The Internet of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Danah Boyd is principal researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder of Data & Society research institute. She’s also a visiting professor at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program. Her books include It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens and Participatory Culture in a Networked Era.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: danah boyd is a blogger and technologist on one of the most intriguing fields of 21st century life — the intersection of technology and society. She’s steeped in emerging research around the social lives of networked teens, the topic of her book, It’s Complicated.
MS. DANAH BOYD: I wanted to see what would happen, not at the margins, not at the edges, not at the grand level, but what happens when these technologies are just a part of life. And part of that technological perspective is also because there were all of these great hopes and dreams — the internet would be this magical transformation, it would create a level of egalitarianism, it would bring about the next Enlightenment — all of these big dreams. And what intrigued me was that as these technologies became part of everyday life, what we saw is that people brought with them all of their flaws, all of their everyday concerns and interests. And that’s what makes it really tricky, because we want to see the extremes, but the practices themselves are just about what it says about humanity.
MS. TIPPETT: danah boyd’s observations and advice are often counterintuitive; for example, that our children’s immersion in social media may offer a kind of respite from their over-structured, overscheduled analog lives, and that cyber-bullying is an online reflection of the offline world, and blaming technology is missing the point. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
MS. TIPPETT: danah boyd is principal researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder of the Data & Society research institute. She’s also walking on digital frontiers as the mother of young children. I spoke with her in 2015.
MS. TIPPETT: I start all my conversations, whoever I’m speaking with, with this question. And I’m curious, because I didn’t read anything about this in your — I didn’t read much about it in your autobiographical stuff. So I just wonder if there was a religious or spiritual background to your childhood or how you would describe that.
MS. BOYD: It’s an interesting and challenging question, in part because my mother was very Catholic and very much believed in the Catholic Church, and then she and my father divorced. And so part of what was interesting for me growing up in light of that, my mother’s being kicked out of the church, trying to make sense of it, is that it forced me into a lot of questioning. What did religion mean to me? What did community mean to me? How did I think about these things? And I was one of those teenagers who actually spent a lot of time trying to explore and make sense of it. But it’s one of those strange dynamics where I’ve had such a deep appreciation for the role of religion and spirituality in people’s lives, but I’ve never really found my own common ground with it. It’s been more cultural and very much dependent on the people around me.
MS. TIPPETT: So what year were you born?
MS. BOYD: I was born in 1977.
MS. TIPPETT: Okay. So this is the way I wrote the question out, and I hope it makes sense to you. I wondered, how would you begin to tell the story of the emergence of immersive social technologies — what we mean, these days, when we talk about technology and how it’s changing our lives? How would you begin to tell that story in our lives, collectively, through the story of your life?
MS. BOYD: So my brother got access to a computer when he was in middle school, and I didn’t understand what this piece of equipment was for or why he would spend so much time on it. And then he did the terribly horrible thing to a teenaged sister, where he hooked it up to a phone line and used up the phone line to make horrible beeping sounds. Of course, this is early-day modems. And I remember I marched into his room one day. I’m like, “What are you doing?” And I was upset, and I was like, “Get off the phone. Your computer should not be making sounds into the phone.” And he showed me different online bulletin boards, and all of a sudden I realized that this computer was made out of people. And the computer became much more interesting to me, once it was made out of people. And so alongside my brother, he ended up introducing me to a whole different world. I spent my teenage years in some of those early online communities, BBSs and Usenet and different kinds of chat rooms.
MS. TIPPETT: So this would be late ’80s, early ’90s, into the ’90s?
MS. BOYD: This is early ’90s. And I still remember my brother bringing home a book, and it would have been 1994, and it was a Yellow Pages of every single webpage out there, but I’m entering this at a time when everything is about to shift, only I don’t know that. I’m not aware of that when I’m entering into it. And the early adopters of those social technologies, the part that I was at the tail end of, were self-identified geeks, freaks, and queers. And I was all three, so it felt really comfortable and quite at home. But it wasn’t something that was remotely cool. In fact, I think that if it was cool, I would want nothing to do with it. It was the fact that it was a totally separate practice, and it introduced me to a world that was much larger than my hometown, and I loved that. And I was a part of that cohort that imagined that I should, therefore, build these systems, which is how I studied computer science to begin with.
MS. TIPPETT: Oh, gosh. You know, it’s so interesting. I mean reading you kind of brought me back to my own story, and it was kind of interesting, as we probably all — each of us has a story of our life with technology, because it is so social now. But I remember — I graduated from college — I also went to Brown, like you. And students had access to the “computer center” or something, and so we all gave away our time, because we couldn’t imagine why we would have wanted to spend any time with these computers. [laughs] And then I remember graduating in ’83, and these predictions were out there about personal computers. I mean even then, everything was typed on a typewriter, and those predictions about personal computers, even into the mid-’80s, sounded absurd. So I mean I think it’s — gosh, it’s so important to just take note of how recent this change is.
