Monthly Archives: April 2007

Globalization of norms: Facebook challenges Arab LGBT group

Update: After posting this, i spoke with various people involved. Investigation on the part of Facebook uncovered a poser pretending to be an admin. Their account was suspended. Facebook has assured me that they would never censor such material, even if requested to do so by a government. This is very good news.

In a globalized society, whose norms count? This weekend, Lawgeek gave me a heads up about a battle taking place on Facebook. On April 24, the administrator of the ArabLGTB Facebook Group received the following message (emphasis mine):

Report MessageDear Subscriber,

You have violated the terms of conduct you agreed upon when you signed up with Your violations fall in the following criteria:

1. Advertising\spam, you have posted in the group advertisements concerning a website. You do have the right to refer to websites but not advertise them.

2. Creating a global group that is not allowed in some regions. Your group “Arab LBTGAY(Lesbian,bisexual,transexual and gay)” has put facebook in trouble as we received an official complaint from the Saudi government, the Egyptian government and other Arab governments that do not want to be mentioned.

Your Group must be shut down or a new Group with a specified network other than the two mentioned may be created. We are very sorry as we support any group but the countries mentioned are threatening to block our server from their side, therefore please comply.

Thank you for understanding
The Facebook Team

Wow. We all know that many regions in the world are extremely homophobic, but what does it mean that Facebook is going to institute policies to abide by the norms set forth by the most conservative cultural environments? Do we really want to propagate such intolerance through our networked technology?

I’m also curious as to whether or not Facebook’s policy would be a violation of American free speech laws. If there are lawyers out there reading this, i’m curious… What are the laws concerning free speech in semi-public spaces like malls and parking lots? Are commercial networked publics like Facebook and MySpace seen as public or private spaces when it comes to the law? To what degree can networked publics control or limit the speech that takes place within? Obviously, there are good reasons to limit some speech – hate speech for example. But what about speech that’s simply a violation of cultural norms? Do we have any sense of where the law sees this? Is it different in Europe? Given that there are different norms for public and private venues in meatspace, how are the lack of walls online being handled by the courts? Is this public or private? Given that all servers are owned, is there public space online when it comes to the law?

Regardless, i hope that Facebook reconsiders what it’s doing. I would hate to see it become a space that oppresses some of the most oppressed people simply because others feel that they should be oppressed. The Ivy League institutions from which it stems are some of the most progressive queer-positive environments in the country. At Brown, i met a lesbian woman who came to Brown from a very intolerant country. When she approached Brown concerning her fear for her life in returning home, they supported her in seeking asylum. In parts of the Arab world, being queer is a crime, punishable by death. Let’s support our queer Arab brothers and sisters, not further discriminate against them out of fear of their intolerant regimes.

For those who are on Facebook, i encourage you to join “The official Petition to prevent Arab LBTG from being shut down.” For all of you who work in building networked communities, give some thought to how problematic this decision is and PLEASE do not repeat it.

“Generation Me”

Over the last couple of weeks, i’ve been telling loads of folks to go read Jean Twenge’s Generation Me and i realized i should probably share it with all y’all. Unlike most books on generations, this is a social psych analaysis of different behavioral characteristics over the decades. Translation: there’s a shitload of data here. The book is a bit too pop psychology for my tastes, but it makes it very accessible.

In “Generation Me,” Twenge outlines key characteristics of the current generation of teens/20-somethings that differentiate them from previous generations. For example, she goes through the data on narcissism and self-esteem, looking at how the self-esteem movement in the 1980s is directly correlated with the narcissism we see now. Some of what she points out is painfully present in our current conversation of Virginia Tech:

