The digital re-mediation of sociability

danah boyd and the adolescent probes

Describing the socio-cultural context in which communication technologies are situated and used is an evident merit of danah boyd, a very polyedric American social researcher, herself digital native, scholar and professionist – at moment Principal Researcher at Microsoft. Consequently, her works are not easily summarizable through slogans. In the case of her last work, a book gathering a long series of researches on teens’ sociability, the warning comes immediately from the title. In effect, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens can be interpretated in two ways: the difficulty to understand itscomplicatedsocial media uses thinking only in terms of social destiny determinated by technological aspects, and difficulty of people to act, among opportunities and challenges, in the new and interactive digital environments. On the other hand, although focused on teens, author sees teenagers as an ideal-typical case because, whether they are advantaged in handling and switching accross media, on the challenge-side they suffer for lack in life experience and social power. The counterpoint about the real and problematic issues of their digital lives balances narratives describing teens as human beings highly facilitated by digital technologies. In effect, while the digital migrants are engaged to fit and expand their social presence into the new contexts innervated by technologies of virtuality, the social practices and strategies of adolescents have to struggle in an action field wholly shaped and determinated – less or more directly – from adults. On this bases, the research contains observations and results involving the entire society. Indeed, we all are entangled in contexts that present true novelties, and it could be convenient, besides that inevitable, to open a confrontation about conditions and compromises we have to live with. As danah boyd highlights, human relationships developed after the advent of social and public networks already face, at least, four big changes in terms of: a) persistence of information: online expressions and content are recorded massively, enabling a never-ending durability; b) visibility: our presence is, for default, widely accessible from large audience (also unknow one) while privacy is obtained only with a supplemental and difficult effort; c) spreadibility: contents and expressions are easily spreadable, supported by an increasing amount of native tools; d) searchability: availability to find whatever content using partial clues.
To say, the powerful combination of these changes already produces the collapse of contexts in which normally messages and information we daily use (to rebuild and/or arrange meanings) fluctuate, a fact that requires new skills and new operational controls. Consequently, according danah boyd, adult anxieties – first of all, from their parents – about teenagers’ online experiences should be better addressed, for example trying to understand what really happens inside social networks, as well as the nature of their dynamics. The implicit call is the support of human needs, not only because it regards the less powerful part of population, on which we have direct and indirect responsability, but also because they are the real drivers of these (natural) counter-reactions.

Anxieties about teens’ engagement with technology aren’t new, but few ask why teens embrace each new social technology with such fervor. The pictures of teens’ faces illuminated by computer screens mirror earlier images of televisions’ entertaining glow luring in teenagers. Parents in previous generations fretted about the hours teens whiled away hanging out or chatting on the phone. Today’s teens aren’t spending hours on landlines, but they are still conversing—updating others on social network sites, posting pictures and videos, and sending text messages to friends. Both entertainment and sociality are key reasons why teens invest so much energy in their online activities… [We often hear about the association of addiction and social media. But this kind of engagement] is a new extension of typical human engagement. Their use of social media as their primary site of sociality is most often a byproduct of cultural dynamics that have nothing to do with technology, including parental restrictions and highly scheduled lives. Teens turn to, and are obsessed with, whichever environment allows them to connect to friends. Most teens aren’t addicted to social media; if anything, they’re addicted to each other. (boyd 2004, p. 77-79).

Finally, this well-documented research on networked teenagers goes through a issues grid involving the most important topics on which public opinion focuses – identity, privacy, bullying, digital literacy, dangers, inequality, addiction. Offering a point of view more internal and rich of experiences and analysis with respect to narratives on digital impacts published by generalist and hasty authors, the work has the relevant merit to propose a well-balanced and apparently simple insight on the deep re-mediation we are all (actively) subjected.

