dana boyd on social media evolution and digital ethnography

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Image by .Andy Chang. via Flickr

dana boyd kicked off a discussion on the ROI of social media in Cambridge with a rapid-fire, necessarily abridged keynote on the history of social networks and their associated digital ethnographies in the United States. dana boyd presented on her research (available at zephoria.org/thoughts). A longer version of her presentation. “Living and Learning with Social Media,” is available online, though without the pretty pictures.

Her first point is that social media isn’t new, either as a concept or platform. It’s just part of a broader part of Web 2.0. She framed Web 2.0 for different audiences in the following ways:

  • For the tech crowd, Web 2.0 is “about a change in development and deployment; constant innovation; perpetual beta; open source/real time”
  • For the business crowd, “it’s about hope. Emerged from bust. Bubble 2.0 followed.”
  • For users: “It’s about organizing communication around friends, communities of interest. Boundaries became blurred.”

One clear distinction boyd made was between social network websites and social networking sites. The former are distinctly not about finding jobs; they’re about finding communities of interest. When rhetorically discussing how social network sites gained traction in the US, boyd cited the network effects created by these self-organizing communities of interest.

When she looked back at the history of these communities, she started with Friendster. (Paul Gillin noted Classmates.com as the first in “Why people love social networks“earlier this week). Friendster, as boyd noted, was designed to be online dating. The three original demographics that populated it were gay men, the “digerati,” and 20-something hipsters that cycle around the playa — aka “burners” at Burning Man.

The trouble Friendster’s leadership found is that “Fakesters started popping up.” These fake profiles, of bands, places or really anything that wasn’t an authentic person with a personal profile, were seen as polluting the community — at least by Friendster’s leadership. They tried to stop it and were faced by a  rebellion. The infusion of Fakesters was followed by another wave: indie rock bands that wanted to connect with fan. Both, in boyd’s words,’ fueled the ire of Friendster and were encouraged to leave. And, in quick order, the early adopters left, moving to Tribe.net or, in the case of those musicians, to Myspace.

Facebook’s introduction followed soon there after, growing meteorically since then, alongside of MySpace. As Boyd noted, however, along with that growth came a series of “digital panics” over culture and risk as embodied in these social networks.

The assumption tended to be that MySpace was about social deviance and sexual meetups, an image that was fueled by sensational reports of sexual predators and exploited teends in the media. Part of this was a division of between Facebook and MySpace in the US that boyd had famously written about in “Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace” and her subsequent response. Boyd’s dissertation, “Taken out of context,” deals with precisely this issue.

The castes and tribes called out aesthetic differences between the two massive social networks but, as boyd pointed out this was about class. As played out in media, this lens shaped how we understood them, though the websites were functionally and practically quite similar.

For those look for ways looking for ways, to measure the utility or effectives of social networks, Zephoria suggests measuring network density. Look at the activity of clusters. Look at stickiness. If someone is using it but none of his or her friends are, they aren’t likely to stick around. Look for way to measure the health of the community – not just individuals.

When discussing the differences betwen adults and teens, boyd sees fundamentally different cultural, socioeconomic and power structures in play. Teen conversations can look inane from the outside — at best. boyd suggests thinking of them as hallway conversations, part of the process of “digital social grooming.” As she notes, you can have isolated kids in the corner offline too. Wall posts on Facebook are, in her eyes, simply forms of ritualistic hallway talk.

As knowledge workers joined Facebook, they started hanging out with friends — but what they did there was fundamentally different than the teens. Adult are much more likely to create status messages that broadcast outwards, while their “About me” sections are basically resumes, rarely offering up to date bits. Teens are more likely to include what they want friends to know about now.

boyd also noted they way that social media is shifting, including the relevant demographic. The median age of Twitter, for instance, is 31 and shifting higher. Teens aren’t engaging with the site at all. As boyd wryly noted, “for some reason, it’s more the Demi Moore” crowd.

Why? It may be an issue of power, which teens generally don’t have with respect to US society, especially with respect to building digital tools themselves. All of us care about how searchable we are, particularly with respect to the about people who have power searching for data, like law enforcement, potential bosses or academic institutions. We haven’t always been searchable, a reality that boyd put a geeky spin on when she noted that “Mom would have loved to be able to write “grep” or “find” to track me down as a kid.”

Virtual worlds didn’t escape notice. When asked about how social network mixed, boyd first refined the question: “anything that allows us to create social space w/avatars” vs 3D immersive online environments. She noted that teenagers aren’t using Second Life but are using console or online gaming environments to escape and have fun. Such world necessarily require real-time synchronous interaction, which is quite powerful for those who can get online at the same time to play, say, World of Warcraft.

Given that mobile phones are still the number one way to get online, however, there are inherent limits. (That could change if WoW really does work well on the iPhone). Virtual worlds therefore require “dumbing down” or different access patterns. And, in fact, boyd said that “70% of teenagers share the password for their social networking sites with their friends” so that their virtual identities could be curated by others. For the security-minded, this is of course anathema, but for a teenage member of a digital tribe, this is apparently close to the norm.

boyd talked about other cultural differences that vary by country and platform.  Cyworld, for instance, a social network in Asia, is shared family experience. She notes that micropayments are working in Cyworld, sometimes in unexpected ways. “You can buy poop on a friend’s profile, which they then have to pay to clean up.” When she noted that she would “like to see that on LinkedIn,” the audience enjoyed a chuckle. More seriously, however, she observed that as long as teenagers are part of an “oppressed demographic” in the US, our social networks won’t be like Asia. The US market is just beginning to get “all you can eat text messaging plans.” She suggested that the audience “consider the weirdness of someone else having to PAY to receive your message” and the worst cases where cyberbullies blasts someone w/txts, incurring costs.

In closing, boyd noted that social networks and social media in general are here to stay.

As we all create our digital identities, teens and adults alike are aware of the reality of “invisible audiences” that require us to adjust our projections to those who might see us. Once of the central challenges of social media use is how we adjust in the absence of social cues when the rules are still a moving target. The numerous firings that have now occurred after poorly-considered status updates bear witness to this reality. Firing is relatively minor compared to consequences elsewhere, as boyd noted in the the example of journalists in China. They write at two different levels to escape the censors to convey information.

There is now a massive blurring of public and private spheres. boyd doesn’t see privacy as dead — “it’s just very, very, very confused right now.”

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