“Unfortunately, narcissism can lead to outcomes far worse than grade grubbing. Several studies have found that narcissists lash out aggressively when they are insulted or rejected. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the teenage gunmen at Columbine High School, made statements remarkably similar to items on the most popular narcissism questionnaire. On a videotape made before the shootings, Harris picked up a gun, made a shooting noise, and said “Isn’t it fun to get the respect we’re going to deserve?” (Chillingly similar to the narcissism item “I insist upon getting the respect that is due me.”) … Abusive husbands who threaten to kill their wives – and tragically sometimes do – are the ultimate narcissists. They see everyone and everything in terms of fulfilling their needs, and become very angry and aggressive when things don’t go exactly their way. Many workplace shootings occur after an employee is fired and decides that he’ll “show” everyone how powerful he is.” (Twenge 2006, 70-71)

I’ve been running around the country interviewing teens and this is the first book on generations that i’ve found that hits the mark dead-on. Eerily so. Much of it is quite bothersome. Twenge does an amazing job at outlining how our schools have become completely useless at educating because it’s more important to make students feel good than to be critical of their work. When i was in Iowa, i had a mother explain to me that teachers couldn’t give bad grades to rich students at the local high school because the country club moms would pressure the schools to fire such overly critical teachers.

Twenge unpacks the problems with the “You can be anything you want!” value, looking critically at how this sets up unrealistic expectations that result in all sorts of social chaos.

Anyhow, i’ll leave it at that and hope that i’ve whet your appetite just a whee bit. This is a must read if you’re a parent, a teacher, a marketer, a designer, a politician or otherwise interested in the under-25 crowd. (And if you’re not, how on earth can you stand this blog these days?) So, please, go read Generation Me and report back here what you think.

Teens, Privacy and Online Social Networks (PEW Report)

I am currently in Iowa interviewing teens so i don’t have time to do a proper analysis but i wanted to alert everyone to the new PEW report on social network sites: “Teens, Privacy and Online Social Networks: How teens manage their online identities and personal information in the age of MySpace.”

The majority of teens actively manage their online profiles to keep the information they believe is most sensitive away from the unwanted gaze of strangers, parents and other adults. While many teens post their first name and photos on their profiles, they rarely post information on public profiles they believe would help strangers actually locate them such as their full name, home phone number or cell phone number.

At the same time, nearly two-thirds of teens with profiles (63%) believe that a motivated person could eventually identify them from the information they publicly provide on their profiles.

I will comment on this when i have my feet back on the ground, but it’s a fantastic report and i think anyone interested in this topic should definitely check it out.


I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with conversations about ‘cyberbullying.’ I fear that by emphasizing ‘cyber’ the term clouds what’s really going on. Don’t get me wrong – the internet, like all technologies before it, has altered the dynamics of bullying, but why didn’t my generation speak of ‘telebullying’? Three-way calling allowed people to bully from home with others virtually present for the attacks. Of course, I know the answer to that… bullying over the internet is not just a technological advance of bullying, but an advance that makes the attacks visible to adults while using a medium that confounds adults.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that bullying that takes place in mediated publics (blogs, social network sites, etc.) and through private messaging in a surveilled computer (IM, email, etc.) is visible to adults in ways that note-passing, bathroom-wall-scribbling, and phone bullying just aren’t. Most kids are smart enough to do physical bullying outside of the view of adults, but a huge amount of physical bullying takes place at school where adults are nearby: recess, bathroom, school bus, under the bleachers at games, school carpark, etc.

In some senses, I’m glad that adults can see what terrible things take place amongst peer groups, but I’m unbelievably frustrated by how most of those adults emphasize the CYBER rather than the BULLYING. It’s as if the internet is the cause of the bullying. The internet does not cause bullying, but it does MIRROR and MAGNIFY bullying.

Although I don’t know of any data on this, I would bet that 99% of cyberbullying is committed by someone the victim knows offline. (The exceptions would be those who have an active online social life amongst strangers in environments like WoW or the blogosphere; because of stranger danger, this is increasingly rare.) I have yet to run into Jekyll & Hyde story where a bully is friendly in person (except when in front of adults), but a devil online. (Note: this comes back to the adult-centric view of bullying. Just because kids appear to be sweet to one another in front of you doesn’t mean that they are when out of your sight.) What happens is that the internet becomes yet-another medium for bullying.

