danah boyd's PhD thesis: Teen sociality online

Dr danah boyd's newly-minted PhD from UC Berkeley was awarded based on her fantastic thesis project, "Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics." danah's ground-breaking research on how kids (especially marginal kids) use the Internet has been featured here a lot -- she was one of the contributors to Mimi Ito's gigantic Digital Youth Project, and the attorneys general's report on the relative absence of pedophiles online. I read about half of the thesis on Christmas break and I've been champing for the chance to blog it here -- and now that it's public, I can!
As social network sites like MySpace and Facebook emerged, American teenagers began adopting them as spaces to mark identity and socialize with peers. Teens leveraged these sites for a wide array of everyday social practices - gossiping, flirting, joking around, sharing information, and simply hanging out. While social network sites were predominantly used by teens as a peer-based social outlet, the unchartered nature of these sites generated fear among adults. This dissertation documents my 2.5-year ethnographic study of American teens' engagement with social network sites and the ways in which their participation supported and complicated three practices - self-presentation, peer sociality, and negotiating adult society.

My analysis centers on how social network sites can be understood as networked publics which are simultaneously (1) the space constructed through networked technologies and (2) the imagined community that emerges as a result of the intersection of people, technology, and practice. Networked publics support many of the same practices as unmediated publics, but their structural differences often inflect practices in unique ways. Four properties - persistence, searchability, replicability, and scalability - and three dynamics - invisible audiences, collapsed contexts, and the blurring of public and private - are examined and woven throughout the discussion.

While teenagers primarily leverage social network sites to engage in common practices, the properties of these sites configured their practices and teens were forced to contend with the resultant dynamics. Often, in doing so, they reworked the technology for their purposes. As teenagers learned to navigate social network sites, they developed potent strategies for managing the complexities of and social awkwardness incurred by these sites. Their strategies reveal how new forms of social media are incorporated into everyday life, complicating some practices and reinforcing others. New technologies reshape public life, but teens' engagement also reconfigures the technology itself.

Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics (PDF) (Thanks, danah!)


  1. Maybe the university has some extra ‘D’s and ‘B’s they can give her along with the ‘Ph.D’s.

    Pretentious orthography is pretentious.

  2. Wow, that’s possibly the least substantive remark ever uttered on Boing Boing. Well done.

    Did you have any opinions on, you know, her work? This paper? Any of the other linked papers?

  3. Cory,

    You might think that post #1 was unsubstantial, but the problem with punctuation prevented real appreciation of you post.

    You can dismiss it all you want, the fact remains that not capitalizing someones name stands out like a sore thumb.


  4. Yeah, #1, get with the program. The proper way to snark on her name is to ask if she changed it to all lower case to better fit in with the demographic she studies. I’m surprised she decided not to go by “d@|\|a b0yd”. :)

  5. And Cory – I tried reading that thesis, but it’s WAY over my head – as I expected a PhD thesis to be.

  6. I think it’s extremely shallow of people to focus on her name over her work. Perhaps she should have seen it coming, but perhaps she also hoped people would be bigger than that.

    Unfortunately, they’re not. A debate has been raging for months on the Wikipedia entry “Danah Boyd” over whether or not the article title should be capitalised.

    More importantly, will she be “dr danah boyd” or “Dr danah boyd”?


    Anyway, congrats to danah boyd on her successful PhD – sounds like interesting work.

  7. “Lightspeed systems has officially categorized danah.org as adult.lifestyles.”

    Oh God, let there please be a day when schools no longer use this awful system.

    And to top it off, I’m faculty!

  8. Sorry, C1Josh, I couldn’t understand a word of your post here because you left the “r” off “your.” I didn’t even get as far as the apostrophe you left out of “someones.” And lucky for you, I didn’t read on to see your clichéd simile about aching digits.

    Having violated, through ignorance and carelessness, at least three of the cardinal rules in ELEMENTS OF STYLE in a mere two sentences, you’re uniquely poorly positioned to criticize someone else for her deliberate decision to violate some conventions on her own.

    danah’s birth certificate reads “danah boyd.” If you don’t like it, take it up with her mother.

  9. http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2008/12/05/warning_email_s.html

    No email will be received by danah’s ornery INBOX between December 11 and January 19!
    For those who are unaware of my approach to vacation… I believe that email eradicates any benefits gained from taking a vacation by collecting mold and spitting it back out at you the moment you return. As such, I’ve trained my beloved INBOX to reject all email during vacation. I give it a little help in the form of a .procmail file that sends everything directly to /dev/null. The effect is very simple. You cannot put anything in my queue while I’m away (however lovingly you intend it) and I come home to a clean INBOX. Don’t worry… if you forget, you’ll get a nice note from my INBOX telling you to shove off, respect danah’s deeply needed vacation time, and try again after January 19.

    So now I can say “congrats” danah! ^_^

  10. I think you’re missing the point. It’s not that you need to be careful: it’s that nit-picking over someone’s orthography is *not a substantive response* to her major, substantial work.