Ms. boyd: I’ll never forget, I was giving a talk to a group of middle schoolers, and I asked them to submit questions ahead of time. And this one young boy, he submitted a question of “Who ‘found’ the internet?” Not who founded, not who invented, but who found it. It was clearly something out there, that somebody must have embarked on a long journey and somehow stumbled across and found it.
MS. TIPPETT:MS. TIPPETT: That is so interesting.
MS. BOYD: And I was like, that’s amazing. It just made my heart totally melt.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, it’s like the question of whether Einstein discovered or invented the law of relativity, like whether mathematics is discovered or invented, that for this generation, the internet is so much in the fabric of things.
MS. BOYD: Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s just there. And I think that that reality of it, just connecting people to information — it’s that moment where you’re like — you’re talking to someone, and they’re like, “Well, how did you look up information before this? How did you know where to go?” I’m like, “There were these things called maps, paper maps.” And they’re like, “Huh. I’m not sure I believe you.” [laughs]
MS. TIPPETT: I know.
MS. BOYD: I love that.
MS. TIPPETT: So you’ve written about — you’ve written in a few places that the internet actually was a very transformative and kind of redemptive thing in your high school years, that it helped you survive.
MS. BOYD: So as a teenager, I didn’t really belong in my high school. I didn’t fit in. I wasn’t comfortable. I always felt like I was on the outskirts of things. Maybe some of that is me, maybe that is something of my peers, but I just really didn’t feel like I belonged. And I really struggled with it. And one of the things that the Internet allowed me to do is, it allowed me to connect to people around the globe. This is before we were afraid of strangers. And in fact, my mother was of this mindset that any use of a computer must be educational, because that was the only reason one would have a computer, so would ignore what I did late at night, because she just figured it was educational.
MS. TIPPETT: Oh, that’s so interesting too.
MS. BOYD: And so I ended up connecting to all of these people. And there are two connections that are most memorable for me. One was with a transgender woman, and as I was trying to figure out my own sexuality and my gender identity and trying to make sense of who I was, here’s this woman who was allowing me to ask wholly inappropriate questions. But she also understood that I was a teenager and that I was open. And so we ended up having these crazy dialogues about gender, about sexuality, about how the two come into conversation — and it was absolutely mind-blowing for me. And I never met her. I don’t know much about her other than what she told me. But it didn’t matter, because she opened my eyes in such critical ways.
The other conversation that was absolutely essential during that period was that I had intended to go into the military, and this was during the first Iraq War. And a young man who was serving over in Iraq was just talking to me about what it was like to be a soldier and what the military was like and what his experiences were like and how he was trying to make sense of life in the Middle East. And again, it was not somebody I was ever looking to meet or to connect with in any physical sense, but somebody who allowed me to see something that I literally couldn’t see in my hometown.
[music: “Quagmire” by Dekko]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with technologist danah boyd. Her blog is Apophenia.
[music: “Quagmire” by Dekko]
MS. TIPPETT: When did you start your blog?
MS. BOYD: So we were all messing around with HTML in different ways. I had already created an Ani DiFranco lyrics page. I guess that would have been circa ’95.
MS. TIPPETT: Which still exists.
Ms. boyd: Which still exists.
Ms. Tippett: It’s a repository for every — all the lyrics Ani DiFranco has ever written.
Ms. boyd: And for my own — it’s all for me, because I really wanted to be able to access them at any point when I needed to scream, [laughs] and I use those song lyrics all the time. But I’m glad they’re useful to other people too.
So when I was at Brown in ’96, I was messing around with all sorts of different things about HTML. I was working on some of the early hypertext mechanisms at that time, and in the process, I ended up taking a class, an independent study in the religious studies department with a teacher who was thinking about Buddhism and the role that Buddhism could provide in spiritual understandings. And he ended up transitioning before the class would begin, and he moved out of state. And so we decided to keep this class up as an independent study, and so he asked us to find a way to communicate with him, everyday reflections. And this was in the spring of ’97.
Totally unaware of what was going to come, I created each page as a day, and I had forward and backward buttons, and so you could have these posts. And then I had a calendar, and you could click on the calendar and see any one of those pages. And after this class was done, I found that this practice was so meditative for me. It was so valuable to reflect on what I was seeing, what I was thinking about, how I was feeling, that I kept it up, with an audience of about one, for many, many years.
MS. TIPPETT: And was it called Apophenia then, as well?
MS. BOYD: It didn’t have a title, to the best that I knew. I loved that term.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, and where did you discover that term? And, yeah, say what that means.
MS. BOYD: Oh. So apophenia is about making connections where none previously existed, and it’s usually referring to a cognitive disorder where there are synaptic connections made in unpredictable ways. And people often know this through Oliver Sacks’s work, “the man is the hat” kind of thing. And I just — I loved the concept, because I felt as though that was the very essence of what thinking was about, was making these unpredictable connections.