This is what I mean by mirroring… For most teens, the internet mirrors the dynamics that take place offline. Bullies offline are bullies online. Troubled kids offline are troubled kids online. Yet, because adults typically only see the online exposures, they think that they are just bullies or troubled online. This is where we’re fooling ourselves. If you see a troubled kid or a bully online, bet your bottom dollar that an offline intervention is needed. The internet is not the problem – it’s the mirror.

One of the things that makes mediated bullying insidious is that it doesn’t end when the school bell rings. I remember this from the phone calls. The trick was to answer the phone before your mom did so that she didn’t realize what was going on (because it’s mega embarrassing to have your parents involved with being tormented by peers and if you didn’t get to the phone first, they would sucker up to your mom so that you couldn’t tell how cruel they were being). Given the amount of time spent on the internet, it sucks to be constantly tormented there – it’s like having the phone never stop ringing.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only way in which the internet magnifies bullying. Those four properties that I talk a lot about – persistence, searchability, replicability, invisible audiences – change the dynamics of bullying too. Bullying graffiti gets cleaned up in a day; it’s a lot harder to clean up online spewage. The properties that I talk about change the rules of scale. There aren’t that many venues where you can bully someone offline in front of a large audience without attracting adults; it’s a lot easier to do it online. The properties of bits (primarily replicability) make it a lot harder to tell what is ‘real’. How do you know if that IM conversation really happened or if it was doctored before being passed on?

Now that Facebook has hit high school, things like the News Feed pass on more than who dumped who – rumors and bullying fly far faster and farther than news of Barack being on the site. With each new technology, there is bullying… This isn’t going to stop with social network sites. Already I’m seeing the mobile phone operate as the best bullying tool ever. My favorite technique to watch is the text bombing tactic. If you know that someone only has 1000 text messages per month, send them 2000. Because most carriers don’t let people block specific numbers for texting, there’s no way to stop the $.10 fees that build up. This means that the target of bullying is going to literally have to pay or change their phone number. (Parent-to-parent calls rarely stop bullying so ratting out the bully typically does little to stop the tormenting.)

So, are we going to call the next wave ‘mobullying’? When are we going to recognize that the main issue is bullying and, rather than focus on the rapidly shifting technology, focus on the bullying itself? Like it or not, the technology is going to keep magnifying bullying in new and unexpected ways. Focusing on the technology will not make the bullying actually go away, although the more we push it underground, the less visible it is to adults. (For example, private profiles have made a lot of previously visible bullying now invisible.)

All this said, I’m not so convinced that bullying will go away. More depressingly, I think that it will continue to get worse. The more we as a society focus on hyper-individualism (and free speech above respect), the more we see youth believe that they have the right to torment anyone they wish. The less youth are socialized into adult society, the worse bullying gets. The less present parents are (jail, addiction, _workaholism_), the more bullying operates as a tactic for attention. The more we emphasize that mean-spirited attacks win air time on reality TV (and are the acceptable manner of judgment for American Idol), the more we set the standard for bullying. We’re living in a culture where bullying gets tacit validation in so many ways. We adults create child bullies through our actions – perhaps we need to think about the standards we set rather than the technology? I’m regularly horrified by my professional colleagues who are at work at 7PM even though they have young children at home who will be in bed by 9PM… those children are acting out for a reason and i think it’s hypocritical to talk about the problems with technology when we don’t talk about the problems with adult presence.

Personally, I think that energy should be placed into teaching youth to manage bullies and bullying (of all forms). I was lucky to figure some of this out on my own, although I will never forget the night that 20+ peers surrounded me and another girl at a football game to watch the fight that was brewing. She hit me twice; I just stood there. She screamed at me, called me all sorts of names. I just stood there. We were once close friends, but I knew where her anger came from. I was 14 and something in me told me that responding would only make things worse. That night was hell, but she never spoke to me again.