    Here we have a fascinating PhD thesis representing years’ worth of work by a talented scholar under the tutelage of some of the field’s most fascinating academics, and all Man on Pink Corner can say about it is that he thinks she should spell her name differently.

    Now, whether or not this is a legitimate beef, it’s not a substantive one. Of all the things you can say about this thesis, criticizing the spelling of the author’s name is probably the least insightful, least useful, least constructive, least *substantive* inputs you could give.

    Not every thought that passes through someone’s head is worthy of public utterance (and not every utterance is worthy of publication). If #1 read the post, thought, “Huh, I don’t like the spelling of the author’s name,” a far more productive thing would be to pass on it altogether, without remark.

    Because whatever you think about the spelling of the author’s name, it has no bearing whatsoever of the content of the thesis under discussion. And there’s every chance that people who read the thesis might want to pop in and talk about that, without getting bogged down in a stupid, trivial discussion of typography.

  11. Speaking of taking things in and out of context:

    From “Taken Out of Context” – as is:
    “danah michele boyd”

    Yep, copied and pasted from the link provided by Cory. I wonder if you’all complained about ee cummings not knowing anything about the English language. Yeesh!

    ps.: Thanks, Cory, looks like interesting reading.
    pps.: Just now wondering if Cory is a Corrie fan.

  12. Having a weird name is a great way to gain attention and publicity. Nintendo Wii, for example — people can’t help but remark about it. Even if you get made fun of and teased, it’s still more memorable than… well, whatever generic name I was about to say but forgot.

    And if you don’t have a weird name, you can always wear weird headgear or have a bizarre hairstyle. Both of which have apparently worked for danah and myself, so I celebrate this.

    #12: Cory, I think that’s one of the most lucid comments I’ve seen on Boing Boing, and I agree to focus on what’s effective. In this case: actually reading the thesis, being useful, and not derailing the conversation in an unhelpful, possibly hurtful way.

  13. #12: “Not every thought that passes through someone’s head is worthy of public utterance”

    And not every utterance is worthy of rebuttal. It is a shame to see this thread get derailed, as I’m interested in knowing what the people here think of this work.

  14. As someone with teenagers I’m happy to see this sort of work (and the bully vs. predator report) as it offers some insight into the milieu and opportunity for learning about the risks in advance of taking them. I’d rather not have my kids dive straight in and stand on the side of the pool with the floatation device in case I notice them getting into trouble. I would rather equip them with some insight into what they are getting into first.

    So for the latter purpose, teen-oriented summaries of these papers would be very helpful. Here’s how to avoid cyberbullying… Here’s the top three benefits/risks of current networked publics.

    As they say in french, can someone vulgarize this for the grand public?

  15. So….her name is more important than her writing?

    “I have a dream…..”? Content over character(s).

    Her (her?) work is insightful and perceptive….a a pretty easy read considering the PDF is some 400+ (that’s “plus”…or for you very restrictive types “That is plus…) pages long….or short if you really dig the thesis.

  16. Danah’s thesis is over my head too but I can add that it isn’t limited to just social networking sites. There is a lot of socializing that happens while kids play games. I’m not thinking of Wow here, I’ve never played it, but of the multiplayer games like CS Source and many others. Lots of girls play too, mostly, I think, to be around the boys. Ventrillo in combination with gaming equals lots and lots of socializing.

    Back to danah’s thesis, I’d say there aren’t that many pedos in real life either. It’s more a media construct designed to sell! sell! sell! Just as the war on drugs was a means through which to remove our liberties and gut the fourth amendment, the war on pedos will make sure we get surveillance cameras placed everywhere and bring an end to privacy. If it worked to turn the UK into the police state it now is it’ll work in the US too.

  17. Corey, etc.

    I GET it. Really. I apologize, OK?

    I often do write out rather knee-jerk responses to posts online and almost always delete them after I re-read them. This time I didn’t, and it was a mistake.

    In fact I just spent a few minutes reading danah’s 800 word reasoning behind her name change. It’s interesting and I’m beginning to appreciate another really unique person I could have only been introduced to by boingboing.net.

  18. I’m very intrigued by this topic, and I hope I get a chance to actually read through the thesis.

    I work with marginalized teenagers (youth in group care) and I’m often fascinated with their ability to keep in touch with each other, even as they move from group home to street to group home – using things like facebook and piczo. It’s an interested sub culture, and social media has a significant impact on how they build and secure their identities.

    It also creates new problems, i.e. they use the library computers (no home computers or cell phones) and the librarians complain because they’ve become a drop-in centre and aren’t set up to deal with the behaviours, etc.

    They are also extremely creative and able to adapt and cause the environment to adapt in order to make their marginalized existence more meaningful. It’s survival of the fittest in group care, as much as I hate to admit it.

    Anyway, like I said, I look forward to looking into this further…

  19. almost totally offtopic: people who use ‘leverage’ and are not talking about actual, physical levers should be euthanized for the good of the English language.

  20. #18

    I GET it. Really. I apologize, OK?

