Taken Out of Context — my PhD dissertation
Without further ado… my PhD dissertation:
Abstract: As social network sites like MySpace and Facebook emerged, American teenagers began adopting them as spaces to mark identity and socialize with peers. Teens leveraged these sites for a wide array of everyday social practices – gossiping, flirting, joking around, sharing information, and simply hanging out. While social network sites were predominantly used by teens as a peer-based social outlet, the unchartered nature of these sites generated fear among adults. This dissertation documents my 2.5-year ethnographic study of American teens’ engagement with social network sites and the ways in which their participation supported and complicated three practices – self-presentation, peer sociality, and negotiating adult society.
My analysis centers on how social network sites can be understood as networked publics which are simultaneously (1) the space constructed through networked technologies and (2) the imagined community that emerges as a result of the intersection of people, technology, and practice. Networked publics support many of the same practices as unmediated publics, but their structural differences often inflect practices in unique ways. Four properties – persistence, searchability, replicability, and scalability – and three dynamics – invisible audiences, collapsed contexts, and the blurring of public and private – are examined and woven throughout the discussion.
While teenagers primarily leverage social network sites to engage in common practices, the properties of these sites configured their practices and teens were forced to contend with the resultant dynamics. Often, in doing so, they reworked the technology for their purposes. As teenagers learned to navigate social network sites, they developed potent strategies for managing the complexities of and social awkwardness incurred by these sites. Their strategies reveal how new forms of social media are incorporated into everyday life, complicating some practices and reinforcing others. New technologies reshape public life, but teens’ engagement also reconfigures the technology itself.
Knowing that I would share my dissertation publicly, I desperately wanted to create a perfect dissertation. Anyone who has been through this process knows how impossible that is. Everyone kept trying to reassure me by promising that no one ever reads a dissertation. (Often this was followed with a snarky remark of “not even your committee.”) Unfortunately, those folks haven’t met the blogosphere. (Or my committee.)
There was a huge part of me that wanted to hole up and not share this document with you, for fear of your criticism. This is not a perfect document. Not even close. There are holes in my argument structure, problems with my description, and loads of places where I can’t help but smack my forehead at my simplicity and lack of depth. With all of its imperfections, there is one very important thing about this document: it is done. And by the end of the process, I accepted the age-old PhD mantra: the only good dissertation is a done dissertation.
I don’t expect you to read this, but I know that for some sick and twisted reason, many of you have an urge to do so. That makes you very weird. Still, I have a favor to ask… if you’re going to take the time to read this beast – or even a single chapter of it – could you share your thoughts? I really want to push this further and deeper. Parts of it will turn into journal articles. Other parts will emerge in a book. The more feedback I get now, the better I can make those future document. So, pretty please, with a cherry on top, could you share your reflections, critiques, concerns? I promise I won’t be mad. In fact, the opposite. I would be most delighted!