What are the tactics that we can teach kids to handle bullying? How can we help them process what’s going on? How can we help them strategize how to handle the bullies rather than run away? What would happen if we put our energies into helping those who are attacked lessen the impact of the blows? This is relevant to more than just kids. But mean kids grow up to be trolls and attackers and adult bullies.

5 secrets to success

I still hate memes, but i love Nancy. And i wasn’t going to do this because there’s nothing i hate more than talking about what has made me successful (mostly because i hate admitting that i’m successful). But i’ve also been spending a lot of time lately mulling over questions from undergraduates asking how they can be me and worrying about elder academics who tell me that i don’t deserve the attention that i get.

In some senses they’re right. There are people doing *amazing* work who get so little credit for it because it’s not chic. At the same time, i work my ass off and do so because i believe that i can make a difference in this world. I’ve always struggled with Audre Lorde’s statement that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” because i’m not so sure that dismissing the master’s tools dismantles the house either. In doing activist work, i started to believe that you need people at different levels – some inside the system and some out. At V-Day, we realized that celebrities could do wonders in making change happen. I decided long ago that the way that i could change the world was to be as public as possible and to make connections to people doing work at all levels (grassroots, policy, research, money). I believe that knowledge is power and i believe that teaching is the path to change. Regardless of my title, i see myself as a teacher. I’m trying to teach people about people who aren’t like them. I’m trying to teach people tolerance and information that they can use to make right by people with less privilege. In doing so, i inevitably piss off a lot of people who believe that i don’t deserve the access/privileges/connections/power that i have. What is most disheartening is how many of those pissed off people are fellow academics who feel the need to maintain some invisible hierarchy that i don’t understand. No matter how many times i’ve been proven wrong, in my heart, i want to believe that academia is fundamentally about knowledge production and dissemination. And i’d rather run around the world trying to help people than play the games that would make me a good academic.

Of course, i should note that this doesn’t always mean that i’m successful or that i don’t make mistakes. I still cringe when press attribute ideas to me that are most definitely not mine. (Impression management is Goffman, not me. I didn’t invent internet anthropology. Hell, i’m not even an anthropologist. Etc.) A lot of what i bring to the table involves learning from others and apophenia – making connections where none previously existed.

Given this, i’ll offer 5 “secrets” to my success (and try to stop ::cringing::)…

1. “Demo or die.” This was the mantra at the Media Lab and i absolutely detested the process of having to demo Lab work to every visitor who entered the building. It was exhausting and repetitive. Looking back, i can’t tell you how much this changed my world. Through the Lab, i learned to be able to present anything on the fly to any audience. I learned how to squeeze a 30 minute talk into 5 minutes and build on a 5 minute talk to fill an hour with useful information. I learned how to read what people knew and adjust what i was showing them to their interests and level of knowledge. Speaking and expressing ideas to a wide variety of audiences is so important. And it takes practice. A lot of practice. You can’t just hide in a library cubicle for years and then expect to give a stellar job talk. The reason that i speak so often is that i think that i need the practice. I want to learn to get my point across. Sometimes, i fail, but i keep trying.

(This also applies to writing. Be able to write to any audience. Learn to write an op-ed, a persuasive blog post, an academic article, anything and everything! I detest writing; that’s why i started blogging my ideas. Practice practice practice.)

2. “Learn the rules. And then learn how to break them.” I was a punk kid who refused to follow by anyone’s rules. I got kicked out of everywhere. I thought that this was radical. When i was in high school, my mother explained that one of her best skills was telling people to fuck off and go to hell in a ladylike way so that they didn’t even know how to respond. Over the years, i realized that there is immense power in understanding the rules and norms and tweaking them to meet your goals. Rejecting society is fun as a kid; figuring out how to circumnavigate barriers to entry is more fun as an adult. Do it with grace, kindness, and sincerity. (I fear that explicitly stating examples of this here might get me into trouble.)