MS. TIPPETT: So one of the ways you talk about the focus of your work is that you’re interested in everyday practices involving social media and that you enjoy watching the evolution of practice. And I think those are interesting phrases. And I think what I’m interested in kind of delving into with you is the evolution of us as human beings and technology becoming part of that in new ways, becoming part of human relationship and identity in new ways.
And one of the things you point out very articulately is that a lot of the things we bemoan about our lives with technology and the change it’s bringing are not so new. I mean you have this great sentence: “Even the most fleeting acquaintance with the history of information and communication technologies indicates that moral panics are episodic and should be taken with a grain of salt.” [laughs]
MS. BOYD: So part of why I got into the idea of everyday life was, I’m really enamored by a sociologist named Erving Goffman. He was one of my great influences in terms of a lot of how I think about things. And he moved, in a sociological sense, from thinking about these large structural systems to just the everyday practices, and he’s known for thinking about the mundane in many ways and helping people untangle and make sense of it.
And even when I realized that technology was understood to be this radical transformation, and all of these hopes and dreams and fears and anxieties were placed on it, I also realized we were going to move more and more into a world in which technology would just be mundane. And indeed, for teenagers, they look at you like you’re an alien if you’re just like, “Oh, my gosh, this is the most amazing thing ever.” They’re like, “It’s a phone. I know what a phone is. I’ve used a phone for a long time. Why is this a big deal?”
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right.
MS. BOYD: And so I wanted to see what would happen, not at the margins, not at the edges, not at the grand level, but what happens when these technologies are just a part of life. How do people use them? How do they integrate them into all of their practices?
And part of that technological perspective is also because there were all of these great hopes and dreams — the Internet would be this magical transformation, it would create a level of egalitarianism, it would be the freeing democratic mechanism for the world writ large, it would bring about the next Enlightenment — all of these big dreams. And I sort of scratched my head, being like, “I’m not sure this is how this is going to play out.”
And what intrigued me was that as these technologies became part of everyday life, what we saw is that people brought with them all of their flaws, all of their everyday concerns and interests. And that’s what makes it really tricky, because we want to see the extremes, but the practices themselves are just about what it says about humanity.
[music: “Immunity” by Jon Hopkins]
MS. TIPPETT: I mean there’s another great sentence of yours, that “the internet mirrors, magnifies, and makes more visible the good, bad, and the ugly of everyday life,” and that also what you’re saying, that pain and prejudice offline translate into pain and prejudice online, and likewise, community and all kinds of good things [laughs] — good things offline translate into online. It’s the fullness of who we are.
MS. BOYD: Yeah, and then how do we read it, right? And this is where I think — I get worried. That’s that visibility marker, which is that we read meanness and cruelty, for example, and we say, “Oh, my gosh, bullying must be so much worse because of the internet,” even as the data shows otherwise. We read prejudice online, and we’re like, “Oh, my gosh, it must be the internet that’s causing us to be a racist society,” without realizing that we are a racist society, and we’re just making it visible online. And it doesn’t take Ferguson for us to remember that. And so I think that this is where it’s this moment of saying, oh, my gosh, we have this tool that allows us to step out of our own assumptions about what the world is like and try to make sense of it.
And then we have to get strategic about how to really address the things in society we don’t like. I happen to be very violently opposed to prejudice and racism. This is something I would like to see us address. But rather than flipping out at the technology, I want us to get at the systemic issues. I want us to get at the underlying issues that affect what we see visibly online. And I think that the worst thing we can do is just clamp down on the visibility, because that’s not how we actually address the core issues here.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. And so a lot of the hand-wringing, and I know that you pay a lot of attention to this, comes on the part of parents. And one of the things you say that again gets back to that kind of everyday level is that social media in kids’ lives — I mean I’m paraphrasing — but in a sense is a kind of antidote to over-structured, overscheduled lives that we, the world of adults, have created for children now.
Ms. boyd: One of the anxieties I heard whenever I was out in the field was, it was like, “Oh my gosh, kids these days. What’s wrong with them? Why don’t they just go outside like we did when we were kids?”
MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right. Go outside and play, yeah.
MS. BOYD: Go outside and play. And then from — when I would talk to teenagers, they would look at me and be like, “I would love to have the freedom to just go out and play with all my friends, but I can’t.” And then they’d start listing off all of these different reasons. And I started stepping back and going, wow, I need to untangle where this disconnect is.
