It sure is complicated: some glaring problems with boyd’s work

The it’s complicated review below, by Michael Simon, was posted on the Amazon site. While many of us may not agree with everything in the review, it makes for compelling reading. Larry Kahn wrote to Simon, asking permission to republish his piece as a blog post here on ISEN. Simon is a marriage and family therapist, and you can connect with him at @supportingteens, and

It sure is complicated.

Spoiler Alert: As a psychotherapist, school counselor and educator, having spent much of my adult life working with teens and families, I have some serious problems with “It’s Complicated.” The main problems: This book was written by a researcher who neither takes a political stand on an inherently political issue nor does she make clear her biases in analysis of the “data” under consideration. In the end, the book suffers from a kind of blindness about what’s right in front of her–that the impact and bi-directional effects of social media in the lives of our teens may not (and cannot) be seen for decades. The jury is and should be still out, and boyd’s work may function to close the case on an incredibly complex set of issues that will require decades of study. What’s the big deal, and why write such a long review? Because boyd is highly influential, because this book will be a best-seller and make her a bunch of money and because while she may be an expert in media studies and a preeminent researcher, she is NOT an expert in adolescent development. While this book clearly demonstrates a mastery of what teens are doing with social media, it demonstrates glaring errors and highly problematic interpretations of WHY they are doing what they do and say they are doing.

boyd has been called the “high priestess of the Internet” by the Financial Times, an internationally-recognized authority on how people (mostly teens) navigate the online world. Thought of as a brilliant ethnographer of adolescent digital natives, danah (that’s not a typo, with the lower-case “d” and “b”) boyd’s rise to the top of the top of the world of experts about what teens are doing online has been meteoric. In 2010, when Boyd gave the opening remarks at the highly influential South By Southwest Festival (SXSW) in Austin her remarks erupted into a firestorm of activity across the tech landscape. People listen to danah michelle boyd and she has the credentials (Microsoft Research, Berkman Center fellow, A.B. in Computer Science from Brown, M.S. in Media Arts and Sciences at MIT and a Ph.D. in New Media at University of California, Berkeley for her dissertation on adolescents utilize the internet as a kind of “networked public” (sphere), carrying out crucial, normative tasks of socialization, creating, maintaining and testing out ways of connecting with others in an increasingly digital world. Impressive.      

She considers herself an activist-scholar and her activities and self-presentation make her the darling of a wide range of players in the digital media landscape from academics, tech geeks/nerds, mental health professionals and teens themselves to digital media moguls, neural marketing mavens and individuals at every strata of the corporatist state looking to find the best way to turn adolescents upside down and shake the money out of their pockets.

Boyd herself is a rock star when when it comes to influence and acclaim in the world of social media research. Boyd did not have an easy adolescence. Her path from adolescent pain through the “saving grace” of the Internet (as she refers to it), through Brown University, University of California at Berkeley, M.I.T., Google, Yahoo!, and Tribe, and on to working at Harvard and Microsoft, is not a path that most digital natives follow. As colleague, researcher, and fellow technology champion Clay Shirky writes of her, “The single most important thing about danah is that she’s the first anthropologist we’ve got who comes from the tribe she’s studying.” In Randye Hode’s recent Time online interview about the new book, boyd made a mild (and teen-friendly) plea to parents and teachers:

“There’s a large part of me that wants everyone to take a chill pill,” says Boyd, who holds positions at Microsoft Research, New York University, and Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “I want parents and educators to calm down and approach technology with curiosity rather than fear.”

Now, I think danah’s work is incredibly important, but when she frequently implies that “teenagers are the same as they always were,” I just think she’s flat-out wrong. And although she argues that teens are still mostly doing everything they’ve always done, and that they’re sharing it online–and this doesn’t make them aliens–it just isn’t the case, in my opinion, that this means that parents should all breathe a sigh of relief. This is, I fear, danah’s ongoing narrative about teens and the Internet as a story about the new/old, exciting/mundane and transformative/conservative public sphere. Pre-release reviews and interviews about Boyd’s new book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, like Kirkus Review , Slate, and the recent Time online article all repeat the same trope: teens are doing what teens have always done, parents especially “should take a chill pill,” and manage their own anxiety about teens and the online world because that’s more destructive than what teens are actually doing online. In other words, parents, relax. Widespread panic about teens, technology and social media is overblown. She’s got the research and the interviews to prove it. Boyd’s book has, for just about every one of the hundreds of reviewers tripping over themselves to sing the praises of this “impeccably researched, written and argued” work, settled the matter. There you have it. The top researcher in digital media and teens says to relax. Teens are teens.

