danah boyd, Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research, Research Assistant Professor at NYU, a Visiting Researcher at Harvard Law School, and an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales, focuses her research on how youth use social media, particularly social network sites like MySpace and Facebook. Her work examines the ways in which social network sites complicate and extend possibilities for the formation of identities and the performance of those identities on a social stage. She also specifies unique opportunities offered by these sites for association and affiliation and endeavors to clarify the distinct appeal they hold for youth in enabling an expanded world of “peer-to-peer sociality” (“Why Youth ♥ Social Network Sites,” 1).
danah boyd makes a point of referring to MySpace and Facebook as social network sites, not as social networking sites (“Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship”). While the term “social networking sites” would imply that users routinely expand their own social circles by meeting new people, boyd’s research suggest the majority of teen users (boyd focuses predominantly on the age range between 14 and 18 years old) see “social network sites” not as an “alternate world” which surpasses the scope of their regular offline contacts, but as another venue for the further development of social relationships initiated offline. boyd characterizes most teen users of MySpace and Facebook as practicing noticeable “homophily” in assembling their networks of contacts; that is to say, users affiliate themselves with acquaintances with whom they already share common experiences, friend groups, or modes of self-identification (Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, 88). boyd notes that marginalized groups (ethnic minorities, LGBT youth) and individuals seeking to participate in a broader shared-interest communities than are locally available to them (“gamers,” politically-minded youth) are more likely to use social network sites in order to meet new people (90).
Whether teens use social network sites exclusively to associate with offline contacts or in order to seek new relationships, sites like MySpace and Facebook allow their users to “write [a] community into being” centered around themselves (“Social Network Sites”). Yet, as Finn Brunton notes in “New Networks Target Discomfort With Facebook”, existing social network sites do not always allow offline relationship nuances to be translated into online representation. As boyd writes, some “structural aspects of software can force articulations which do not map well to how offline social behavior works” (Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, 103). She references MySpace’s “Top Friends” feature (in which users post their closest friends in ranked order) as enforcing on relationships a hierarchical scheme that may not objectively exist in users’ lives. The “drama” that often accompanies MySpace usage in teens is most often tied to the “Top Friends” feature. boyd notes that the beginnings of social media use generally coincides with the transition from the predominantly “homosocial” realm of childhood to an adolescent context which is “increasingly defined by performances of heterosexuality” (83). She observes that social network site “drama” often falls along gendered lines; girls usually act as the “agents” in propagating drama, while boys are cited as the “cause” of most drama (109).
When teen interactions on social media networks have gotten press recently, it hasn’t been for their general tendency to fall within a heteronormative framework, but for specific acts of bullying and harassment responsible for the suicides of queer and/or non-normatively gendered teens. In “The Unintended Consequences of Cyberbullying Rhetoric,” boyd examines the efficacy to-date of adult intervention in online teen bullying behavior. She notes that adult efforts to reduce online bullying are often “misaligned” with teen narratives of their own behavior; teens are more likely to term what adults may recognize as “bullying” as “drama,” because admitting to the existence of “bullying” forces teens either see themselves as victims or instigators. Moreover, boyd argues that the intensity of teens’ engagement with their peers, whether through affiliation, exclusion, or outright hostility, stems at least in part from the fact that teen lives are increasingly structured in isolation from the adult world (school and extracurriculars restrict teens to social interactions within their own age groups, and the breadth of teens’ knowledge of the wider world is limited by what adults deem to be “appropriate”). Teens’ restricted social framework thus reinforces a pervasive anxiety to assert one’s identity forcefully on the social stage by participating in online “drama.”
boyd posits that this insecure impulse stems from teens’ extreme exclusion from adult society, an exclusion that “infantilizes” teens, robs them of “significant agency”, and denies them the “tools to transition into adult society” (“Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics,” 300). boyd calls on adults to “engage and guide” teens through their transition to adulthood; rather than “demonizing” online teen behavior, adults should interrogate the cultural framework which gives rise to harmful “drama,” and must address the anxieties responsible for such drama using the vocabularies of teens’ own narratives in order to be effective (297, 299).