Taken Out of Context — my PhD dissertation

Without further ado… my PhD dissertation:

Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics

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!

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59 thoughts on “Taken Out of Context — my PhD dissertation

  1. JeanHuguesRobert


    I will read it. And if I don’t I will remember that you introduced me to the notion of “plausible deniability” and as a result I should be able to figure out a decent excuse πŸ˜‰

  2. Ewan McIntosh

    Thanks for sharing. Should make my flight to London today more intwresting. Glad it’s all over?

  3. Daniel Tunkelang

    Congratulations! Looking forward to reading it, and to your joining the thriving research community in the Northeast! Also, on the off chance that you read comments on your blog sooner than email, please contact me. I have an offer than I hope will interest you.

  4. Merlyn Horton

    Congratulations! I can’t imagine the relief. I will be getting back to you with some feedback after I peruse the doc but the Abstract already sounds yummy and made me smile.

  5. Conor

    More congratulations on the pile. Sharing this was a bold move, and probably a strengthening one, too. Enjoy a deep breath while we all take a gander. And don’t worry: I don’t even own a red pen!

  6. FG

    It’s a very well structured work. Properties and dynamics of networked space describe an interesting and much needed framework of analysis for SNSs. Very well done danah!

  7. alan p

    The role of a dissertation is to get a degree and (hopefully a onference or two somewhere nice – if anyone reads it thats a bonus, and if they actually discuss it, its the foundation of a career πŸ˜‰

  8. David Hilton

    It is quite interesting. It looks great, and when I say it looks great, I mean it. (granted, I have just read some 40-80 pages)

    There is a slight error on page 115/128 in your translation; “ttyl in em”, the “in them” is left off. This may be due to a typesetting error, but it may not… at any rate, I leave it at your discretion.

  9. Emma

    Looking forward to reading it & more importantly, learning from it! Thanks for sharing in such an easily accessible way.

  10. chris h.

    Having issues with the PDF download. After saving it to my desktop, it says there’s an error with the file, attempts to rebuild it, and then says its can’t open it b/c the file is damaged and could not be repaired.

    Anyone else getting this error?

  11. Ricardo

    I really like your writing style. This doesn’t read like an average PhD dissertation, but as a dialogue, almost as a blog post. This is disruptive, bold, and refreshing.

    Although I know you didn’t have to include anything in terms of future predictions, I am curious on your take regarding how these patterns will make these teenagers different from our current generation of young adults. To be more specific: What kind of adults will these teenagers be? What will their working styles look like? How will their friendship patterns be modified? How will this sense of lack of geographic boundaries impact their sense of nation and belonging to a certain geographic region? By having access to so much personal information about others, will they tend to be more able to show empathy or will they just anesthetized?

    Congratulations, amazing work!

  12. Adeline

    Being a fellow PhD student, I envy you! πŸ™‚ Woo hoo! I hope I can reach that finish line soo..oo.ooon too *cross fingers*
    You know what they say – For every action towards graduation there is an equal and opposite distraction. πŸ™‚ Anyway, Congratulations – you truly deserve a good break! Will definitely give it a read, it’s somewhat related to my research (corporate blogs).

  13. Tish Grier

    Congrats! and thanks for making your dissertation public. Much of your work has been very helpful to me when I explain to parents what exactly it is that their kids are doing in social networks, and to not fear “preadtors” so much. It’s also helped to encourage them to get into social networking spaces and to play themselves with identity, “friending” and other things that many find so baffling. Great job!

  14. Dan York

    Thanks for sharing your dissertation – it’s been interesting to read your work through your blog and other outlets and I look forward to reading your larger text. As we continue to go through the changes we are in right now in terms of how we communicate, it is great to have folks like you out there looking at the changes from a research point-of-view.

    And thanks for taking the chance with regard to the criticism… πŸ™‚

  15. Scott Elias

    Congrats and thanks for posting this! I’m closing in on a topic for my own dissertation and, among the possible ideas, is how social networking can be leveraged to move high schools into the 21st century.

    Thank you so much for posting this. And, again – CONGRATS on being done!

  16. molly

    Congratulations danah! Anytime someone working on a PhD, it reminds me that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

    I’m looking forward to reading it and responding.

  17. Boris Anthony

    Bravo danah. πŸ™‚
    @chris h. try re-downloading it. your download may have failed or gone awry. The PDF is fine.

  18. Timothy

    Good topic. And, just from reading the abstract, the goals and perspective seem well defined. I am bookmarking your site (via del.icio.us) and, as long as my memory permits, will return to read it through.

  19. Niespika

    I will definitly read it. As soon as possible. I’ll let you know if I have any thing to say. But I’m sure I’ll enjoy it.

  20. joe

    It’s hilarious how things subtly change once you’ve filed the damn thing, isn’t it? Before, student; after, scholar.

  21. Steve

    Interesting read so far. I’m not sure I can agree that society has artificually segregated teenagers, but then I didn’t research the subject, I’m just going from memory of being one πŸ™‚ Memory tells me that at school, grade-level or age clearly separated teenagers into solid peer groups – the ‘older’ kids don’t mix with the ‘younger’ kids.