3. “Diversify your life.” The term diversity is so loaded it’s painful, but i can’t think of a better word to explain what i want to explain. Get to know people from every walk of life. Read books from every discipline. Read different blogs. Attend conferences that address the same issue from a ton of different perspectives. And when you attend those conferences, spend 50% of the time with people you know well and 50% of the time with people that you barely know. One of the best decisions i made at SXSW this year was to not flit around but to hang out with one small group per night and really bond. I hate the concept of “social networking” because it seems so skeevy. The idea isn’t to build a big rolodex, but to build meaningful relationships that exist on multiple levels – professional, personal, etc. The more people and ideas you encounter, the more creative you’ll be able to be and the more that you’ll be able to contribute to a conversation on top of the things that you know deeply through your own work.

4. “Make mistakes. Publicly. With lots of witnesses. Apologize. And learn.” It’s easy to hide from mistakes and it’s natural to try to keep them under wraps. I think that there’s a lot of value to making mistakes publicly. First, that means that you’re willing to try new things out. Second, it means that you’re going to be forced to learn from those mistakes fast. My blog is filled with hypotheses that are wrong, ideas that are half-baked. I say stupid things. People call me on it and i’m learn from that. I get super frustrated when people are not willing to put things out there until they are just perfect. The fact is that once something is in public, it will be critiqued and challenged no matter how fully baked you think it is. This is true for software and it’s true for ideas. The bugs are found through interaction. I understand why academics love to control and perfect things before they go out there, but often, it’s too late. Don’t avoid the press – the stupid questions that they will ask will make you think more than any challenging question your advisor can punt your way. And yes, they will misquote you no matter how much you try. But then you get to read the blogs and see others critique your misquoted half-baked explanation and you can learn from it. It’s better to fumble in public than to stay in your house any day. The trick is to pick yourself up, try to correct any misunderstandings, and use it to learn.

5. “I’m insane. It’s not all fun and games. Success != happiness.” Folks assume that being successful is all wonderful, just like they imagine that being a celebrity would be ideal. It’s a Friday night. I’m writing this blog entry to take a break from an essay that’s overdue. I don’t take weekends. I barely date. I don’t have children. My business class seats are because i spend more time in airports than sleeping in my own bed. Getting out of bed is as hard as getting my cat into her car carrier. It looks good on Flickr because no matter how crap the day’s been, i know that i’m supposed to put on a smiley face when i write on this blog, send a Twitter, or get on stage. Every day, i wake to emails that are meant to make me feel guilty about not helping this that or the other person. For all that i do, i’m always told that it’s not enough. And the more public i become, the more people tear me to pieces. I become the target of people’s anger, like the poor father whose son committed suicide and blamed me. That shit hurts like hell.

I don’t regret what i do but it’s not all fun and games. But i glow for weeks when a mother comes up to me to thank me and tell me that she’ll stop being so hard on her daughter. If you want to change the world, if you want to be in the public eye, you have to be prepared for the costs that it will have on your personal life and sanity. I have to admit that every 6 months, i want to quit it all and go have a normal life with a 9-5 job and a significant other and a social life and a baby. But there’s something in me that won’t let me do that… Maybe i’m running from my self, but hopefully it’s just that i would prefer to live my life trying to make grandiose change than live a simple life. Of course, i strongly believe that the latter would make more “happy” but, somehow, happiness is not enough for me. I’m far too invested in succeeding to make the world right to find serenity. For better or worse.

NYC talk April 13 w/ Ethan Zuckerman and Trebor Scholz

I’m coming to New York next week to give a talk at the New School with Ethan Zuckerman and Trebor Scholz. If you’re in the area, come! It’s a public talk and it should be mighty fun.