And I realized that over the last 30 years, a lot has changed about American society. We have a tremendous amount of fearmongering that emerged in light of 24/7 news, like the 1980s were filled with the introduction of all sorts of laws around curfew and anti-loitering and anti-trespassing. We created this concern that public spaces like the park were a terrible, terrible place. We were worried about latchkey kids. We were worried about school buses. We clamped down on young people, and we started, especially in middle to upper class environments, structuring every day of their lives. We increased the levels of homework. We put tremendous amounts of pressure on young people. And all they want to do is just hang out with their friends. And part of what made it so visible to me is, it wasn’t just a matter of them getting on their bike and going out and being home by dark, which was the old way. It was the fact that they need all of their other friends to be allowed to do so too. And that’s where we started to see that difficulty — because even if a parent was like, “Oh, you have flexibility,” if your friends don’t, there’s no point.
And along comes this technology. And this technology all of a sudden is like, “I know I can get to my friends and my broader peer group, even when I’m stuck at home, even when our timing is slightly off because of our structured schedules being slightly different. And I know that they’re there.” And all of a sudden, you see a social technology being able to work as a mediator in light of all of these other cultural conditions that we’ve forgotten that we created.
Ms. Tippett: So, do we similarly — is it your sense that we similarly overemphasize the dangers involved in roaming around the internet? And also, are we in danger of over-regulating that or regulating it in a way that doesn’t make sense?
MS. BOYD: From my perspective, absolutely. And this is where, again, you start to look at the data — usually, when we talk about dangers online, we hit a couple of different areas. It’s usually conduct, contact, and content. Those are the three C’s. Conduct is where we get worried about bullying. When we untangle all of what’s going on around there, we find that young people are really struggling, writ large, with bullying, but they’re not actually seeing the internet as anything other than a support network in light of it. And of course, there are exceptions to this. And that’s part of what makes people anxious.
Ms. Tippett: But also, I actually have read you and heard you speaking about this in ways that I think turn that on its head a bit, because I think that some of your research suggests — I mean as you’re saying, it’s what’s happening in the offline world that finds reflection in the online world.
Ms. boyd: And this goes back to why we should be using the visibility to address it. We know that much of what needs to happen has to happen educationally. It has to happen culturally. But that’s much harder. But yet, that’s what we need to do if we’re going to change this. And so instead, we try to clamp down on the technology. We try to go after the most extreme cases and extrapolate from there. We try to find new ways of punishing people. But this is not going to address the issue. And I guess I — at the end of the day, I am concerned about addressing the issue, not the symptoms.
Ms. Tippett: Which is the way human beings treat other human beings. And then, doesn’t some of your research also suggest that young people actually use that visibility of the internet to create phenomena that other people will see, that they kind of — what have you called it?
Ms. boyd: Drama. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, right, or even self-bullying, that they make this stuff up, because they can’t get attention to it in real life.
Ms. boyd: Well, they’re looking for attention. And so the issue of self-bullying that I looked at and then another researcher named Elizabeth Englander looked at in more detail, emerged because of a question-and-answer service called Formspring. And that evolved into something called ask.fm. And I was looking at this, and I understood the technology enough to be really struggling with the media narrative. The media narrative was, like, this is a terrible site where everybody is just bullying each other anonymously. But the thing about that site was that in order for a question, a cruel question to appear, somebody needed to choose to answer it. And so I was sitting there going, “Why would somebody answer a cruel question about themselves?” And so I went to Formspring, and I said, “Can you help me figure this out?” And they found that the same IP address asked the question as answered it — basically, the same computer — and that it would do so under 20 minutes. In other words, it was most likely a young person asking themselves a cruel question and then answering it back to themselves.
MS. TIPPETT: But in public, kind of, right?
MS. BOYD: In public. And I was really struggling with this. And so then, between me and Elizabeth, we delved into it in different ways, and we found that young people had to show that they were tough, they could handle anything. And they also had to — they loved that moment of getting all of the love and attention that would come back from it — “You’re awesome. Don’t listen to those anonymous people. I think you’re the best,” et cetera, et cetera.
Now part of it is also — put those kinds of practices in a broader context of drama and the kinds of interpersonal conflict that we see all over the place. And what I started to realize was that this is the message they’re receiving all over the place about how adults interact. We call it politics. We call it reality TV. We call it news. And we make a level of aggression and critique and tearing people apart part of the national pastime.
Ms. Tippett: And melodrama rather than substance.
Ms. boyd: Right. But we also see it in our homes. And I would sit in people’s homes, and I would be startled by these parents who would lament bullying as a major issue, and then they’d sit there and talk poorly about their colleagues at work and their neighbors — and I’m just sitting here going, “Do you realize what you’re modeling?” [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: But do you think there might be some actually really positive side to this, and to the internet in particular, in that when these things get amplified and put out into public, and sometimes with really terrible consequences that we can’t help but see together, that it actually — in this sense, social media and technology can be contributing to us being more honest and growing up a bit, culturally?
