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Planning for tomorrow’s 20-somethings: 6 good questions with youth researcher danah boyd

danah boyd is a well-known and well-Twitter-followed scholar on topics of both youth and social media. She’s a principal researcher at Microsoft, a research assistant professor in Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, and a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center. Very recently, you might have seen news of the launch of danah’s think/do tank, Data & Society Research Institute.

itscomplicatedHer latest book was released last week, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, and builds on 10 years of research and interviews with teens across the country on teen online behavior. It probes the “why” of the numbers we read about youth joining and using platforms like Snapchat, Instagram and WhatsApp. What motivates them to gravitate to these online platforms? What is new about the platforms? How does social media usage affect the quality of their lives?

It’s Complicated should be of particular interest to media organizations for two reasons: 1) because employees there may have kids, and the book argues we do youth a disservice when paternalism and protectionism hinder teenagers’ ability to become informed and engaged, but also 2) because the subjects of her book — “networked” teenagers — will soon be adults.

I caught up with danah to chat about how and why today’s teens share with and engage each other online, how that differs from adult behaviors, and what it all means for publishers building long-term strategies and business models.

In a recent Q + A with Fast Company, you spoke about how teens’ social media world is very different than that of adults. You won’t see very many links, you said. Could you elaborate a bit?

danah boyd

DANAH BOYD: American teens use social media as a primary hangout space, in part because they have very few opportunities to gather with their friends in unstructured face-to-face settings without adult oversight. Adults are accustomed to a lot more freedom, a lot more physical mobility. They may not have a lot of free time but that’s their choice.

Because teens use social media as a primary hangout, they’re engaged in a much wider range of social interaction practices than the typical adult. They’re also much more attentive to the dynamics of surveillance because they’re used to having their parents and teachers in their business. As a result, they’re more sophisticated about negotiating privacy than adults, even if adults think that teens ignore privacy.

From your research (which of course isn’t all about news), what kinds of links are youth sharing, if any? Is there any “news” on their various feeds?

BOYD: I see no indication that this generation is more or less engaged with hard news than previous generations. There are definitely youth who are following what’s happening in Ukraine or Venezuela, but the vast majority are not. The same would be said of teens in the 1980s.

The key is to recognize that link sharing is interest-driven and the dominant way in which youth engage in social media is friendship-driven.

Teens often share links about the things that they find interesting – celebrities, sports, fashion, video games, funny videos, and so on. Those who are following global affairs are sharing such links. The key is to recognize that link sharing is interest-driven and the dominant way in which youth engage in social media is friendship-driven.

That’s interesting, particularly because some say “you are what you share” but also with how organizations like BuzzFeed create content based around particular community groups (geographic-based, identity-based and so on). Can you tell me more about what you mean by these distinctions?

BOYD: The distinction between interest-driven and friendship-driven practices was something that came out of the MacArthur-funded Digital Media & Learning project that produced the book “Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out.” This is why what teens do on Twitter looks different than what they do on Snapchat. But even on a platform like Instagram, you’ll see both kinds of practices.

When teens are engaged in friendship-driven practices, they don’t want companies or organizations or brands to bother them unless it will somehow help them achieve greater status among their friends. When youth are engaged in interest-driven practice, the question is whether or not a particular artifact will help them dive deeper into their interests. Media gets used to both ends, but it’s almost always teen-led rather than organization-led.

Some people would say that each generation acquires traits or characteristics because of the time period they grow up in. What behaviors have you observed that will likely be ingrained in today’s youth as they mature? What factors would change them?

BOYD: Although adults see this generation through technology first and foremost, I would argue that this generation is being more shaped by the pervasive financial instability issues and the massive increase in inequality that we’re seeing transform American society. Economic questions shape how teens think about the future and drive their interests and engagement. They may not talk about it in economic terms but I see these issues ripple across this group of youth.

That “always on” dynamic is quite reassuring for teens, even if adults see it through the lens of pressure.

In terms of technology, what is really transformative is that [today’s] teens expect to be always connected to their friends and peers. That “always on” dynamic is quite reassuring for teens, even if adults see it through the lens of pressure. For teens, school and home are where pressure is experienced; technology is where it’s relieved.

Based on some of these trends and others, what should publishers keep in mind as they create strategic plans for 10 years out?

BOYD: The key for publishers is to realize that we’re entering a post-broadcast era. The key to survival is to not focus on getting people to come to you, but to produce something that can circulate.

Institutions that rely on people coming to visit them behind their paywalls will suffer tremendously.

Institutions that rely on people coming to visit them behind their paywalls will suffer tremendously. If teens never see those publications’ content, they won’t be socialized into what they have to offer and the brands will mean nothing to the next generation.

What teens are paying attention to is that which flows past them. The key for publishers is to make sure that your content and brand are flowing.

Does that mean publishers should be on every platform teens are on?

BOYD: Publishers don’t need to be, but their content needs to be able to spread across every relevant medium. This requires a huge mindset shift for organizations that are used to having complete control. To be relevant today requires letting go of control.

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