Democratization and the Networked Public Sphere
* Panel Discussion with danah boyd, Trebor Scholz, and Ethan Zuckerman

Friday, April 13, 2007, 6:30 – 8:30 p.m.
The New School, Theresa Lang Community and Student Center
55 West 13th Street, 2nd floor
New York City
Admission: $8, free for all students, New School faculty, staff, and alumni with valid ID

This evening at the Vera List Center for Art & Politics will discuss the potential of sociable media such as weblogs and social networking sites to democratize society through emerging cultures of broad participation.

danah boyd will argue four points. 1) Networked publics are changing the way public life is organized. 2) Our understandings of public/private are being radically altered 3) Participation in public life is critical to the functioning of democracy. 4) We have destroyed youths’ access to unmediated public life. Why are we now destroying their access to mediated public life? What consequences does this have for democracy?

Trebor Scholz will present the paradox of affective immaterial labor. Content generated by networked publics was the main reason for the fact that the top ten sites on the World Wide Web accounted for most Internet traffic last year. Community is the commodity, worth billions. The very few get even richer building on the backs of the immaterial labor of very very many. Net publics comment, tag, rank, forward, read, subscribe, re-post, link, moderate, remix, share, collaborate, favorite, write. They flirt, work, play, chat, gossip, discuss, learn and by doing so they gain much: the pleasure of creation, knowledge, micro-fame, a “home,” friendships, and dates. They share their life experiences and archive their memories while context-providing businesses get value from their attention, time, and uploaded content. Scholz will argue against this naturalized “factory without walls” and will demand for net publics to control their own contributions.

Ethan Zuckerman will present his work on issues of media and the developing world, especially citizen media, and the technical, legal, speech, and digital divide issues that go alongside it. Starting out with a critique of cyberutopianism, Zuckerman will address citizen media and activism in developing nations, their potential for democratic change, the ways that governments (and sometimes corporations) are pushing back on their ability to democratize.

music to live by

This week, Apple announced that it would make EMI albums available at MP3s for a premium. For the most part, i’m pleased (although a bit disturbed that you are to pay a premium for said songs). While it’s great that iTunes is finally doing what users want, i think it’s important for folks to realize that many smaller music sellers have been doing this for quite some time. I’m particularly partial to Fake Science

If, like me, your music tastes are heavily in the downtempo, dub, breakbeats, and chill zone, iTunes rarely has what you want and offers terrible recommendations (while i love Radiohead, they are not the only electronica out there). When i get bored of my music, i tend to go to Fake Science and download a handful of their new arrivals – $5 an album (MP3 only) and most of it goes to the artist. I actually feel good about buying music from them and am regularly astounded by the high quality of music that they choose to sell there (they’re rather picky).

Anyhow, if you’re looking for some new music to work to, check them out. My top three recommendations would be:

(This recommendation is genuine – they don’t know that i sent you so shh don’t tell them.)

Incantations for Muggles

I love Etech. This year, i had the great opportunity to keynote Etech (albeit at an ungodly hour). The talk i wrote was entirely new and intended for the tech designer/developer audience (warning: the academics will hate it). The talk is called:

“Incantations for Muggles:
The Role of Ubiquitous Web 2.0 Technologies in Everyday Life”

It’s about how technologists need to pay attention to the magic that everyday people create using the Web2.0 technologies that we in the tech world think are magical. It’s quite a fun talk and i figured that some might enjoy reading it so i just uploaded my crib notes. It is unlikely that i said exactly what i wrote, but the written form should provide a good sense of the points i was trying to make in the talk.

I should give infinite amounts of appreciation to Raph Koster who took unbelievable notes during my presentation, letting me adjust my crib to be more in tune with what i actually said. THANK YOU! I was half tempted to not bother blogging my crib notes given the fantastic-ness of his notes, but i figure that there still might be some out there who would prefer the crib. Enjoy!