Ms. boyd: I mean the answer is, I hope so. I will never forget this past summer — in light of everything that was happening in Ferguson, the media was covering it in pretty problematic ways, originally. And I saw a group of young black individuals decide to get up on Twitter and make a hashtag #ifIwasshot, and they would show two different pictures and then basically ask the question, “Which picture would the media show of me, depending on my skin color?” or all of this. And you start to realize it was just a beautiful media critique of what was going on by trying to find a different way to speak back. And this is where there’s a lot of beauty in memes. There’s a lot of beauty in watching people try to amplify things that are messy.
I am nervous — there’s new data that has come out from the folks at Pew that show that if you have a network of people on social media who believe politically in things that are different than you, you are less likely to speak out and speak up and share your thoughts. So just because this stuff is visible and accessible doesn’t mean that people want to look.
[music: “I’m 9 Today” by múm]
Ms. Tippett: You can listen again and share this conversation with danah boyd through our website, onbeing.org. I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “I’m 9 Today” by múm]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with blogger and technologist danah boyd, exploring her view from the cutting edge of research on the way technology is changing life, society, and relationship between generations. She’s also walking on digital frontiers as the mother of young children. She is principal researcher at Microsoft Research, and she’s the author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.
Ms. Tippett: So I’m curious about some of the ways in which there are real human cultural shifts happening in our time and how those are maybe not so much being caused by technology, but certainly converging with technology. So for example, I just think the whole nature of identity, on so many levels, is so much more fluid than it was before. There’s been this falling away, in so many aspects of life, of categories and taboos that applied in previous generations. And the fact that people have so much just hanging out there in public, online, converges with the changing nature of what is public and private, which technology presents. You know what I’m talking about? And I just feel like this generation is kind of in the laboratory on that.
Ms. boyd: What’s unique about all of this and where it does connect into technology is that our identities and our sense of self are very much shaped by the people around us. Our mental models of the people around us, historically, were about groups. We were all part of the same town, we were all part of the same religion, we were all part of the same basketball team — these were bounded entities. One of the fabulous things that’s happened because of social media is that you understand yourself to be a part of a network, that your network overlaps with, but is not identical to, your best friend’s network. And so, obviously, you always understood you had different family. But at the same time, you didn’t understand where these friend connections — your cousin’s best friend that that you see every summer but your best friend doesn’t see — all of these ways of understanding things. When all of this becomes visible through social media, you realize the power of these networks. And that’s one of the things that resists back in all of this, is this awareness that we’re all connected in really significant ways. But it’s also what allows us to see where there are huge divisions in society.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, but I guess what I’m curious about is, for example, this fluidity of identity and everything hanging out there. And right now parents — let’s just come back to parents — are so concerned about what their children are putting up online right now that is going to come back to haunt them when they have their first real job interview 10 or 15 years from now. And yet, at the same time, the world is changing so that what used to be something that you had to keep secret, so many of those things in that category no longer are. I don’t know. Am I being clear? I just…
Ms. boyd: Yeah, I — think about it. Our last three U.S. presidents — “I smoked and didn’t inhale.” “Yes, I did cocaine, but then I found God.” And “I was young, get over it.”
MS. TIPPETT: Right. [laughs] Right. Exactly.
MS. BOYD: That’s an interesting transition. For a lot of today’s young people, they’re going to be able to live down their past. And we’re all going to have made mistakes, and it’s going to be funny, and there’s things we laugh at, and it’s no big deal. Where trouble occurs are for those who actually lack privilege already, and then they’re automatically put at risk in a totally different way.
Ms. Tippett: What do you mean?
Ms. boyd: And the further they have to —
Ms. Tippett: How is that? Explain that.
Ms. boyd: So let me give a concrete example here. In the early days of Myspace, when it was the cool technology, I received a phone call from an Ivy League admissions officer. And they had accepted a young man living in South Central who’d written a beautiful essay about wanting to leave behind the gangs he’d grown up with. And they were very proud of the fact that they were using social media to learn more about applicants. They felt that this made them more informed as admissions officers. But they went to his to his profile, and they found that it was filled with gang insignias. And so they asked me a question: “Why would he lie to us when we can tell the truth online?”
Now I’ve spent enough time in South Central to know that this young man probably was living in a context where his cousins, his family members, his friends, the extended network in which he was living were all gang-affiliated. In other words, it would be a survival tactic and that he probably wasn’t lying to the admissions officer, he just was trying to navigate two wildly different contexts simultaneously, which is extraordinarily difficult.
And what happens, and the reason why we get anxious about how to read stuff from the past is because we imagine the context of you hanging out with your friends and the context of you applying for a job to be two radically different contexts. And this is true for some people, but it is more true for others. And for most privileged young people, yeah, we’re going to look up and see the things they did when they were 16, and, boy, are they going to look dumb when they were 16. And it’s going to be something that we can laugh about. And this is one of the reasons why I think that it — the burden is not on us to help young people figure out how to imagine every possible future context — nobody can live that way. No adult can live that way, let alone a young person who has a long path to navigate.