Now this message may not be what boyd wants or intends, and there is some evidence of that because of how intelligently she’s written in the past about the potential problems that teens can get into online. But as we know in this digital-media driven society, it’s about how things play out in public, in the popular press, not about Truth. Truthiness will do just fine. And the Truthiness of how boyd’s work is playing out in the media conveys a powerful, powerful message to parents of teens that often feel overworked, pressured, guilty and intensely anxious about whether they’re doing right by their kids–kids with whom they frequently do not have the wherewithal to monitor, guide and act in a leadership role regarding the bi-directional “uses” of digital media. To make the point even stronger: danah is telling parents what they long to hear, and are unprepared to hear otherwise. This makes danah boyd’s message, in my opinion, particularly dangerous. Dana (and her significant research) would have us believe that things as the same as they ever were, that teens are going about the socialization tasks inherent in identity development, and whereas they used to do it before at the mall, now they do it online. No big deal. Her job is to translate the codes of previous adolescent developmental tasks into present-day contexts, all the while helping parents understand that their anxiety-ridden meddling in normative development is the problem, not the technology. The whole “it’s the technology” versus “its the user” debate should have ended a long time ago, but It’s Complicated keeps it alive, and you might guess which one danah picks: It’s not the fault of the technology. That would be committing the sin of technological determinism and she has plenty to say about that. Full disclosure about my opinion: it’s always both and to think otherwise is, what Marshall McLuhan would have called the “numb stance of the technological idiot.”

I’ve known and worked with 13-year-old teens (several teens, in fact) who self-injured–who cut their wrists, arms, legs, abdomens–and then rapidly disseminated these photos on Instagram, SnapChat or YouTube. This behavior has multiple meanings. “Non-lethal self-injury” or “cutting” as its called is not “new;” it happened before the Internet as we know it. The dissemination of photos or live videos of those bloody wounds to 3,000 people in a matter of seconds wasn’t something that happened when danah was navigating the Internet as a teen as a 13 year-old. And this difference matters.

It’s not as if boyd doesn’t understand and hasn’t written extensively about some of the ostensible “dangers” of the Internet. In an online piece about celebritization–that particularly powerful combination of fame, attention and commodification that many teens are pursuing–once wrote, “… I feel like my relationship with the internet has the same cycles of some of my more abusive relationships.”

“Widespread celebritization is the flipside of the “attention economy” coin and I think that we have a lot of deep thinking to do about the implications of both of these. Both are already rattling society in unexpected ways and I’m not convinced that we have the social, psychological, or cultural infrastructure to manage what will unfold. Some people will become famous or rich. Others will commit suicide or drown attempting to swim in these rocky waves. This doesn’t mean that we should blockade the technologies that are emerging, but it’s high time that we start reflecting on the societal values that are getting magnified by them.”

So are my worries unfounded? By this quote, it seems that she gets it, in ways that I want and need other adults to get the dangers magnified by digital media use and abuse. The problem is that here, as in other places in boyd’s writing, the argument seems proto-schizoid, just like many of the teens “navigating” the Internet and social media.

One the one hand she acknowledges that “celebritization” is part of the attention economy, a way of organizing ourselves where attention is the primary currency teens are seeking and the activities around raising that currency overshadows the negative impact of the same activity. Alain de Botton, for example, has written brilliantly about the pervasive and deleterious effects of status anxiety on the individual and collective psyches, and nowhere is that concept of status anxiety more trenchant than in a consideration of normal adolescent development and adolescent development gone awry. How on the one hand does boyd argue that she’s not sure we have the infrastructure to manage the unfolding of the attention economy in the United States (Cf. Douglas Rushkoff’s excellent “Generation Like”) and that “…others will commit suicide or drown attempting to swim in these rocky waves” and on the other hand deliver to parents the message that they should “take a chill pill” about their teens and the Internet? The schism here seems remarkable. Which parents should take a chill pill, which parents should head for the Celexa and which should call a therapist? Should all parents sit down with their kids (and at what age) to begin teaching media literacy, since “blockading the emerging technologies” is off the table (and impossible, anyhow)? Who gets to decide the signification of what it means to be “media literate?”

I wonder, too, whether boyd has even identified the actual “dangers” and problems that the popular press, in their rush to re-crown boyd as High Priestess of the Internet, has said we can now productively stop worrying about. Is boyd aware of the deep Web? Is boyd aware of the fact that while teens are busy thinking they’re creating their own (traditional or disruptive) identities online–rather than the other way around–thousands of data mining companies like BlueKai (now Oracle) or neuromarketing entities like Neurofocus, Buyology or SalesBrain, or massive retailers like Target (not to mention Google/NSA, king of all data mining partnerships) are watching every move you and your teens make using digital media. Duh. Of course she’s aware of these things and has written about them.

