Social media's history and trajectory -- talk notes from danah boyd

Astute social media researcher danah boyd -- now running her own lab at Microsoft Research -- has published the notes from an internal company talk she gave called "Social Media is Here to Stay... Now What?" It's a good condensation of the material in her dissertation, full of punchy insights into how social media evolved and what it's meant to society.
Social network sites became critically important to them because this was where they sat and gossiped, jockeyed for status, and functioned as digital flaneurs. They used these tools to see and be seen. Those using MySpace put great effort into decorating their profile and fleshing out their "About Me" section. The features and functionality of Facebook were fundamentally different, but virtual pets and quizzes served similar self-expression purposes on Facebook.

Teen conversations may appear completely irrational, or pointless at best. "Yo, wazzup?" "Not much, how you?" may not seem like much to an outsider, but this is a form of social grooming. It's a way of checking in, confirming friendships, and negotiating social waters.

Adults have approached Facebook in very different ways. Adults are not hanging out on Facebook. They are more likely to respond to status messages than start a conversation on someone's wall (unless it's their birthday of course). Adults aren't really decorating their profiles or making sure that their About Me's are up-to-date. Adults, far more than teens, are using Facebook for its intended purpose as a social utility. For example, it is a tool for communicating with the past.

Adults may giggle about having run-ins with mates from high school, but underneath it all, many of them are curious. This isn't that different than the school reunion. We all poo-poo the reunion, but secretly, we really want to know what happened to Bobbi Sue. Nowhere is this dynamic more visible than in the recent "25 Things" phenomena. While teens have been filling out personality quizzes since the dawn of social media, most adults only went through this phase once, as a newbie when they felt as though they really needed to forward the chain letter to 10 friends or else. The "25 Things" phenomenon took me by surprise until I started thinking about the intended audience. Teenagers craft quizzes for themselves and their friends. Adults are crafting them to show-off to people from the past and connect the dots between different audiences as a way of coping with the awkwardness of collapsed contexts.

"Social Media is Here to Stay... Now What?"


  1. We all poo-poo the reunion, but secretly, we really want to know what happened to Bobbi Sue.

    Well, actually, no. I’m a perfectly normal 40-something and have not the slightest interest in looking up people from the past. It’s not that I had a hard time or that school mates weren’t nice, but it’s gone.

    I never went to a high school reunion, I never tried looking them up at facebook, etc.

    Am I really the only one who is that way?

  2. I work with teens and younger kids, and I got to say, nowadays they can sound almost irrational. But while it can make me think they’re growing dumber sometimes, some other it makes me feel old and stupid. Specially when I see that, the exacerbated need they feel to express themselves in several different media and social networks, the more the better.
    And that’s a good thing. Imagine in some years, those kids being people who grew completely immersed in a plethora of medias, what they could acomplish.

    But I just can’t help feeling they’re growing too needy of attention. Maybe it’s just the old fashioned guy in me.

  3. … Thanks to Cory for being a nexus in the net. The power of connection in this one post is phenomenal: I read your work all the time but have been overlooking this Danah Boyd character. As a 56 y.o. ‘everyman’ I recognized myself instantly in this piece as soon as I Wiki’d what a “flaneur” is! This is powerful stuff.
    Now I have to go: my Facebook needs updating…

  4. No, the adults using Facebook have been using email for well over a decade. The “25 Things” fad was no different than the crap that was passed around in college, only now it is between people who once knew each other but not quite so well anymore, which gave it the viral potency.

    The utility of Facebook over reunions is that it allows us to ignore the hundreds of people we *don’t* particularly care to know about.

    And do you want to know a little secret? Adults aren’t so keen to publish the minutia of their lives all over the network. They do, however, continue to use private communication. Do you think the first “net” generation hasn’t been keeping in touch all this time?