The burden should be on all of us to think about what are we doing when we interpret the data that we see, how do we understand people in the context they were in and understand that people change and that no matter what, you’re not your 16-year-old self. I probably wouldn’t hire your 16-year-old self, but I want to hire you now. So how do you think about that transition?
Ms. Tippett: And so just to make this personal, you have a piece on your website, which is called “an itty-bitty autobiography / smattering of facts,” which is just so interesting, so granular in some ways, so much more of an introduction of yourself, which is in a space that is, at one in the same time, professional and personal. I mean it’s a new phenomenon — I mean you’re not alone in that, but that younger generations present themselves to the world with a fullness and a lack of inhibition that I really do think is actually new in human history. And even that transparency and integrity, and that those two things are connected, are kind of moral values, virtues for new generations.
Ms. boyd: But this is where I also know that I have the privilege to be able to do that. I have a computer science degree. I have an Ivy League degree. I can get away with so much, and I am painfully aware of that. And so I have no compulsion to hide any aspect of myself, because I can make a decision not to be in a place who doesn’t accept me as who I am.
And it’s one of those things where I’m also fully aware of how the mistakes that I made in the past are part of the present. And so as I mentioned, I started this blog in 1997. And if you go back to those early posts, you will quickly find that the date is much later than what I just initially explained it as, as the beginning of the school semester. And the reason is, is that I deleted many of those posts. I deleted many of those posts, and I struggled with it, not because I was ashamed of anything that I posted, but because I opened up that blog talking about navigating the issues of rape on a personal level, talking about how I navigated other harassment issues, really abusive situations. And so this is also where it’s really tricky, of how do you modify these moments of self-presentation? You figure out how to find the right context in which to portray certain things and how to shift over time.
What can you control? What can’t you control? There’s a lot — I can’t control what a search engine brings up as the top thing. So how do I figure out how to navigate that, and how do I recognize where I have privilege and where I don’t, and how do I find a way to communicate that holistically to somebody else?
[music: “DBS” by Pilote]
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with blogger and technologist danah boyd.
[music: “DBS” by Pilote]
Ms. Tippett: And so again, bringing this to life and to the question that’s on so many people’s minds of my generation — you’ve been really clear that parents catastrophizing about the fact that their children have online lives and just trying to kind of blanket clamp down on it is not only not helpful, but potentially damaging. But how would you talk about how we — as parents or other adults in the lives of people who are living with technology in a way that is completely new and unusual to us — how we can help them become discerning and navigate that challenge that you just described between what they’re putting out there and who they are and who they’re going to be for the rest of their lives?
Ms. boyd: I think it’s about moving away from a set of prescriptions — “This is how you should act” — to thinking more about how do you get young people to be critically self-reflective about every decision that they’re making, and how do you get it to evolve?
I’ll never forget — this is the personal story of it all, which is that when I was 18, and I was off in college, I shaved my head. And I knew this was going to upset my mother. Oh, did I know this. And sure enough, I got home, and “Oh this is terrible. You’re so ugly. Don’t you understand what you’ve done to yourself?” You know, cry, cry, cry. And of course, I’m sitting here patting myself on the back, being like “Ha, ha, ha, ha. That was always my intention.” And then, meanwhile, I go and I see my grandmother, and she takes one look at me and goes, “Huh. You look like you were in the Holocaust,” and walks off. Nothing was more effective at getting me to rethink what I was trying to present with this shaved head.
And it’s those little moments, those moments where you can get people to think, where the most transformative actions occur. And this is how I really feel we should be approaching the internet with regard to young people. We adults, we don’t know it better than they do. Instead, it’s how do you ask the questions that force the reflection that is actually productive? That’s not the judgmental question of “Why are you doing that?” But it’s the question of saying, “Huh, that’s intriguing. Here’s how I interpret it. What were you trying to achieve here?” And it’s this moment of dialogue.
MS. TIPPETT: You’ve said, “More conversation, less surveillance.”
Ms. boyd: Absolutely. And that transition requires helping them be independent, critical, thoughtful thinkers.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. Boy, but — I don’t know.
Ms. boyd: Oh, but it’s hard.
Ms. Tippett: It’s hard, right? I mean the question is —
Ms. boyd: There’s no manual. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: I’m not necessarily sure we were great at this before social media came along. I mean these are new skills we have to learn, as a species.
Ms. boyd: Well, they’re skills we probably always should have learned, it’s just that they become all the more important now.
Ms. Tippett: Exactly. Don’t you think the stakes get higher through this technology somehow? Or the — I don’t know. It’s more intense.
