My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Thank you Nashville!

I’m just finishing up the first 10 days of my fall sprint at intensive fieldwork. I’m a long way from being about to synthesize what I’m seeing but I wanted to share a few things since many of you are curious about my observations.

First off, Nashville is a great city to do fieldwork because of a mix of different dynamics taking place here. There’s the obvious suburban dynamics which are really notable here, especially given some of the extraordinarily wealthy suburbs which their posh football fields and McMansions. But even in the low income regions, there are really interesting things going on, both in the city and in the suburbs. On one hand, you have amazing local organizations dedicated to youth culture. The public library’s facility for teens is better than anything I’ve seen in any public library in the States and boy do teens flock there after school to play with the Wii, get free snacks, do homework, get on the computer, and even read books. The energy after school is fantastic. The library and rec center are where many teens go after school to wait for their parents to pick them up or because they live close to these places and find them to be more fun than going home (for a whole host of reasons). Of course, the teens that go to these places aren’t necessarily representative of all teens in Nashville. One teen told me that the types of people who went to the library are “ghetto” which is why she won’t go there. Still, many of the teens that I met there are trying to stay out of trouble and it was great to see a place for them to go. Likewise, Rocketown, a club founded by Christian musician Michael W. Smith is a popular place for youth trying to keep out of trouble. And there’s a Youth Opportunity Center and a whole host of other organizations working to create activities and opportunities for teens. And, unlike many regions I’ve been in, many of the retailers and fast food joints employ teens.

And then there’s the flipside… There are drug issues, namely pills (although oddly, heroin also seems to be coming back). And gangs. Sure, there are gangs in other cities, but the Kurdish Pride gang down here is quite unique. Kurdish Pride is filled with teens and young adults who come from middle/upper-class two-parent families and are doing well in school, but are engaged in a two-front gang warfare battle. On one hand, they’re trying to stand up to the black and Hispanic gangs here; on the other, they’re trying to show that they’re tough to their cousins back in Iraq, Iran, and elsewhere. Things escalated post 9/11 and I can’t imagine that all of this anti-Islamic fever is helping anything down here at all.

A lot of how Nashville is organized depends on transportation, with teens in the suburbs rarely making it into the city because of lack of transportation (and familial rejections of the bus). Malls and movies trump everything in terms of hang out spaces for suburban youth, with parks operating as a critical site for urban youth. All of the youth centers and whatnot are located downtown, although some of the megachurches have great youth programs in the suburbs. Things like football games and Young Life are still playing a huge role in the communities. The biggest socio-economic mixing seemed to have happened at the Opry Mills Mall (which shut down after the flood) and among kids who attend magnet schools or other specialty schools (of which there are some phenomenal ones here… sadly, though, the typical public schools leave much to be desired). As always, geography and mobility really shape the social dynamics.

Anyhow, I could go on and on about the social dynamics of Nashville which are totally fascinating and require much more nuance than I can offer in 3 paragraphs, but I’m sure what you really want to know is about technology. Simply put, technology is really fading into the background and is mostly being used on top of everything else that teens are doing. Teens who are more likely to be stuck at home (namely the teens from wealthier families) are much more consciously engaged in the technology for technology sake, much more likely to sit and chat on Facebook because it’s Facebook. Cell phones are everywhere with texting at unbelievable levels across socio-economic divisions. But teens are treating technology with the same level of emotional connection as they treat their clothes. Some are obsessively passionate about it and some just see it as a functional thing that they may or may not want to engage with.

Some fun little things that I found intriguing… All of the MySpace Top 8 stuff has reappeared in Facebook under “siblings” as teens list their closest friends as their brothers and sisters (which requires confirmation). While joining “groups” used to be a cool way of doing identity marking, it’s now all about clicking “Like” to funny things that get passed around. Relationships aren’t official until they’re “Facebook official.” MySpace isn’t dead among teens but the socio-economic issues around it are extremely pronounced and those who are on MySpace are typically also on Facebook at this point. MySpace and YouTube are ground zero for law enforcement doing gang intelligence. Particularly interesting given that Facebook is heavily used by the Kurdish Pride kids to connect with family back in Iraq; both sides post photos with guns to show toughness and connection. And I confirmed the reality that Facebook is pretty darn public for these teens – available to everyone that they know. And they know very little about how to manage their settings but feel like Facebook’s defaults must be what they should use.

I also heard some pretty crazy heart-wrenching stories. For example, complications to the sexting picture in the news. A boy that I met shared his cell phone with his mother.  He takes the phone during the day and she takes it at night.  His mother appears to be promiscuous (“gets around”).  All day long, he receives naked photos of older men to his cell phone intended for his mother. He’s terrified that his friends will see those pictures and think that they’re intended for him.  He’s super embarrassed about his mother but too uncomfortable to confront her.

Anyhow, there’s a lot more in all of my notes that I still need to process and think through what I have before I can offer more conceptual reactions but I wanted to share a little bit of what I’ve seen. And thanks to everyone who has been so supportive and welcoming. There are some truly dedicated folks in Nashville trying to make a difference and it really warms my heart to see so many dedicated folks working to help teens.

More soon! (Next stop… Raleigh and Durham.)

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5 comments to Thank you Nashville!

  • Marc

    Ugh…the things some parents put their kids through. I would have never thought of such a scenario as a child as an unwilling middleman via phone to his mom’s sex life. Horrible.

  • Next stop… Raleigh and Durham? When, how long? Can we do something to help, or just share a meal?

  • anonymouse

    I’m not surprised that transportation is key to a lot of the social network dynamics going on. I think on the whole, people have a really simplistic geography that’s not really helpful. The shape of the world is not a flat plane like the map would have you think, but something more complicated, more like a graph, where connections between things and ability to get from point A to point B matter more than plain distance. And of course the internet changes things too, since communication is now free regardless of distance. I just wish I had the time to do some actual academic explaining of how things like transportation affects the shape of the space in which we live our lives.

  • Heather Burchfield

    It’s great to hear a Nashville visitor speak so highly of Music City. I second that we have a wonderful library, and we have some local nonprofits that really do impact the community in a positive manner. I’m not a Nashville native, but I’ve lived and worked here for over three years now. Nashville has become my home. I currently run the digital marketing campaign for Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee, so I’m using social media on a daily basis. Nashville is a knowledge-rich city, and there are large variations among those who are financially wealthy and those who are impoverished. Working with the Food Bank, I either see these differences for myself, or our agency relations managers relay their first-hand experiences.

  • Tammy

    Danah,

    Thank you for not painting our favorite place to live like it is full of backward hicks. I love it when people see what an amazing community we have. I am a transplant from the West Coast and I absolutely adore Nashville. I wanted to address your comment about buses from the suburbs to the city. I live in the suburbs and if buses or trains to Nashville existed, I would most definitely allow my teens to access them. I know hundreds of parents who would. We don’t enjoy being a taxi service for teenagers. We simply have no alternative.

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