    As do I. I didn’t mean to hijack the thread, and being the first poster, it’s safe to say I didn’t read a 400-page .PDF before commenting. I withdraw the remark.

    The affectation just seemed like a cheap way for someone I’d never heard of to garner attention… but Cory and the others have a point, in that this judgment should be made after reading her work and not before.

  21. #20: you got me!

    Well I was in my late teens by the time myspace was around, so AIM was a bigger part of my social development. I think the immediate feedback and one-on-one communication from instant messaging have made myspace and facebook akward and foreign to me, especially when it comes to “invisible audiences” and “blurring of public and prviate”. Still, the internet certainly played a role in that time of flirting, finding my place socially, and just communicating in general.

    Still, I wonder how much of an impact these have on social development. My parents embrace social networking sites more than I do, and they are mostly inept with technology.

  22. From the dissertation:

    “The demonization of MySpace is akin to the demonization of malls and parking lots that took place when I was growing up.”

    What a great parallel. It seems obvious after reading this, but I hadn’t thought of it quite like that. Who hangs out at malls now? Kids, to be sure, but also suburban moms who treat Neiman Marcus like it’s an upscale high school. And during the 2004-2007 span of danah’s study, Facebook went from a student-only social site to catering heavily to professional adults.

    Minor note: I’d follow her example and refer to her report as a doctoral dissertation, not a thesis.

  23. While I’m sure the essay is eye-opening and all, I’ve never had any patience for reading Academic, which has become it’s own language by this point. Could we get a translator in here?

    It’s getting as bad as Business. Only replace Utilize with Leverage and you are halfway there. I can just make out the outline of a point, but it’s been buried.

  24. #33:

    I’ve never had any patience for reading Academic, which has become it’s own language by this point. Could we get a translator in here?

    I took a look at it. She can write when she wants to, but there’s a lot of typical academic wharrrgarbl that looks like it came from a Markov generator. There’s an insightful discussion of how COPPA and other paternalistic laws are teaching kids to lie about their age, while the low points include stuff like:

    network-driven approach offers one way of addressing Arjun Appadurai’s (1996) call
    for scholars to look at the fluid dynamics of “cultural flows” that takes place in a
    plethora of different “scapes” (e.g., ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes,
    financescapes, and ideoscapes). Both Burrell and Appadurai acknowledge that
    mediated landscapes disrupt traditional ideas of spatiality and that this requires
    rethinking how ethnographers should traverse such spaces.
    Focusing on Burrell’s networks or Appadurai’s scapes addresses Boellstoroff’s
    concern that multisited ethnographic studies implicitly privilege one site over
    another. Rather than starting with one environment and moving to the other or
    constructing a multisited project from disconnected sites, a network-driven
    approach should allow scholars to fluidly move along axes of people, places, and
    objects, generating meaningful networks and scapes. The result is indeed multisited,
    but the sites are chosen in relation to one another. Each axis constitutes a network in
    its own right, generating a field site that is a network of networks.
    As Burrell articulates, approaching a field site as a network involves finding
    different entry points into a phenomenon, following different relationships
    between people and practices, and making sense of different types of networks and
    their relation to one another. Most important, it requires considering relationships
    among people, spaces, and objects, as opposed to studying these in isolation. While
    this approach ruptures any traditional notion of boundaries, it helps ethnographers
    track, study, and understand phenomena that are constantly moving.

    I’ll probably read more of it — perhaps much more — because there seems to be enough lucid, relevant content to justify the necessary digging.

  25. I’ve only read the first bit of this thesis, can’t wait to finish it!

    #22 Your point is interesting how adults treat computers (especially public computers) like work-only machines. (“If you aren’t using it for homework, then get off!”)

    Most tech savvy people switch between fun (blogs, FB, email) and work constantly throughout the day. Why wouldn’t we expect kids to do the same? For kids, half of growing up is learning how to interact with others successfully … and cutting off a major tool to do that is pretty socially debilitating.

    I know some (wealthy) moms who refuse to let their kids have computer access at home cause they “waste” their time on FB or chatting. Or refuse to let them have cell phones, in some attempt to encourage them to have “real” social lives. It’s a very misguided effort, and research like this seems to be bringing this to light.

  26. Scattershot comment alert:

    I don’t like e e cummings style capitalisation either, but I question the wisdom of challenging it on bOING bOING…

    Re academese: jargon is annoying to outsiders, but probably inescapable in most fields due to its virtues in transmitting complex, precise ideas quickly; you can spend whole chapters explaining how your characters get from one end of the Milky Way to another or you can just use hyperspace.

    The name danah boyd sounded familiar to me; is she the same danah boyd who criticised Wikipedia for being wrong and naive about academic subjects, by linking to the Simple English article on social networks?

  27. #39
    It seems this is the same danah boyd, but what is wrong about critizing that article, even if it is simple english (she could have mentioned it).
    The facts stated are a bit simple and it is debatable if stated like this they are wrong. The article has changed and is putting it a bit more in detail now.
    Even the simple version should be trying to be correct even if it leaves out things.
    It is a bit weird to criticise the whole of wikipedia by one article though.

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