    You might argue that school creates that segregation artificially, and I agree up to a point. But outside of school, within family groups or with neighbours, or when meeting other families on vacation, age groups tend to gather together and exclude those who are too young or too old. The barriers seems to be drawn on multiple levels – physical size and strength will separate youth in sporting events, musical taste, that elusive quality ‘maturity’, gender, interests (chess, football or ponies?) etc. All of these and many more will create different groups among children of all ages, but age is always a factor. Those same groupings exist in adult life but, from my own observation at least, once we reach 30 or so, age segregation largely disappears – but never totally.

    Leaping sideways – I’m intrigued by your use of the word ‘queer’. I presume you intend it to mean ‘unusual’ in some form or another, but like many words it has multiple connotations (at least one being offensive) and so I wondered if it had some specific meaning in your particular academic sphere. I personally prefer to either avoid confusing terms, or t least explain myself πŸ™‚ Given your extended discussion on the use of the term ‘private’, I certainly felt like clarification on the use of the term ‘queer’ was warranted.

  22. John Lalor

    I look forward to the opportunity to read it. I am in Australia but I think there will be many common areas.

  23. Salvador

    Congratulations, danah. The methodology section is invaluable to those of us trying to better understand the theoretical “borderlands” between network publics and unmediated publics. I will have more notes and comments soon.

  24. Adrian Dodd

    Having done a thesis, I know about a tenth of how hard it is. So hats off, well done and now I can look forward to reading it. I almost pressed print on it at work, lucky i had a quick check of how long it was.
    Again, nice work. I’m sure it may be one of the most read dissertations ever.

  25. Eric Dewhirst

    Thank you for letting me read it – I know it was a massive struggle to create – however for me it is pure delight to indulge in.

    Thank you for this gift.

    Sincerely – Eric

  26. Steve

    Hi danah,

    Congratulations on a massive and focused effort finally accomplished. No guarantees, but I certainly hope to find the time to read it. If I do, I’ll be looking for something to criticize – hopefully a fundamental assumption I can disagree with. If that happens, please don’t take it in a bad way. I will always have the highest regard for your intelligence, your compassion, and your iconoclastic spirit.

    Best wishes,

  27. Melissa

    Congratulations! My advisor told me the same thing about striving for the perfect dissertation….. “the best dissertation is the done dissertation!” I would like to read it as well, and I applaud your request for feedback. Keep in mind, pat on the back comments won’t make you grow…. those that make you stretch your original thoughts will give you rich perspectives for follow-up work.
    Best regards,
    Melissa Hughes

  28. Aaron Bowen

    Congratulations, and thank you for offering your thoughts. I look forward to reading them, reflecting, then offering some of my thoughts and ideas in response. In the meantime, enjoy MSR πŸ™‚

  29. Norman

    Honor to you Danah! Your blogtalk / reloaded will live forever in my master-thesis about communications in online social networks.

  30. Nicola

    Danah, I would love to read your thesis but it is not possibile to do it on the screen. I wonder if you could reformat it so that it is not necessary to print 400 pages: just to save some some threes πŸ™‚
    Thanks. Nicola

  31. zephoria

    Nicola – it’s open as a CC file so you’re welcome to do what you want with it but I don’t have intentions to reformat it myself.

  32. Darren James Harkness

    I’m interested to see a discussion of mediating online identity in there, and really pleased to see Haraway included, even if it is a quick mention. I had similar issues with defining “identity” in my MA thesis as you do at the start of chapter 4; you definitely did a better job unpackaging that term and defining it for your work than I did.

    I like that you delve so deeply into profile construction, but I’m not certain you went far enough; surely the SNS sites themselves influence the creation of their users’ identities through the affordances supplied by their interfaces – the sites defining who the users become, rather than the users defining the sites – a side effect of their postings and profiles being normalized, broken apart, and reassembled (a la N. Katherine Hayles’ Flickering Signifiers”). With LiveJournal, for example, whether you are naturally a social person or not, a community is impressed upon you by the way their profile page is set up, asking for geographic location and interests, so that you can find like users easily (and they you).

    Mind you, that’s my schtick, so perhaps I’m a bit biased towards the ghost in the machine having an effect on production of identity argument. Regardless of my meager thoughts on the matter, congratulations again on finishing the dissertation and thanks for sharing it with us.

  33. Johnnie Sue Cooper

    Congratulations on finishing! I’m looking so forward to reading your work. Your attention to detail and writing style makes for a very enjoyable read (something that cannot be said of most dissertations). Your work inspires me to keep on writing–I’m hoping to have mine completed in the next 6-7 months.

  34. Karla

    Congrats on finishing (we must have hit the finish line right about the same time) and I’m looking forward to getting a look at the whole thing after my very occasional reads of the bits and pieces along the way!

  35. Jack Vinson

    Congratulations! It’s a long and mostly-enjoyable journey.

    Having not read the thesis, but seeing your comments on the Internet Safety task force, I hope there are elements in your study that link back to previous views of teenager behaviors and look forward to the time when MySpace (already dying) and Facebook fade from memory to the next thing. I assume the same issues will be there.

    Oh, and welcome to Boston. Stay warm.

  36. Margarita Perez Garcia

    I am so happy for you. Finishing at last. C’est fini! GΓ©nial!
    I’ll read naturally, as I was expecting for this piece of work. And I will share my comments. Thank you very much for sharing!
    And have a nice day!

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