    If Danah wants to actually do something profound, she ought to focus on the consequences of having a permanent online presence associated with ones real identity. That may be old hat to high profile authors, but for most people it is a new and scary permanency, one that hasn’t quite sunk in to the youngest generation, as we see story after story of people getting fired over the evidence of their lives posted to social media. That is where the friction occurs, that is where all her fluffy research matters. Otherwise she is merely stating the obvious to people who want to use this medium to sell stuff.

  5. “Am I really the only one who is that way?”

    You are not, I’m only 23, and I forgot to go to the high school reunion because I had a business meeting :-p (besides I also hate 99% of those pricks)

    It seems to me that the author of the article completely overlooks the way that the social networks have changed the way you make business, most of my facebook contacts are:

    a) Friends that I see every week (that live around the place i live)

    b) Family (only the ones i actually want to see irl)

    c) Potential Customers/Suppliers (most of my contacts are from this group)

    Email is what you do when you are exchanging document drafts/proposals, just one step before ink on paper.

    Nothing creates better customer/supplier loyalty like a nice comment on a family photo, or a simple “Happy Birthday” (Older people that i work with, really appreciate those small gestures).

    In fact i used to work at a night club where they had a PR department that focused only on captivating public through facebook. (Seems easy, just to be on a PC talking all day, but I once tried to do their job and almost went nuts, the dudes had over 1000 contacts each, and they talked and commented on photos from all of them)

  6. Why are people here so hostile to mentions or descriptions of boyd’s work? Maybe there’s just a subset of the population that it particularly describes, and we of the subset appreciate the work because we identify with it…

    In any event, it’s rung very true for me, more than once now. Cheers!

  7. Gotta say, this piece describes my experiences to a “t”. I’m a mid-forties new media geek, father to one teen and one tween. This all rings so true. Thanks for pointing to this.

    @big ed dunkel — one person’s inanity is another person’s — what — fire? printing press? talking movie? car? telephone? personal computer? As in “Back in my day, we didn’t need these new-fangled (fill-in-the-blank), we got along just fine with a stick and a rock.”

  8. Danah Boyd certainly seems ‘astute’ and I am not someone who has any problem with her work being covered here, but is there any reason by BoingBoing has been bigging her up so much compared to all the other interesting social media researchers out there? There’s a lot of them… and some are equally good.

  9. I assumed Cory et al had some personal connection to danah. That happens a fair amount on BoingBoing. I guess, Flying Monkey, if you want to see some of these other social network researchers featured, you could post their work here, or suggest their work as a submission to the blog?

  10. What a wonderful link Takuan (#12) – do you have any more like that? I am doing a paper on scary portrayals/perceptions of social media (rewires children’s brains, causes ADHD etc etc) and am collecting stuff like this. Includes online gaming.


    (and yes I know little kids can’t use social networking sites)

  11. 13strong – fair enough. I’m relatively new to commenting on BB (despite being a long-time reader), and none of my suggestions ever seem to get featured (I’ve even had one ignored that was featured later when suggested by someone else! Even though it was from my own journal…ho hum ;).

    I’m not complaining – it’s a great site and in many ways, it’s the odd combination of personal obsessions, oddball local stuff and things that really matters that makes BB what it is. I must say that I have given up even clicking on any post that mentions ‘ukelele’ though – unless it also features the words ‘fire’, ‘destruction’ and ‘death’ in the title! Ha ha.

  12. Yeah, I don’t share in the ukulele obsession either. Maybe cos there’s a guy in my town who stands on street corners doing uke renditions of Bob Marley songs.

    It’s bad.

  13. Thanks for those links Takuan. I have actually met Baroness Susan Greenfield (link at #15) when she made the mistake of giving that kind of keynote address to a room full of academics who study the internet. Question time did not appear to be a comfortable experience for her. I spoke to her afterward. She doesn’t seem to be easily swayed by facts, and appears to genuinely believe that the internet is the only thing that has changed in children’s environments to account for what she sees as an increase in ADHD and autism.

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