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.

Remediating the self, or: Why I left Facebook

155781_125349424193474_1654655_nThe Zimmerman verdict entered my world Saturday night as I peaked at my Twitter TL just after (appropriately enough) watching an episode of The Wire. I was shocked as I refreshed the feed on my phone, reading reports, outrage, and snark; the response was tremendous. But when I switched over to Facebook, my feed looked vacant. Hardly anyone was reacting to the verdict and the two posts that did made me angry. One argued in support of Stand Your Ground — an absurd manifestation of 21st century frontier justice — and another that asked why race had anything to do with the case (to be fair, this person lives in a state worse than Florida, if that can be imagined). Honestly, it wasn’t a totally unfamiliar feeling: I preferred Twitter to FB during the fall election and I felt overwhelmingly disgusted by a lot of what I read on FB after the the Newtown shooting last December. So, I finally did what I’d been thinking about for months: I went to my computer and deactivated my account (deleting it entirely requires more steps, unfortunately).

Dealing with the occasional family troll is something most people have to endure and, like most friends, I’ve endured them throughout two presidential elections. But there were other reasons for my departure none of which are unique. Like many others, I was concerned about my privacy (Instagram pictures, for example, started showing up in public feeds without my consent) and the growing intrusion of ads. But because I use Twitter, Instagram, Google, Yahoo, and others, these couldn’t be my only reasons. Actually, truth told, the primary reason is embarrassing — cliche, even. I had been checking FB incessantly, nay automatically, every time I’d open a browser or my phone, which was distracting me from other possibilities, from reading deeper content from my RSS or Pocket or simply paying more attention to my kids. Simply put, I don’t know if I had the self control to stop looking at it. Which is odd, actually, because it’s been almost a week and I simply do not miss it. At all. And that makes me wonder how it became such a part of my routine in the first place. What I realized over the last few months is that there was a fundamental difference between what I was reading there and what I was finding on Twitter, which is more open, active, and often awesomely weird. In composition terms, Twitter is way more of a happening, even if my interactions there are rare. I was thinking of this especially as I read a prediction by Bob Lefsetz that Twitter will soon be dead:

…there are too many people on the service. As a result, very few are heard. It’s happened over the past six months, tweeting is like a stone in a waterfall, or more accurately, pissing in the wind. In other words, if you tweet and nobody reads it have you wasted your time?

I don’t put too much stock in industry heads like Lefsetz, but the comment is representative of the prevailing critique of Twitter by users who don’t differentiate it much from other kinds of social media. Still, I’m guessing most people (and legal definitions to the contrary, businesses aren’t people) who love Twitter aren’t on it to be heard as much as to experience it, entering and exiting the interface as a moment, not in its totality.

One important difference between the two is who is representing your social reality. I’m not an expert on the technical aspects of either service, but there are fundamentally different ways each network controls your stream. FB uses an EdgeRank algorithm to decide which slice of your feed is relevant, while Twitter engages algorithms on their separate trending topics tab and probably via Promoted tweets. It’s true that I could tinker and manipulate FB to draw content out (starring certain friends, for example), but even at that moment I’m competing with the interface. What I have grown to love about Twitter is its unpredictability.

This week I’ve been reflecting on new media as I’ve been reading Bolter & Grusin’s older-but-fascinating book, Remediation. Their basic argument is that all media contains traces of old media and thus, remediation as a process that operates under a paradox of two logics: the logics of immediacy and hypermediacy. Put most simply, the logic of transparent immediacy seeks to erase media/tion through linear perspective (think virtual reality), erasure, and automaticity (24), while the logic of hypermediacy seeks to make it conspicuous and multiple through multiplicity and heterogeneity (33-34). Depending on the context, these two logics can compete, compliment or coexist — and they are not unique to digital media. The authors provide compelling examples of furniture, dioramas, and stereoscopes as hypermediated. Both logics work to form “the desire to get past the limits of representation and to achieve the real” (53). Transparent immediacy aims to make the users engagement feel natural while hypermediacy aims to create a “a feeling of fullness, a satiety of experience, which can be taken as reality” (53). As a rhetoric, remediation offers us transparency only to mature, which then “offers new opportunities for hypermediacy” (60). So before FB, we had YouTube, which remediated film which remediated photography, which remediated linear perspective paintings and drawings (excuse the reduction). FB and Twitter, in this sense, are both hypermediated, even if my engagement with them has become automated.

Or maybe not. In their discussion of networks of remediation, B&G explain how every medium “participates in a network of technical, social, and economic contexts,” which “constitutes [it] as a technology” (65). Thus, FB and Twitter offer different technical, social, and economic affordances based on their interfaces. Economically speaking, FB offers ads in my stream that other friends have liked (why some of my friends have liked Walmart, I’ll never know) whereas Twitter offers minimally intrusive “Promoted tweets.” And as I mentioned before, they’re technically different. As the Lefsetz quote suggests, many people are turned off by Twitter because of its singularity (not to mention the investment it takes to build more than one social network). But I’ve found Twitter to be tenfold more useful than FB for finding out about emerging scholarship because I can follow — not friend — smart, prolific DHers like Danah Boyd, Bethany Nowviskie, and Brian Croxall. But I believe it’s the social aspect that’s been the final push for me to actually leave FB. The authenticity of a medium is especially important to the social dimension and is, according to B&G, socially constructed through immediacy or hypermediacy. For me, Twitter has overtaken FB as a more authentic space, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s because of the technical affordances; as I’ve turned more in to a scholar,  and as a result value those open social networks more than the mundaneness of FB.

After all in the third and final section of Remediation, B&G talk about remediation and identity:

…we employ media as vehicles for defining both personal and cultural identity. As these media become simultaneously technical analogs and social expressions of our identity, we become simultaneously both the subject and object of contemporary media… Whenever our identity is mediated in this way, it is also remediated, because we always understand a particular medium in relation to other past and present media. (231)

In other words, in moving to other platforms, I remediate myself — as a subject in a PhD program, a dad, a zinester, a collector of material things — and thus/because I cease to identify with/in FB. Likewise, my leaving FB could be a reaction to digital overload, one that I sense some of my closer friends also feel. Many of those like-minded friends — those I ceased to see on the interface — abandoned FB long ago. Meanwhile, others — folks I don’t identify with so much but maintain relations through blood, work, or other ties — were posting more frequently. (Then again, perhaps FB’s algorithm is inaccurate — or worse, corrupt.) The point is, in leaving FB, I’m engaging in a ongoing, never-ending process of remediating myself. There’s much more to reflect upon about this and I don’t know if it’s a permanent move. But for now it’s a good one.