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It's Complicated!

posted: 10.9.14 by Andrea Lunsford

It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens is the latest work of danah boyd, who has been working on issues related to young people and technology since her graduate school days: she is now a Research Assistant Professor at NYU as well as Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research.  She blogs at Apophenia—I just read her recent thoughtful posting on the relationship between technologies and sex trafficking—and you can follow her on Twitter (of course!).

The class I taught with Adam Banks at the Bread Loaf School of English this summer read It’s Complicated, along with work by Cynthia Selfe and Gail Hawisher, Henry Jenkins, Howard Rheingold, Lisa Nakamura, Peter Chow White, and Alondra Nelson.  I think it’s fair to say that boyd’s book got the toughest reading from this group of outstanding teachers, all of whom work daily with the young people boyd is talking about in her book.  Our students (all teachers) were engaged by the book, but a good number of them viewed boyd as a “cheerleader” for technology and for young people’s engagement with it, so much so that they felt the report she gives in her book is clearly and sharply biased.  “She’s far too tough on parents and teachers,” they said.

As a reader, my typical approach is one of saying “yes” to the author and her/his intentions before I say “maybe” or “no.”  So I went into boyd’s book with that in mind, trying to read it from her perspective.  And I came away with the impression of a skilled researcher who has studied young people’s engagement with technologies for years and who has a good bit of faith in them.  But that doesn’t amount to a sharp bias to me—rather, an inclination, an “attitude” to use Burke’s term.  Certainly boyd is a strong critic of the kind of paternalism and protectionism she sees at work in many schools and homes.  She is an equally strong advocate for youth and for their desire to use technologies in establishing identity (or identities) and, especially, to be both public and in public:

Although some teens are looking for the attention that comes with being public, most teens are simply looking to be in public.  Most are focused on what it means to be a part of a broader social world. They want to connect with and participate in culture, both to develop a sense of self and to feel as though they are a part of society.  Some even see publics as an opportunity for activism.  These teens are looking to actively participate in public life in order to make the world a better place. (206)

My own research supports this conclusion regarding the desire of young people to participate in the broader culture, and as boyd’s book so dramatically shows, they are doing so around the country and indeed around the world in a very wide variety of ways.

So on the whole, I come down as an appreciative reader of boyd’s work, grateful for her many insights into youth culture and thinking.  If you haven’t read It’s Complicated, take a look.  What she describes is indeed complicated, and well worth our attention.

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