Researcher

danah boyd

author written by

Emily Alhadeff

Writer

The kids are (still) alright

Remember “Weird Science,” the 1985 John Hughes comedy about two teen dweebs who use their computer, some wires and a Barbie doll to engineer their dream woman? After sparks and explosions, the dust settles and a partially clad Kelly LeBrock appears in the doorway, ready to transform the once-bullied “zeroes” into heroes.

This zany movie parodied early computing systems, but parts of it ring prophetic. Not only do online social networks allow users to create identities and manipulate social situations, but studying the technology provides insightful data about the evolution of human interaction.

danah with highschool friends

Teens’ online behavior is one of Microsoft Principal Researcher danah boyd’s main areas of research. She explores the topic in her new book “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens” (Yale University Press).

“The teenagers who are growing up with technology today aren’t like my peer group,” says boyd, 36. “We were total geeks, freaks and outcasts. We weren’t part of the mainstream at all. And this is part of the mainstream now.”

Twenty years ago, “jacking in” to the Internet provided an escape for boyd from the social trials of high school life. According to her book, teenagers today use social network sites to do just the opposite: to supplement their physical social activity with photos, videos and conversations. In this way, teens are doing what they’ve always been doing: hanging out in the socially designated “cool” place. Adults disturbed by the gravitational tug of social media on teens may be comforted to know it’s the virtual equivalent of the previous generation’s mall food court.

danah giving a raspberry

boyd, who spells her name in lower case in rebellion against caps and in honor of funky typography, went on to Brown University, where she became a rare female specimen in the field of computer science. “I went to study computer science because I wanted to build these systems I was deeply appreciating,” she said. “The thing is, I found the questions I was actually asking were about how people interact with these technologies.”

As a master’s student at MIT’s social media group, boyd caught the attention of anthropologist Genevieve Bell, Intel’s director of Interaction and Experience Research.

“danah was willing to ask good questions in a period of time when there was an incredible interest, even a fetish of young people in technology,” says Bell, “and [she was] willing to do more work to uncover what that really means.”

With Bell’s guidance, boyd went on to UC Berkeley to train under anthropologists. During her journey from computer science to social science, boyd found herself crisscrossing disciplines and hanging out in social software circles back in the days of Friendster.

“One of the things danah is to be commended for is her willingness to speak across discipline and across the sciences,” says Bell. (“She should also be commended for her headwear,” Bell adds. “I’ve never seen danah without a truly remarkable hat on her head.”)

Sifting through boyd’s Friendster findings about how people interact online might make you wistful for those old post-AOL chat room, pre-Facebook, sketchy-search-engine-results days, back when no one knew quite where the information superhighway was heading. There is boyd, standing on the constantly shifting fault line of emerging digital interactions, observing and analyzing every reverberation on her blog.

In a 2003 interview with The New York Times, she shares the then-wild story of two young men who created a fake Friendster profile for a woman. After men began contacting her — and the two began to see the world through a woman’s eyes — they killed her off. It was too much to handle.

Sound familiar?

boyd’s prolific blogging and academic research have made her a sought-after voice regarding the intersection of humans and technology. She’s become something of a pioneer on the new terrain of digital anthropology.

“danah has spent just an ungodly amount of hours traveling around the country, talking and talking and talking to young people at great lengths and in great detail about what’s going on in their lives,” says Clive Thompson, author of “Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better.” Thompson frequently turns to boyd’s research for her fresh and honest perspective.

danah speaking

“There’s this enormous amount of punditry about supposed evils of technology, or how shallow young people are, or problems of millennials, that are frankly extraordinarily ill informed, because nobody has actually taken the time to talk to any of the young people in question,” he added.

“For me,” says boyd, “the value of research is the importance of knowledge production in society. A lot of my work at Microsoft Research (MSR) puts people at ease.”

Take teenagers, for instance, who are supposedly tethered to their phones, disengaged, and blasé about privacy, who are, at worst, cyber-bullied and depressed.

“There are kids who are deeply, deeply struggling, and that is made visible online,” says boyd. “Rather than get anxious about kids and technology, let’s get anxious about kids who are struggling. It’s about being conscientious not just about our own children, but about the communities we live in.”

Rather than get anxious about kids and technology, let’s get anxious about kids who are struggling. It’s about being conscientious not just about our own children, but about the communities we live in.

That’s the essence of her forthcoming book.

“The big story of the book is a recognition that what teenagers are doing with technology makes sense in light of what they’ve always done,” says boyd. “By and large the kids are OK in the way they’ve always been OK.”

“Because she’s actually talked to a lot of young people — not just sat at her desk stroking her chin and wondering about them — she’s essentially discovered that they’re very similar to the generation that just came before them,” says Thompson. “The basic concerns are identical: Do people like me? What’s my reputation? What am I going to do with my life? Am I likeable? Am I attractive? You read ’The Iliad‘ and ’The Odyssey‘ and Telemachus’ concerns are exactly the same.”

When it comes to Microsoft, where she’s paid to research her passion, she says, “I feel like the luckiest girl on the planet.” In addition to MSR, boyd is a research assistant professor in Media, Culture and Communication at New York University and a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center. She’s written over a hundred articles, book chapters, conference papers and blog posts dealing with technology’s role in Internet safety, privacy, exploitation, race, youth culture and more, and she was a contributing author to three books prior to writing her own. In 2013 she was named one of one of “the most influential minds in tech” by Time Magazine.

danahs book

A blogger from the time before anyone knew what a blog was, back in 1998 boyd wrote about the tribulations of being a rising female star in the computer science department at Brown. Misanthropic classmates spread rumors through primitive networks, attributing her success to her gender or departmental romantic relationships. “When I was born,” she wrote, “someone should have marked on my birth certificate, ‘Female. Destined to be nothing. Don’t encourage her, for her future is bare.’”

She turned out OK, obviously. But as her work testifies, even as technology advances, human nature is always pretty much in beta. So what does the big picture look like now that boyd, who gave birth to a son last summer, is a mother?

“Technology is going to be part of his life,” boyd says. “Like this morning, I woke up and we were reading books together, and I decided it was dance time. So I turned on my phone and we’re playing music out of the little box. He knows that little box makes music. This object is going to keep transforming.”

Even as technology advances, human nature is always pretty much in beta.

Amazingly, boyd does put her phone down and close her laptop — for a month every year. All incoming emails go straight to trash. Two days after our interview, boyd was logging off and heading to Argentina to trek with her partner, Gilad Lotan, and their baby, Ziv. Yes, trekking. With an infant.

“Our vacation is about playing it by ear,” she says. “Whatever happens, happens.”

It’s kind of like her approach to technology. boyd recognizes that her son will participate in technology that will make no sense to her at some point. But that’s OK. Her research is not about the technology, but about the people.

“It’s not my job to be cool and understand every technology,” she says. “It’s my job to make sure I have a constant conversation with him, so that he’s thoughtful about his engagement with the world.”

Photos © Microsoft