But, there is a great schism between the facts glancingly acknowledged in the argument and the final presentation to the public. Not only does the argument strike me as schizoid, it strikes me as quintessentially adolescent. That is not an insult, by the way. It’s just a way of stating something that brain researchers have demonstrated about how the adolescent brain functions around risk and risk-taking behavior. Adolescent brains, in general, tend to overemphasize the rewards while simultaneously downplaying the risks. Relax, they tell us: this won’t happen to me. I’m different. Sometimes they’re right. Sometimes there is a huge schism between what they believe and therefore what they put their attention on, and what actually happens while their watchdog brains are busy being distracted by juicy piece of meat.

And just what are teens being distract from, while they’re busy with social networking? Just the main function of the Internet for teens (from the point of view of advertising and behavioral targeting gurus): monetizing the self that has been created by the interfacing with digital media–while you and your teens are busy paying attention to the fantastic, fun, transformative content. The “dangers” that boyd would have me, as a parent, educator, and psychotherapist take a chill pill about are dangers that take a long time to unfold, and are not perceived as particularly dangerous by the users (and especially not by the developers) of the technology.

My concern is less about whether teens themselves perceive the Internet as primarily dangerous or emancipatory and more about the power–a power boyd acknowledges and writes about in almost every public utterance–of digital media use to shape the world, the lifeworld and the very self of the teen, and just how the powers that be are going to take advantage of that in a set of complex process that will feel “natural” to everybody. Yes, of course, there will be victims along the way. Whatever.

While “It’s Complicated” is heavily researched, it’s also heavily dependent upon interviews and often takes teens proclamations at face value. Boyd is also keen to give us interpretations of what teens really mean, and she is heavily biased towards interpreting teen’s pronouncements about their social media use as reflecting normative adolescent development. Instead, boyd focuses on how overly-anxious and meddling parents interfere with their teens’ normal developmental activities. Take a chill pill, it’s all progress, all the time, and it’s getting better in every way, every day. Teens are doing what they’ve always done. Teens have always bullied. Teens have always tried to forge identities and had moments of what she calls “collapsing contexts” where they have to negotiate the quick shift in how they represent themselves to audiences from whom they have different needs and for whom they have different messages.

Teens’ mental model of their audience is often inaccurate, but not because teens are naïve or stupid. When people are chatting and sharing photos with friends via social media, it’s often hard to remember that viewers who aren’t commenting might also be watching. This is not an issue unique to teens, although teens are often chastised for not accounting for adult onlookers. (“It’s Complicated,” boyd, 33).

“It’s Complicated” makes this move over and over again: asserting that this or that behavior is not unique to teens and/or it’s not unique to today’s teens. It’s all old, in a new form or location. This is what my colleague Thomas De Zengotita and others would call the “hurricane is just more breeze” fallacy. Just relax, it’s just air, and we’ve got the research to prove it.

And here’s one of the most glaring problems with the work. In the Introduction to “It’s Complicated,” boyd writes:

“Given the context in which I’m writing and the data on which I’m drawing, most of the discussion is explicitly oriented around American teen culture, although some of my analysis may be relevant in other cultures and contexts. I also take for granted, and rarely seek to challenge, the capitalist logic that underpins American society and the development of social media. [italics mine] Although I believe that these assumptions should be critiqued, this is outside the scope of this project.”

Huh?? In my opinion, this is boyd’s most glaring, lazy and dangerous error. There is no rational context to understanding the bidirectional effects of digital media use by adolescents without exactly taking into account the “capitalist logic that underpins American society and the development of social media.”

One cannot and should not talk about the public sphere without talking about forces of state and market. In “Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere”–a work cited by boyd as central for her conceptualization–Jurgen Habermas was aiming towards a “sociological attempt at clarification” of the meaning of “public,” and quoted at length C. Wright Mills’s Power Elite and William Whyte’s Organization Man. That’s telling. For Habermas, the logic of capitalism was not outside the scope of a project that attempted to understand what a non-coercive networked public could and should be. He was keen to find out just how well “liberal notions concerning the public sphere…fit the realities of modern democracies.” In order to do that he had to understand the ways that systematic distortions in communication were already being woven into the fabric of already-existing publics.

