[iDC] How does social media educate?

danah boyd zephoria at zephoria.org
Thu Feb 8 22:43:08 EST 2007

There are a lot of good reasons to problematize the terms "social  
media" and "social software", but i do think that there's a shift  
that's happened that people aren't good at labeling.  I don't think  
that the shift is about becoming social - there's no doubt that  
Usenet, MUDs/MOOs, email, IM, etc. enabled sociality.  What i think  
changed has more to do with social organization in networked public  

Early tools for public socialization (like Usenet) were organized by  
interest.  Tools like email were either 1-1/1-small n or were mailing  
lists organized by interests. Sure, there were intranet CSCW tools in  
enterprises, but in terms of consumer culture, it was primarily  
interest.  Blogs were the first tool that sort of shifted this.   
People were mostly talking to people they knew in the witness of  
strangers.  Why those strangers were interested in them might have to  
do with topics or perhaps fandom.  Social network sites (like  
MySpace) upped the ante.  Now, the primary tools for public  
socialization are organized around one's "friends." People create  
egocentric networks, articulating others that they believe should be  
in their audience.  They use this imagined audience to provide  
context so that they can behave in the way they think is appropriate  
for that environment.  There's a general ethos that brethren are  
welcome, but if you're a hater, just move on.  (Note: this plays  
nicely into contemporary Reality TV, you-as-person-of-the-year ego  
mania.)  This shift has engaged a lot more people.  For example, most  
of teens that i hang out with wouldn't know where to begin in an  
interest-based site, but they know how to hang out with their friends  
and talk shit.  Now they do that on MySpace.

There are some interesting complications to this framing because most  
systems designers are really interested in supporting networking  
(people meeting people).  They push friend-of-friend, collective  
action, etc.  Sites like Digg or Del.icio.us end up being an odd  
combination of interests and networks.  Of course, the funny thing  
about those sites is that most people who participate right now come  
from the same ilk so cultural maintenance isn't so hard.  Things get  
tricky as sites scale.  For example, Craigslist attracted all sorts  
of disasters when the primary users were not friends of friends of  
friends of Craig.

There's still a lot that goes on in private that is sociable, but i  
get the sense that folks like Trebor are interested in ethics of  
networked publics primarily.  And for good reason.  The fundamental  
architecture of social life changes in networked publics.  I  
typically harp on and on about four key properties: persistence,  
searchability, replicability, invisible audiences.  To save your  
eyes, i won't go into detail about this (but ping me if you want a  
preprint).  But let's for a moment just take invisible audiences.  In  
mediated public society, we have to speak to invisible audiences.  I  
don't know who all is on this mailing list.  I make assumptions about  
the context based on previous conversations and then i write this  
braindump and send it off to you.  What if you don't get the  
references that i'm making?  What if you're running a faculty search  
and will forever dismiss me for using curse words in public?  What if  
my post could be taken out of context to somehow make me look  
asinine?  And i'm being bloody cautious in this post!  Why?  Because  
i think of it as a professional context where i should try to act  
like a lady.  Sorta.  But what about contexts where i'm hanging out  
with my friends joking around?  What about all of those Flickr photos  
of me enjoying SXSW, alcohol in hand?  Those are probably more likely  
to get me into trouble with faculty search committees than this  
post.  Yet, the relevant audience doesn't include them.  And that's  
where things get tricky.

In unmediated spaces, there are walls that allow us to separately  
contextualize different situations without dealing with the  
ramifications of those collisions.  Online, no such walls.  This is a  
new architecture.  So, people have two choices: go into hyper  
paranoid mode and constantly try to think about what it means to be  
seen by all people across all time OR live your life in the context  
you think it should be and hope that you can convince others of this  
later.  (This can be called the ostrich solution.)  The problem is  
that living your life in a pristine manner imagining yourself on the  
path to presidency (or at least a good behavior patch) is no fun.   
It's especially no fun for teenagers who are trapped at home and want  
to hang out with their peers and their only hang out place is online.

There are two populations that complicate the lives of teens: those  
who hold power over them (parents, teachers, future employers) and  
those who want to prey on them (primarily marketers).  How do you  
teach people how to behave with such mixed audiences?  Historically,  
situations like that have social scripts.  Think: wedding.  We've  
made many a good movie about the awkwardness of lovers coming home to  
dinner and whatnot.  Why?  Because it's weird and uncomfortable and  
there's no good solution.

Frankly, i think it's going to get far worse before it gets better  
because i think we're dealing with a fundamental shift in the  
organizing structures of social life.  Most of the making sense  
taking place right now is happening among teenagers.  And their  
confusion is going to leak to other generations.  I can't wait until  
teens' surreptitious videos of their professional parents fighting  
start appearing on YouTube...

So i guess what i'm saying is that i'm all down for education but  
what are we educating towards?  Old architectures and old social  
norms or collectively building a new set of social norms that takes  
into consideration new architectures?  For the most part, we seem to  
be doing the former and it's not working out so well.


(PS: i've been lurking for a while... sorry i haven't popped up and  
said a proper hello.  I'm danah and this conversation is relevant to  
my dissertation; i'm a phd student at Berkeley and a fellow at USC  
Annenberg Center.)

- - - - - - - - - - d a n a h ( d o t ) o r g - - - - - - - - - -
"taken out of context i must seem so strange"

musings :: http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts

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