Youth Social Norms and Privacy Online: Interview with danah boyd, Part III

Friday, August 05, 2011 at 1:29 pm
Jennifer Dick's picture

This post is part of a series of interviews highlighting leaders in the field of New Learning (what we call “NLI at Inquiry”). Recently, we interviewed danah boyd—Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research, Visiting Researcher at Harvard University’s Law School, and Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales—on subjects including how youth develop online identities, social norms, and privacy issues. Here, in the third and final part of the interview, she discusses how different communities bring different behavioral norms into the online spaces.

Listen to the full interview here, with bonus content about how youth and adults view online bullying differently. danah shares two cases from her extensive field study to illustrate how young people deal with online drama.


How do we begin to formulate social norms around new media? It sounds like what you previously said, that kids are taking practices that they used to use to communicate with each other and build community and move that to the online spaces?

I think the other thing that becomes really noticeable online is that you have hugely diverse ideas of norms and they come colliding into one another in really odd ways, which is that the norms within, say, a suburb of Atlanta, of a middle class black community are going to look very different than the norms of a rural, Appalachian white community, which are going to look very different from the social norms of an urban Latino community. So you see these vastly different norms getting built out around the same technology. 

In trying to reflect what happened with Myspace, one of the things that becomes really noticeable to me is that people were not prepared to see norms that were different than theirs, and they flipped out and there was a moral panic; and the irony with Facebook is that people mostly only see things that are exactly like themselves, and so they think that everything on Facebook is exactly like their type of people. And one of the things that I love is the ability to see such vastly diverse ideas of how people use Facebook, which is totally different. So even though these social norms are relatively locally defined, they’re totally different, even with the same technology.

Part of it is what we do when we go online is that we bring our friends with us, and so the norms that are common within our communities become the norms online. And you know, the fact is that there are hugely different norms, even across this country, that are inflected by cultural practices that are driven by race and ethnicity, that are driven by religion, that are driven by socioeconomic status, that are driven by any form of cultural background that you can imagine. And then, of course, overlay gender and sexuality onto this and we see all sorts of wide variations. But this doesn’t mean that people are comfortable seeing worlds that are different from theirs. Myspace was so ironic for me because during the time when everyone was flipping out about there being so much nudity and crassness, et cetera et cetera, I actually scraped a lot of Myspace and did some analysis of it and found that far more young people talked about Jesus and the Bible and used Biblical quotes than ever had sexual content on their profiles. But perceptions get scaled by those who are looking and responding, and I think that one of the things that becomes really challenging is the roles of parents in a lot of this; because I think that on one hand, a lot of parents want to breed tolerance in their kids, and on the other hand work very hard to keep their kids away from “those” type of people, for whatever characteristic “those” are in their community, and that becomes really challenging because building gated communities online, it reproduces all of the structural inequalities that we see offline.

Just one more question: How do you see the trends of communication changing for young people?

The United States is terribly behind on all things mobile; it was kind of depressing for so long, and it’s finally caught up. Young people in the United States are finally texting, and of course we’re seeing everything go mobile. And I think there are a lot of interesting, innovative possibilities for what mobile can mean for communication technologies, and we’re still in the uncertainty stage of what it will actually look like. But I certainly see mobile as driving a lot of this. And there’s always this interesting tension in terms of communication between private or one-to-one communication, which is heavily mobile at this point, and more group or public communication. And public for young people, by and large, means everybody that they know; it doesn’t necessarily mean all people across all space and all time. And so, young people are beginning to experiment with community services online in part because Facebook has become untenable for young people because it’s where their parents are spending time hanging out with their [parents’] friends, and you know what? It’s just kind of lame to hang out where your parents do, so Facebook is still really popular for all sorts of photo sharing, and all sorts of catching up with basic things and events and certain things like that, but you’re seeing a lot more of group communication through different kinds of services, and its still very variable and still emergent; so you see Tumblr, you see Twitter being used by some, you see UStream being used by some, you see a variety of just different tools that young people are experimenting with, but nothing is stabilized, so it’s still really the early adopter stage.

Special thanks:

We’d like to extend a special thanks to danah for taking the time to talk with us.

Additional resources on danah boyd’s work: