How often have we heard or uttered the refrain that the newer generations—“Millennials” or “Generation Zs”—have no concept of privacy, that they live a life online devoid of personal restraint? I confess I have had that thought myself. So when asked to review danah boyd’s new book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, available through Yale University Press, I was delighted to do so.
This book was 10 years in the making and is dedicated to boyd’s friend, mentor and former professor, Peter Lyman. It is obvious throughout the book that boyd discusses some technological aspects that society may consider outdated, such as the social network MySpace, but boyd addresses this upfront. She disclaims early on, “The technical shifts that have taken place since I began this project—and in the time between me writing this book and you reading it—are important, but many of the arguments made in the following pages transcend particular technical moments, even if the specific examples used to illustrate those issues are locked in time.”
Boyd does not shy away from the tough subjects. It is apparent that she observed teenagers in their natural setting over a period of time. She also observed those people around teenagers and drew observations not only on the behavior or expectations of the youths but also the behavior and expectations of other youths and adults who interact with teenagers. In this book, boyd combines her personal observations with her research into technology, the Internet and social media to present a broad and insightful view of teenagers that might clash with the generally held belief about youth.
This book contains eight chapters, along with a hearty introduction. The chapters are presented topically and boyd skillfully weaves certain characters throughout the book, which provides a stabilizing effect. The chapters, which are bold incursions into topics many shy away from truly contemplating or speak about without true knowledge, are presented in a logical order.
Boyd first discusses teens’ search for identity online, which does not differ from their need to find their identity—only nowadays, a teen’s world is technology. She draws us into a world where teens’ identities are taken out of context because they do not necessarily create identities to satisfy all possible audiences. boyd writes, “Unlike face-to-face settings in which people took their bodies for granted, people who went online had to consciously create their digital presence.” She skillfully introduces us to the world of creating identities and managing impressions.
Next, boyd tackles the topic of privacy. Adults seem dismissive of teens’ awareness of the need for privacy, and, boyd writes, teens “have little patience for adults’ simplistic views about teen privacy.” She instructs us that teens achieve privacy by controlling their social situations and describes how they have learned to live with surveillance. boyd explains the concept of “social steganography,” in which teens conduct conversations and send messages in plain sight encoded to hide from adults or other teens. This segues nicely into the next chapter on social media, which boyd titles “addiction,” yet explains it is more of a necessary outlet that adults view as an unhealthy addiction due to its time demands.
Moving beyond the first three chapters, which provide a foundation upon which to explain and explore teens and social media, boyd examines the more controversial topics of teens online: dangers of being online, bullying and social inequality. She discusses these dangers frankly, without shying from the realities. She recommends that to keep our youth safe online, society needs to patrol digital streets with the same determination that is used to patrol real streets.
The last two chapters of the book are dedicated to understanding the world that teens now live in. She starts with examining the concept of “digital natives.” Boyd exhorts us all to be media-savvy, writing, “Learning is a lifelong process.” She concludes the book with a caution that media is not bad, it is a technology. It merely “mirrors and magnifies” the world we live in; it does not create it.
It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens was easy to read, applicable to the privacy field and full of interesting, well-considered research. The material was presented well and would appeal not only to those of us in the privacy profession but to some of the general public. I do not feel that it would appeal to all of the public, but what book does? My perspective stems from the depth of the material into which a reader sinks until some readers may be over their heads. But the material is so smooth that some readers might not realize they are over their heads until they turn a few pages and realize how deep they have gotten. However, as a past youth counselor, mother of teens and current privacy professional, I found the book riveting. And even I had to read it twice because the material is so rich. I did find the conclusion to be a little too cavalier given the seriousness that came before it. Agreed, our world is a technological one and we should approach its dangers and its benefits with our eyes wide open, but online there are challenges that require different approaches to those dangers and benefits. Yet, it is a remarkable feat boyd accomplished to link tangible experiences to digital ones and to enable us to relate teens’ current experiences with those of our youth. This takes the book to a new level of triumph.
I can do nothing less than highly recommend this book for those who have an interest in such fields—whether teens’ issues or privacy.