Ms. boyd: Well, it’s also — let’s be honest. This was done collectively as a society in the past, in ways where we put all the burden on parents in the nuclear family in the present. So part of what’s really transitioned is not simply the technology, but it’s the way we’ve architected our society, where we put all of the burden for education on a very few number of adults. And this is where, when I’m advising parents on how to think about raising their children, I’m really — lesson number one: build out as large of a network of other adults in your child’s life, from the time that they’re two on up. They need that network, because at some point, they’re not going to want to talk to you about something. You can’t do it all yourself, and we do a disservice to our children by assuming that you can.
Ms. Tippett: And the language of “digital natives,” which I know you — is problematic, and you write in very interesting ways about that, and I’ve heard that recently from a few people, that that language is problematic to people who really understand the history of it. But I think that for those of us who kind of walked onto this frontier of the internet in mid-life, where we feel like we are always just trying to catch up and truly trying to learn a foreign language, and then you have children who are growing up fluent and progressing kind of beyond you — it has felt like a helpful image for me.
Ms. boyd: The reason that I object to the digital natives frame is because it assumes that skills and learning just come down from the sky magically for people who were born at a certain time or are of a certain age. Young people spend a tremendous amount of time learning how to navigate these tools, these technologies, the people. They’re not afraid of them, so they’re willing to experiment, and their networks and friends are all willing to experiment and explore with them.
But at the same time, when we use the term “digital natives,” we assume, then, that adults don’t have anything to teach young people, and that is so not true. Young people don’t know how to construct a query. They don’t understand how information is architected. They don’t necessarily understand the broader media landscape, the kinds of propaganda that go on. They don’t necessarily understand biases within the algorithms that they see. And so when we hear these messages — I hear them all the time, like “A site like Wikipedia is bad.” And then a teenager will tell me, “But my teacher told me that Google is good.” And you’re just sitting here going, “How do you think that Google comes up with the answers?” They’re like, “Well, they choose the best ones.” And you’re like, “And who does this?” And they’re like, “Oh, well, somebody that works at Google.” And you’re like, “No. [laughs] That’s not how this works.” And so there’s this moment of these — of assuming the capabilities, because they’ve learned something in the social realm, will apply to everything else related to the technology. And because we have spent so much time assuming kids to be perfectly competent because they’re using Instagram happily, we’re not actually investing in helping them become critical and intelligible users of these tools, such that they can transfer it into something that is akin to building them.
Ms. Tippett: Right. Right. I love that. I love what you’re saying. And again, it’s kind of applying old-fashioned, ancient wisdom that worked before to cutting-edge technologies — that even as new generations have a familiarity with something, they still need elders and mentors to learn from, whatever the medium is.
Ms. boyd: I mean — absolutely. And they need time to explore. And there’s a reason why more privileged youth, who have their own devices, are learning these kinds of basic social technology skills much faster than less privileged youth. This is where we start to see these unbelievable gaps in skill development, because a lot of it is not just the elders, but it’s also the time and the tools to explore these things.
[music: “The Slowdown” by Michael Brook]
Ms. Tippett: One thing that is fascinating for those of us who are parents — and also, I would say, even for our media project — is how the internet and the things that happen online, it seems to me that there’s kind of an accelerating application of those things from offline to in-the-flesh and that even — there’s all this online relationship, but then there’s also this rage for convenings and for flesh-and-blood connection. Do you see that? Is that something that you observe?
Ms. boyd: The person I think about is Eric Klinenberg, who’s a sociologist who wrote a book called Going Solo. And the book is all about why more people live alone now, today, than ever before. And what he argues in this book is that we are oversaturated with connections with other people. Our professional worlds are far more social than they were historically, especially when you think about agricultural times or industrial times. We have the choice to connect, at any given point, through social interactions. And as a result, we choose to live alone in order to get a break from it all, which is intriguing.
So I think that there’s this moment where you think about how sociality works and the ways in which people are delighting in it and overwhelmed by it, and the different kinds of connections that can be made. You share a passion for Pokémon or underwater basket weaving. You’re doing a task together. And so you’re really connected intellectually, which can be wonderful for certain things, but it is very different than sitting there and going blah-blah-blah-blah with your friends, right? There is something about that moment where you’re not even necessarily talking, but you’re seeing a movie together, or you’re just having an experience together. And so where I see people playing this out is that they’re thinking holistically about how to balance this personally, professionally, collectively.
And you have far more choices today than you ever had before. And it used to be only you had to live in a city to have these kinds of choices, and so more and more people are grappling with it, and you have to think about how to do that now online, because it’s a way of getting a break. But at the same time you still want connection, but only certain kinds of connection. And so it feels murky, but at the same time I think that it makes sense if you think about it holistically.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, we’re living with this new thing, and we’re having to create new boundaries and new structures to think about it.
MS. BOYD: And we’re having to think about it, rather than just accepting whatever defaults seem to have been in existence in the past.
