Not selling out: Teens live in commercial online spaces because that's their only option

danah boyd points out that when kids conduct their social lives in commercial spaces, it's not because they don't care about selling out; it's because they have no other option: "In a world where they have limited physical mobility and few places to go, they're deeply appreciative of any space that will accept them."

boyd's extensive fieldwork with teens (documented in her must-read book It's Complicated) backstops her opinion. She describes how kids understand that they're being data-mined and surveilled in social spaces, and don't like it, but accept it as a trade-off for a world that is in equal measures fearful of them and fearful for them.

The UK is a great place to see this in action. Most cities and large towns have curfew rules on the books that give the police the power to send teenagers home after 9PM if they think that someone might be distressed by seeing them. Public spaces use "mosquito" tone-generators that create annoying, high-pitched noises that are primarily audible to young ears — an auditory version of the spikes we use to stop pigeons from roosting, but aimed at children.

At the same time, we tell teens and kids that they can't walk to school alone, can't play in the park alone, can't venture into town alone to shop or congregate, because of the Daily Mail-fed terror of sexual predators (who are overwhelmingly not strangers in parks, but relatives, teachers, clergy, coaches, and other authority figures in our kids' lives).

Then, when kids turn to the only place where they can be social without being feared or feared for — the corporate-owned social spaces of the net — we damn them for having no sense of authenticity and being uncritical serfs in commercial seigneuries.

These teens are not going to critique their friends for being sell-outs because they've already been sold out by the adults in their world. These teens want freedom and it's our fault that they don't have it except in commercial spaces. These teens want opportunities and we do everything possible to restrict those that they have access to. Why should we expect them to stand up to commercial surveillance when every adult in their world surveils their every move "for their own good"? Why should these teens lament the commercialization of public spaces when these are the only spaces that they feel actually allow them to be authentic?

It makes me grouchy when adults gripe about teens' practice without taking into account all of the ways in which we've forced them into the corners that they're trying to navigate. There's good reason to be critical of how commercialized American society has become, but I don't think that we should place the blame on the backs of teenagers who are just trying to find their way. If we don't like what we see when we watch teenagers, it's time to look in the mirror. We've created this commercially oriented society. Teens are just trying to figure out how to live in it.

'Selling Out' Is Meaningless [danah boyd]

(Image: Sold Out, Bruno Girin, CC-BY-SA)