(PS: If you remember me saying something that i didn’t put in the crib, let me know and i’ll add it… i’m stunned at how many of you took notes during the talk.)

relationship performance in networked publics

My research is part of the Digital Youth Research project (funded by the MacArthur Foundation). To highlight our findings, some of my teammates put together a digikids research blog where we post findings from the field and link to interesting things concerning digital youth. It’s a *fantastic* blog for anyone who is interested in this topic (read it!).

This week, i posted a field snippet based on my research. I’ve re-posted it below for those who don’t like clicking links.


Crushes, flirting, and dating are a key aspect of teens’ lives. While these nascent relationships often end almost as quickly as they begin, they play a significant role in how teens see themselves and others. Because MySpace is a hangout space for teenagers, aspects of their flirtation with and dismissal of potential partners takes place on the site. Given the public nature of these expressions, we can get a glimpse into the trials and tribulations of teen love. Furthermore, we can examine how technology supports pre-existing practices while complicating other aspects of relationship management. Not all of what takes place is pretty – the language, norms, and attitudes of teens can be shocking to adults, but they are a very real component of teen communication. In this fieldnote, i document one example of how love and breakups appear online.

When I met Michael (17) and Amy (16), they were together. Their relationship was also visible on both of their profiles. Amy wrote about how Michael “has my heart” and Michael’s profile photo was of the couple embracing. His About Me section began with “I love my girlfriend AMY.” They were in each other’s Top 8 and they performed their love throughout the comments. A week later, Michael’s profile proclaimed “I hate my stupid bitch ex girlfriend.” His headline had also been changed to: “Michael is no longer fucking with stupid bitches.” The photos were gone, the friendship deleted, and the comments erased. Amy had also obliterated the relationship thoughout her profile. He was removed from her friend list and the list of guys she called heroes. What appeared in the place of his name was “boyfriend” with a link to a new boy: Scott.

While Michael had written Amy into his bio, Scott proclaimed his love for Amy even louder. He had changed his name on his profile: “Scott + Amy” and his profile photo depicted the happy couple smooching. He had written two blogs: “I have fallen in love with Amy” and “Rawr! Amy is Awesome” Upon inspection, one contained a love poem written about Amy and the other contained a prose version of his feelings; Amy responded to these blogs with comments professing her love and other friends added approving words. Loving messages from the new couple peppered each other’s profile. Scott wrote “I Love You” 200 times on Amy’s profile, followed by “here is the translation… i love you too baby..”

Interestingly, the next few comments on Amy’s page came from friends, asking “what happened with you and Michael?” She responded to these by posting to each friend’s comment section with some variation of “alotta bullshit.” Third party references to Michael littered Amy’s comments section but Michael himself was no longer present. Amy’s new love had usurped him.

While relationship drama is not restricted to teenagers, the performative nature of teens’ relationships tends to make this drama quite visible. One advantage of having a girlfriend/boyfriend is that it is personally validating. In a relationship, many people feel as though they are desirable and attractive; the rush of a new relationship can be invigorating. This feeling of self-worth offers people an incentive to seek out partners.

Relationships are often discussed as intimate affairs, but society also encourages people to make the fact of their relationship public. Western rituals around weddings – the public ceremony, the visible ring, the newspaper announcement – showcase how serious relationships become public expressions. Yet, even before a relationship reaches that level of seriousness, people make their relationships publicly visible. This practices has numerous advantages. First off, by making a relationship public, people can signal to other single individuals that they are taken (and so is their partner). This wards off potential suitors but it also encourages outsiders to validate their worthiness. More importantly, as Hannah Arendt notes, “the presence of others who see what we see and hear what we hear assures us of the reality of the world and ourselves” (1). Through the public performance of a relationship, the individuals in the relationship can gain security and confidence in the significance of their togetherness.