Ms. Tippett: So you’ve used language like “creating the networked world we all want to live in,” encouraging parents to see this — social media and the internet — as an opportunity and not just a danger. What would you offer along those lines in terms of that adventure, of treating this as an opportunity, where to begin?
Ms. boyd: From my perspective, it’s about stepping back and not assuming that just the technology is transformative, and saying, okay, what are we trying to achieve here? What does balance look like? What does happiness look like? What does success look like? What are these core tenets or values that we’re aiming for, and how do we achieve them holistically across our lives? And certainly, when parents are navigating this, I think one of the difficulties is to recognize that this is what your values are, and they may be different from your child’s values. And so how do you learn to sit and have a conversation of “Here’s what I want for you. What do you want? And how do we balance that?” And that’s that negotiation that’s really hard. And so I think about it in terms of all of us — how do you find your own sense of grounding?
People are always shocked with me, because I’m one of the biggest proponents of technology — I love it — and yet, I also take an annual email sabbatical.
Ms. Tippett: I wanted to ask you about that.
Ms. boyd: [laughs] So I take this time each year where I don’t just bounce my message and send a nice vacation mail like most people do, but I literally bounce it. You cannot send me email during that period. And it sends a pretty hysterical message, basically saying, “The goblins have gobbled up all of the email. It’s gone. It’ll never get to me.” And it sends you different options, and it says you can contact me after this date, you can send me snail mail, or you can call my mother. And anybody who knows to call my mother knows that that’s going to be, like, a minimum three-hour call, so it’s an ongoing joke between all of us, including my mother, who’s always like, “And why are random strangers calling me?” I’m like, “Ha,ha. Here we go.”
But the reason that that email sabbatical is really important for me is, it forces me to think about time. I don’t just disappear. I go through all these steps to communicate with everybody that depends on me and make certain that they have what they need from me before I leave, rather than assuming I will always be in contact, which is — that’s the danger of the “always-on” environment, is that when you’re always assumed, then you never close things down. You never take care of your communication with people. So I start this many months in advance. And then I communicate to people about the fact that I’ll be gone. And then I do turn off my email.
And the big joke — because I’m a Unix geek, and I have all the procmail scripts, and so I have the logs, which show that very few people email me, because they get it. We’ve negotiated this out ahead of time. And it allows me to go offline and think about reflecting in a different way. And I find that extraordinarily valuable, because I get to rethink and re-center.
And it’s not just that I physically break from the internet. I leave my home environment. I live in New York City, which is a bustling, insane city. And I go hiking into a place where there are no people for hours, and that is totally acceptable. And I purposely shake up my entire worldview in order to find grounding, in order to find balance. And so part of why I say this reflection is that these technologies are out there. There are so many opportunities out there to connect, to communicate, to get information. We need to be more thoughtful about what we want to achieve and how to articulate that in our lives and how to achieve it collectively, individually, and as a community.
Ms. Tippett: And it’s just — what you’re saying, when you talk about the need to find happiness and balance and centering and grounding, I mean again, those are the age-old, ancient, essential human challenges.
Ms. boyd: Nothing’s changed on that one. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: What? What?
Ms. boyd: Nothing has changed on that front.
Ms. Tippett: Nothing has changed, but I think you’re saying — so in one way, technology, even by making some of that stuff harder, is actually forcing us to need to negotiate and have conversations and be intentional about these things in a way that we didn’t have to be intentional before.
Ms. boyd: Yeah, and I mean I think that it’s a tool. It’s a vice for some. It’s a way of connecting. There’s all of these different layers to it. And we’ve had to think about how to be responsible in relationship to anything. If you think about it in terms of ancient religious texts, you think about gluttony, think about what is our relationship to food. We agree that food is a necessity, but what’s the level in which it’s acceptable? And I think that the danger is that we just assume that it’s more like alcohol, which is that it’s always bad, that you’re always on the edge of having a very unhealthy relationship with it. Or maybe I should say a harder drug.
And I would say that’s not necessarily the metaphor we should be working with here. Like all of these other stimuli, though, we should step back and say, hey, what is the relationship I want to have with people, with food, with substances, with the internet, with my environment? And that’s where I do think that there’s a spiritual ask to all of this.
[music: “Scene of the Sunrise” by Miaou]
MS. TIPPETT: danah boyd is principal researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder of the Data & Society research institute. She’s also a visiting professor at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. Her books include It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens and Participatory Culture in a Networked Era.
[music: “Scene of the Sunrise” by Miaou]
MS. TIPPETT:On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Bethanie Mann, Selena Carlson, Malka Fenyvesi, Carolyn Friedhoff, and Katherine Kwong.
MS. TIPPETT: Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoe Keating, and the last voice you hear singing our final credits in each show is hip-hop artist Lizzo.
On Being was created at American Public Media.
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The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.
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The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.
The Osprey Foundation, a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.
And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.