Post Scriptum

For integration purpose, I’d like to bring back a portion of a book, published years ago, focused on ubiquitous media. Among others, a still young but already famous danah boyd was a valid reference to frame the massive adoption of social media by teenagers. In general, the re-capture of world (the book’s subtitle) by people was, in fact, seen as one enabled possibility promoted through new media. In the articulation of topic, and refering to social networks usage by teenagers as attempts to re-catch their own spaces of intimacy and sociability, we saw

Danah Boyd e Nicole Ellison’s researches as very valid because, despite the general description on the global dilatation of these new online environments, they deal with peninsulas predominantly focused on local ties. It could be started from the complex economical and social turmoils, or from the crisis of values and environments, all valid reasons to find some kind of reaction and stimulus for re-catching the world. But, nonetheless being part of instances, if we were less distracted and intellectually more honest, ready to accept our responsibilities more than blaming for technological dangers, we would be able to notice that drivers for cybersocial expansion are tied, more obviously, to the crisis happens near our circle of action, and that the new social architectures have an original and deep articulation. For example, to stay in the most intimistic and tactical dimension, as reaction to the compression of physical acting. With decreasing of public (but also private) spaces available to meet people, adults increase their “control zones”. Then, virtual spaces become “free” zones to obtain a better proximity and/or having more clues about their peers, a way to ”maintain a relationship with people that we could meet offline, face-to-face” (Ellison 2008; cfr. Boyd 2007). Indeed, rather than evaporating in exotic meetings or “initiating relations with strangers, instant messaging, email, and other digital communication tools are used primarily to maintain relationships with people in close physical and social proximity”.  Moreover, despite the tendency describing social network relationship as flat, we found out a sophisticated management and interplay of existential planes, both complex and fluid: “participants model local social contexts and communities”, and, given the openness of medium, they necessarily learn how to manage a new kind of social negotiation among groups, norms, roles, behaviors and interactions that are different, often colliding. Finally, there is an “inverse relationship between the scale of social network and the quality of the relations within them—a relationship rooted in the limits of human time and attention. It also demonstrates that digital networks will never merely map the social, but inevitably develop their own dynamics through which they become the social. The interaction of people with information systems is recurrently marked by play and experimentation, as people test the limits of their settings and manage the consequences of unexpected interactions and altered contexts”. Digital social structures continuously challenge boundaries defining social communities “ but the reassessment of context and performance that accompanies it”, empowered by latent ties already involved in their extendend social networks, “is endlessly generative” (Boyd 2008; Boyd, Ellison 2007).
Social surveys often confirm these analysis: digital-born generations have skills to exploit cross-media potentiality and creative interactions between physical and virtual worlds. But they don’t discard rather emphasize the more traditional relationships – first of all “vocal” meeting on phone and face-to-face interaction (Pew 2007). On the other hand, there has been some highly indicative experiments about these trends even before the massive explosion of “always-on” connections. One of the most famous experiment has been organized in the town of Netville by Canadian sociologist Barry Wellman, a pioneer of network analysis. The small suburb of Toronto had hundred of houses directly wired to a 10 Mb/s network at the end of 90′ years. Placing side by side daily lives of Netville people during 1997-1999, research reported that “Computer-mediated communication can foster ‘glocalization’: increased local as well as distant social contact… in practice, most people use whatever means are necessary to stay in contact with community members: in-person, by telephone, as well the internet… Computer-mediated communication reinforces existing communities, establishing contact and encouraging support where none may have existed before (Hampton, Wellman 2002, p. 368)” (Petullà 2008, pp. 30-31).



boyd, D., 2007, “Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in
Teenage Social Life
“, in Buckingham, D., a cura, MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital
Learning – Youth, Identity, and Digital Media Volume, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, pp. 119-

boyd, d., 2008, “None of this is Real.“, in Karaganis, J., a cura, Structures of Participation in
Digital Culture, New York, Social Science Research Council, pp. 132-157.

boyd, d., 2004, It’s Complicated. The Social Lives of Networked Teens, New Haven,Yale University Press.

Ellison, N., 2008, intervista in “Web globali, reti locali”, Nova Il Sole 24 Ore, 31/1, p. 17.

Hampton, K.N., Wellman, B., 2002, “The not so Global village of Netville”, in Wellman, B.,
Haythornthwaite, ed., The internet in everyday life, Oxford, Blackwell publishing, pp. 345-

Petullà, L., 2008, Media e computer liquidi. Le dimensioni dell’ubiquitous computing e la ricattura del mondo, Milano, Lampi di stampa.

Pew, 2007, Teens and Social Media, Pew Internet & American Life Project, 29/12.