Western society regularly pushes people to couple up and make their relationships public. Consider Valentine’s Day. For many, this is an extremely stressful holiday because it’s an institutionalized way of saying that single people are less worthy than those who have paired up. During this day above all others, the streets are filled with couples arm-in-arm engaged in public displays of affection (“PDA”). While the wine and fancy dinners are primarily an adult activity, Valentine’s Day is just as salient in high schools as it is on the streets. Mr. C, a young math teacher in Oakland, California was shocked to find that the ratio of balloons to students exceeded one (2). Candy, presents, stuffed animals, cards, and the like pervaded the school, making it utterly impossible to teach. Who had received what gifts from whom mattered far more than geometry.

For teenagers, the performance of a relationship has an additional axis. Many teens have little mobility or freedom to actually go on dates. Quite often, teenage relationships consist entirely of mediated conversations (phone, IM, MySpace), school interactions, and the discussion of the relationship amidst one’s peers in both public and private settings. The rare opportunity to meet up with one’s girlfriend/boyfriend is treasured and for many teens, it is worth risking getting into trouble just to be able to connect with that person in meatspace. While physical interactions are deeply desired, they are typically quite rare. Likewise, while the 1950s Hollywood image of teen dating involves soda shops, drive-in movie theaters, and other public encounters, this is not available to many teens. Although the mall and move theater are still desired outtings for teen couples, many have far greater access to networked publics like MySpace than they do to unmediated publics. Thus, it’s natural that the primary plumage display takes place in these forums.

The properties of networked publics – primarily persistence – extend the reach of relationship performances. If posted on a MySpace profile, verbalized adoration can be read by all of that person’s friends. Perhaps this perceived magnification of audience increases the “realness” of the relationship? Or perhaps it simply increases the likelihood of being validated for being with an attractive partner. Relationships are filled with public commentary about love and adoration. While adults often mark “in a relationship” and leave it at that, teens are far more likely to fill their profiles with odes to the one that they adore.

Teens are aware of how these expressions are witnessed by those around them. Consider, for example, the comments section. Teens recognize that what they write in a comment is visible to all of that person’s friends. This prompts loving significant others to publicly display their affection in a digital form, full of candy-coated words. On the flip side, because teens have the ability to voice their perspective to the broader peer group, there is a great incentive to make certain that one’s view is understood without the he said/she said dynamics. By breaking up through MySpace comments, the heartbreaker is attempting to assert their view for everyone else to see so that they cannot be accused of saying something else in private, different from what they believe that they did say.

Of course, while digital expressions are persistent, they can be obliterated in a matter of clicks by a heartbroken lover. By deleting a significant other from one’s friend list, all of the comments evaporate. Every loving message disappears off of the page of both partners, along with every negative comment. Is the goal of deletion to remove the memory of the now ex? Is it effective? The traces of these relationships remain, often because of the comments of third parties who reference the now ex.

When relationships end, it is customary to avoid the now ex for at least a period of time. Co-presence in school is to be ignored, phone calls are not to be returned, and events where the other one is likely to appear are to be avoided. The networked nature of social network sites makes it difficult to uphold this separation. While it is easy to block the ex from one’s own page, they are likely to appear in the comments section of mutual friends. Mutual friends are often the complicating factor during a breakup, prompting an all-too-problematic view that these friends must choose sides. Such a choice can easily be viewed on MySpace because the mutual friend cannot actually maintain both connections if a nasty breakup requires that s/he choose sides.

Relationships are a regular part of teen life. The activities around flirting, dating, and breaking up take place wherever teens spend time and teens adapt these practices for the technologies and environments in which they spend the bulk of their time. Because networked publics provide a space for teens to gather and share their lives, it is not surprising that the intimate acts that must be made visible take place here. While the online publicness of teen relationships horrifies many adults, it is central to most teens.

(1) Arendt, Hannah. 1998. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (2nd Edition).
(2) Mr. C. “St. Valentine’s Radio.” Understanding (blog). February 14, 2007.