After 30 months ethnographic fieldwork on Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites, danah boyd has finally completed her PhD-thesis and put it online. Although she is no anthropologist, she seems to have worked like an anthropologist. Her thesis is relevant reading for anybody who is interested in the anthropology of childhood - especially in children’s relations to adults.
For children spend so much time on Facebook or MySpace ("networked publics") partly because they are marginalized in their society by adults, she explains in the concluding chapter:
One of the most notable shifts I observed in the structural conditions of today’s teens, compared to those of earlier decades, involves their limited opportunities for unregulated, unstructured social interaction.
When asked, teens consistently reported that they would prefer to socialize in physical spaces without constant parental oversight. Given that this is not an option for many of them and that many have more access to networked publics than to unmediated public spaces, social network sites are often an accepted alternative.
Their desire to connect with others is too frequently ignored or disregarded, creating a context in which many must become creative in making space for maintaining connections outside the control of adults. (…) Through the use of technology, teens are able to socialize with others from inside the boundaries of their homes. This presents new freedoms for teens, but it also provokes new fears among adults.
The teen years are marked by an interest in building new connections and socializing broadly. Online-activites are extensions of offline-activites. Teens’ engagement with social network sites reveals a continuation of earlier practices inflected in new ways, she writes.
My findings show that teens are drawn to social media collectively and that individuals choose to participate because their friends do. The appeal is not the technology itself—nor any particular technology— but the presence of friends and peers.
boyd draws many interesting parallels and comparisons:
Baudelaire’s Parisian flâneur enters the public to see and be seen. Teenagers approach publics in a similar vain. Like the flâneur, teens use fashion to convey information about their identities.
Teens have long struggled to find a place for themselves; they have consistently formed counterpublics within broader structures. Yet when they do, adults typically demonize them, the identity markers they use, and the publics they co-opt. The demonization of MySpace is akin to the demonization of malls and parking lots that took place when I was growing up.
The inability to access publics is an explicit reminder of teens’ marginalized position within society according to danah boyd:
When well-intentioned parents limit access to publics out of fear of potential dangers, they fail to provide their children with the tools to transition into adult society. This may have other unexpected consequences, including isolating teens from political life and curbing their civic engagement. I believe that the practice of maximum control and restrictions infantilizes teenagers, making them more dependent on or resentful of adults and adult society.
In learning how to make sense of publics that are different from those with which their parents are comfortable, teenagers reveal valuable techniques for interpreting and reworking publics. Their experiences provide valuable insight for understanding how publics are transformed by structural forces.
The key is for adults, and society more broadly, to engage with these issues and help guide teens in making healthy decisions that allow them to leverage social media in positive ways as part of their everyday lives.
Her thesis reminded me of Mari Rysst’s thesis on the (presumed) “sexualisation of childhood” and the notion of the “pure childhood".
I’ve only read the last chapter of boyd’s thesis.
By the way: As a famous blogger, danah boyd’s blog post on her thesis has received more than 40 comments within two days. Furthermore, there a numerous blog posts about her thesis already.