As social media becomes increasingly abundant, it becomes more difficult to pin down who’s using it — and for what. The relationship between teenagers and their social media use has been an oft-discussed topic, and Microsoft research analyst and author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens Danah Boyd has made it her personal mission to explain the social media behaviors of young people.
Educated at New York University and Harvard Berkman Center, Boyd’s quest to peg social media practices and habits of teens started with Friendster in 2003, she said in a SXSW talk Saturday, March 8. Needless to say, teens’ social media habits have elevated to new levels of complicated in the ten years since she started.
Before outlining the specifics of teen social utilities, Boyd talked about the American history that underpins the state (and proliferation) of social media today. Boyd says that curfew laws in the 1980s, tighter trespassing laws and stricter policies on where teens could hang out (like, say, a shopping mall) have all contributed to teens’ need for connecting in the social space. Increased suburbanization, which made the schools no longer walkable, forced young people to communicate with their friends online or on mobile devices, where they used to congregate together in physical spaces.
What are these spaces, and what makes them so appealing? Boyd broke it down at SXSW:
Recently purchased by Facebook for an outrageous $19 billion, Boyd said WhatsApp is simply a better alternative to text messaging, making it appealing to young people. With telephone companies imposing high service fees for international messaging and the challenges of MMS (group messages failing to deliver to all parties, for example), WhatsApp and other messaging services popped up. And, they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. “Messaging is here to stay; it’s just a question of where it will take place. The mobile device is where [young people] hold onto intimacy,” Boyd said.
The appeal of Vine is teens’ ability to edit their own media without expensive, hard-to-use software is underscored in the social network Vine. “With text, you have to write yourself into being,” Boyd said. But the future of social is becoming less about text and more about visual media, she said. As teens continue to get creative in this space through producing their own 6-second videos and sharing what they’ve made, entrepreneurs and app develops will rise to the challenge. Referring to the six-second limitation, Boyd said “boundaries allow innovation.”
Contrary to widely-accepted (and spoofed) belief, the phenomenon of Instagram isn’t solely about sharing food photos or beach selfies. The photo filtering giant is meant to “show yourself in the context of where you are.” On Instagram, “you’re not just putting up a profile picture, but you’re constantly showing yourself moving through time … in a fun way,” Boyd said. Sharing photos of life’s daily activities is a social exchange for teenagers, Boyd said, playing on the idea that if you like, comment on and affirm my photo, I’ll do the same for you. Narcissism “isn’t driving Instagram,” she said. The social network is about seeing and being seen, according to the social expert.
To giggles around the room just at the sheer mention of Snapchat, Boyd set the record straight. “More adults are sending naked selfies than teens,” she said. “For teenagers, [Snapchat] is not really about privacy. They want to have control over the situation.” In her field research, Boyd discovered that teens enjoy consuming and producing images representing “the now”; in fact, one of the biggest uses of Snapchat among the teens she surveyed is just to share an inside joke. Snapchat is a unique form of social media in that it’s a diversion from the never-ending “streams” of media we’re often consuming. It’s a photo that’s important in the moment, but it’s “not so interesting that it should be saved forever,” Boyd commented. Thus, the six-second period for the receiver to view the “snap” before it’s gone forever. “With Snapchat, you’re forced to pay attention. It invites you to change your behavior … teenagers get excited because they know that somebody is going to look at it.”
Ah, the power of anonymity. Especially when there are secrets involved. The Whisper and Secret apps pride their formation of a space where authenticity is allowed and first and last name formalities (as they exist on Facebook) aren’t required to participate. It’s fun for teens just to see what people are talking about, and as a teenager, gossip is fun, Boyd found in her research. Part of the appeal is the “not knowing” who is making confessions and telling secrets, she said.
Ask.FM is about asking and answering questions. What’s so interesting about that? Boyd calls it the “riskiness of curiosity.” But get this: 30 percent of teens surveyed said they submitted mean or harsh questions to Ask.FM and answered their own questions just for attention. Through posing and answering their own cruel questions via Ask.FM, teens “elicited support” from peers as their friends came around them to encourage and support them.
Ultimately, what do we make of teens’ behaviors online? “Young people … are trying to be a part of public life. They will not stick to one system. As soon as their parents find out about it, it’s not cool anymore,” Boyd said. The main objectives for young people, according to the Harvard fellow, are just to connect, communicate and have fun.
Update: It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens is the free eBook of the day on our sister site, AppNewser.