articulate a broad rhetorical vision for computer literacy to a wide camp of folks (English profs, deans, even students); however, at times his “heuristics,” although always carefully qualified, still feel too prescriptive. Certainly someone like Byron Hawk, who argues for a more ontological, vitalist approach to composition would take issue with both the structure and the tone of some of Selber’s recommendations.

Finally, MLDA would be a useful book for approaching exam questions about critical pedagogy/literacy, humanistic approaches to technology, discussions on the role of heuristics in the field, the purpose and function of composition, local v global curricula, self-reflexive methodologies and praxis, or conversations about the view of tech as tools.

Purcell-Gates, Perry, and Briseño’s “Analyzing Literacy Practice: Grounded Theory to Model”

At the end of his book, Robert Stake characterizes the essence of qualitative research as innately limited to the specific:

“It has been important to learn that how the thing works in several small situations does not aggregate to solving a big-thing problem. Answers to macro problems call mostly for study of macro situations. Answers to micro problems call mostly for study of micro situations” (216).

However, for Purcell-Gates, Perry, and Briseño (“Analyzing Literacy Practice: Grounded Theory to Model”), aggregation of these small situations is the rub — perhaps not to solve a “big-thing problem” (such as illiteracy or social reproduction) but at least to perform replicable, cross-case analyses for “(a) the desire to reach for greater generalizability than that afforded by a single case and (b) to deepen understanding and explanation” (451, emphasis in original). The authors develop a theoretical and methodological model with the Cultural Practices of Literacy Study (CPLS), that collects specifically-coded ethnographic data from numerous sites, enters them into a database, for the purpose of more sophisticated theories of literacy that might lead to more effective pedagogies for “historically marginalized groups.”

Drawing from New Literacy Studies (NLS), the theoretical framework assumes that literate practices need to be “situated within social and cultural contexts and within relationships of power and ideology” (441). The researchers’ codes reflect this framework as they aim to document the context and the practice of the literacy events they observe. For example, they code a subject’s “social activity domain” based on the tokens of data observed (as folksomatic) in context (i.e. a person doing homework at a football game would be coded as SCH — schooling). Using genre theory as a guide, they code “text types” (e.g. novel) and “text forms” (e.g. book), the former nested within the latter.

Honestly, though, I found the examples of the coding scheme confusing. For social activity domain, they give the example of taxi driver reading the newspaper. Because he’s reading it while waiting in line for his fare turn, they coded it as Work. A paragraph later, however, they explain that they always “considered the nature of the activity, irrespective of where it occurred” when coding. Who’s to say the newspaper reading wasn’t serving some civic purpose (CIV) or communal one (COM)? Moreover, the authors locate social activity domain under literacy event codes, but then provide a figure on p. 450 that places “social activity” waaay outside the literacy event, rendering it unobservable according to NLS. My sense is that their coding scheme is an attempt to narrow the gap between literacy events — which are observable — and literacy practices — which are usually inferred, in order to more fully understand how literacy works in context of the subject (something that Theresa Lillis apparently attempts in our other reading this week). But despite reading this section multiple times, I’m just not sure.

The coding is obviously important as the authors aim to generalize from several ethnographic studies of various historically marginalized groups. The example research question given — “Does agency look different (is it instantiated differently) within different hegemonic contexts?” — leads to the conclusion that a more complex definition of hegemony (or more accurately hegemonies) is appropriate, given that resistance and appropriation of the historically marginalized are always situated. Although I didn’t think about this when I originally read the article, I now wonder about not only about the efficacy of such an aggregated approach, but also the ethics of it.

As Stake argues in the last chapter of Qualitative Research:

 “I am not confident we serve the people we research well. How accurately do we read their need, their aspiration, their constraint?  We are confident, sometimes overly confident, that the more we know about them, the better we tell their story. What is the evidence that the impoverished are empowered when we portray their impoverishment?” (202).

I suppose I wonder if this concern could be applied to macro qualitative research as well as micro? In exposing some of the hegemonies that historically marginalized groups have navigated, what is gained? The authors of argue that the third purpose of the CPLS is to design instruction that will “provide links between the literacy worlds of students and literacy instruction within formal educational contexts” (440), but how much of their research will actually support that goal? How much of it might actual objectify or homogenize “historically marginalized groups” under one rubric? I appreciated the sophistication of the CPLS and its goals (especially after discussing the potential and difficulty of the digital humanities last semester), but I did wonder if others had thoughts about both the possibility and the ethics of the database.