This isn’t the only problem with her analyses. Boyd’s opening to a crucial chapter on media literacy in which she stunningly devotes most of the space in that chapter to a very old debate about whether it is good or bad to be a “Digital Native versus Digital Immigrant.” She helps us understand how it’s a false choice. But this conversation, too, is so 2001 and only Marc Prensky and a few others would like us to still keep it alive. She brings Rushkoff into the fray, here, and he’s moved on since 2001. He’s talking about capitalism…you know, the stuff that is outside of the scope of boyd’s project. Another schism. Why doesn’t boyd seem to see that the whole dystopian future versus technological utopian heyday is an useless, old, unhelpful debate. Nicholas Carr (“The Shallows”) put this specious distinction to rest in 2006. But as Boyd cites Carr, she does so to dismiss him as a crank and completely gets him wrong, in what can only be described as a lazy reading of a painstakingly argued point that the Internet is neither all “insidious” or “destructive.” Carr was attempting to explore categories beyond technological determinism, to get us thinking that technology is neither all good or all bad, but it always changes us, as we change it. It is a question of bi-directional influence. Carr’s book, “The Shallows,” was a plea for thoughtfulness, research and discussion in the face of this bi-directional influence. It was read by many, including Steven Pinker–not surprisingly summoned up by boyd as an ally, in her two-paragraph trashing of Carr as a technological determinist. That is not what Carr wrote or said and boyd is just wrong. Does it really matter? They’re both selling books, right? A healthy debate is good for sales. But let’s leave capitalist logic out of this.

Teens are listening intently to the siren song of social networking in a world of skills and tools constituted increasingly by computers and acumen with digital media. There is an ethos built into the Web. And identity formation doesn’t just spring forth in adolescence. As with other human capacities and developmental achievements, identity formation is an additive process. Earlier developments help make subsequent developments possible. So, preteens (elementary-age children), according to Erik Erikson, are (hopefully) moving into adolescence having forged a successful relationship with the “world of skills and tools,” from the contexts of school and play. The contexts and school and play are contexts in which digital media use is pervasive and ascending.

The ethos built into the world online (and offline) is one inherently tied to the logic of capitalism. For boyd to think (and to say) that this is outside the scope of her project represents a failure of imagination. It also raises questions about just what “It’s Complicated” is describing, since it is not evidently describing how the logic of the market, the forces of the state and the processes of identity formation are inexorably linked.

In 2014, the dominant messages in our culture–the lifeworld of the teenager–are populated by a strong set of beliefs that there is only one path that counts to being Successful. These beliefs are fueled by American narrative underpinnings of democracy and capitalism. We’re all born equal and we all have the chance to be Successful, that is to say, to be rich or famous or have celebrity good looks. Even teens that don’t consciously believe this to be true will often feel guilty, or somehow “wrong,” for not being Successful in certain prescribed ways. For example, I talk to teens every day that secretly or not-so-secretly feel pretty bad:

For not being rich.

For not being famous.

For not having a rich, famous, or beautiful mom or dad.

For not having a traditional family.

For being “different.”

For not being “different.”

For being different than the mainstream and celebrating that, but secretly wishing they weren’t all that different.

For feeling like a phony because they are not all that interested, really, in Darfur or diversity or helping the homeless when they know they are supposed to be, and actually want to be, interested in people who are suffering.

This basic idea that there is only one path for being Successful at life is, I believe, a dangerous idea, and I think it’s responsible for making millions of teenagers miserable. I’m not some radical arguing that it’s bad to be rich or famous. I’m just making the reasonable proposition that no teenager should suffer from clinical depression or want to kill themselves if they aren’t Successful in these traditional ways, especially as it becomes more and more difficult to reach those levels and types of success in American life. Is danah boyd’s research in It’s Complicated telling us that these are no longer or never were problems for American teens…enough so that parents can and should relax?

Just because teens tell us they have plenty of freedom online, are not losing choices and are able to develop a sense of their own “identity” as over against their parents, does not mean that they are okay. We know that many teens are not okay and that the Internet–while it may not “cause” those problems–exacerbates that situation. One wishes danah boyd would have had “psychotherapist” on her already-impressive list of accomplishments. The teens with whom I work–admittedly a subset of the more vulnerable members of our culture–tell different stories than the teens in “It’s Complicated.” And they (and I) reach different conclusions about whether they’re okay or just doing what teens have always done.

We know, or we should know, that the “problem” of what constitutes Freedom is already deeply embedded into the Web and that means it is getting more and more deeply embedded into the identities of our teens each day. I couldn’t agree more with Dr. boyd that a parent in a state of neurological calmness is the best kind of parent, able to deliver the best kind of parenting. But “taking a chill pill” regarding the bi-directional effects of digital media is not the best advice that I can think of.

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