Category Archives: my writing

“Do you See What I See?: Visibility of Practices through Social Media”

Knowing that I was going to speak at two different events within a week of one another to distinctly different audiences needing to hear a similar message, I decided to craft one talk for both Supernova and Le Web. This talk is one of my more serious talks, looking at problematic practices in social media and inviting the audience to do something about it. Fundamentally, it’s a talk about visibility… about our ability to see what’s happening in the world thanks to the Internet. And about our needs to ask ourselves what kind of world we want to live in.

As always, I’ve made my crib available:

“Do you See What I See?: Visibility of Practices through Social Media”

If you’d prefer to listen to what I actually said (since I’m terrible at sticking to the crib), you might want to check out the video from Le Web or the video from Supernova (with the beautifully complementary talk by Adam Greenfield). Enjoy!

“Living and Learning with Social Media”

Over the weekend, I gave a talk at the Penn State Symposium for Teaching and Learning with Technology. I have made a crib of the talk available for anyone who might find it valuable:

“Living and Learning with Social Media”

Abstract: Many American youth are embracing a wide array of social media as part of their everyday lives. From social network sites and texting to blogs and wikis, many youth are leveraging the power of social media to create, communicate, share, and learn. In this talk, I will use social network sites as a case study to examine critical shifts that are underway as a result of social media. I look at how inequality is perpetuated through these systems and the challenges that educators face when trying to incorporate these systems into the classroom. Finally, I conclude by discussing implications for educators.

“Social Media is Here to Stay… Now What?”

Last week, I gave my first talk at Microsoft since joining MSR. This talk was part of the annual Tech Fest where researchers from labs around the world come and share their work to the broader Microsoft community. For the most part, it’s like a large science fair. There are booths and demos and posters and swarms of people descending to ask questions of researchers. It was pretty trippy to be thrown into this mix after only being with the company for a month. I had the privilege of “demoing” (a.k.a. waving my hands and trying to explain what I do) to Bill Gates. There was great humor involved because I gave my “demo” immediately following one of my colleagues’ (Henry Cohn’s) brilliant explanation of optimizing the Gale-Berlekamp lightbulb game. (Think: pure math to pure ethnography in under 60 seconds.)

Anyhow, I wrote up the crib of my talk in case anyone outside of Microsoft might find it interesting:

“Social Media is Here to Stay… Now What?”

This talk is intentionally not a research talk, but an applied talk. It’s a sampler plate of my work as it applies to developers, policy makers, community managers, product designers, and other folks who work inside companies like Microsoft. Enjoy!!

Internet Safety Technical Task Force Report

A year ago, I teamed up with John Palfrey and Dena Sacco to co-direct the Internet Safety Technical Task Force. I came to this project with the strong conviction that policy concerning children’s safety should be grounded in data. In other words, rather than focus on what might be, it would behoove us to take a look at what is and propose solutions to address known problems in ways that align with the logic and social conditions in which kids live. For years, I had been watching policy unfold that would do nothing to help the hurting kids that I met. I was frustrated and wanted to make a difference.

Going into this Task Force, I was extremely naive. I genuinely believed that people were making bad policy, bad technology, and bad decisions because they lacked the data or knowledge to interpret the data. I was upset that so much research was behind the pearly gates of locked-down journal publishers and that, even when accessed, many people didn’t know how to read that material. I believed that I had a responsibility to make research accessible so that it could be usable. I thought that presenting data would motivate people to innovate and devise solutions to help kids. I was wrong.

I’m not good at politics. I don’t understand the logic that operates behind politics and I cannot lie to myself or others to get my way. I am a scholar. I believe in the pursuit of knowledge, the dissemination of ideas, and the education of all. I entered this project to help people understand what we scholars have been following for a long time, but I got way in over my head.

For the our Task Force Report, I helped create a Research Advisory Board Literature Review where, along with the tremendous help of Andrew Schrock, we aggregated research to highlight the known issues around online safety. The patterns are brutally clear. The same issues continue to emerge with each new technology. The kids who are in trouble offline are more likely to be in trouble online and offline psychosocial factors contribute to online risks. Many more youth experience bullying than sexual contact and the realities of “predation” look very different than most people imagine and, thus, require vastly different solutions than most people propose.

The report was released while I was away and I came home to a storm. I’m used to folks dismissing qualitative work because they don’t understand it, but I’ve never before witnessed so many people reject solid quantitative studies done by reputable organizations that are replicated with different sampling techniques across different studies. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect someone to say to me, “Go find other data.” More frequently, as if in a refrain, folks are trying to reject the studies in this report as “old” and “outdated” even though the report makes it clear that the findings paint a consistent portrait and unreleased data show similar patterns. It’s as if nothing would satiate critics who can’t imagine that the real dangers are different than have been portrayed over the years.

I can think of many reasons for why people refuse to listen to data that conflicts with their perception. But what breaks my heart about this is that folks are doing it in a way that dismisses the thousands of youth who are truly in trouble. This shouldn’t be about whether or not the Internet is “safe” or “not safe” but whether or not the kids are ok. And many of them are NOT ok.

After staring at the data, I strongly believe that we need to stop talking about the Internet as the cause and start talking about it as the megaphone. The Internet makes visible how many kids are not ok. We desperately need an integrated set of compassionate solutions. Digital social workers are needed to reach out to troubled kids and guide them through the rough spots. Law enforcement is vital for tracking down dangerous individuals, but we need to fund them to investigate and prosecute. Parents and educators are desperately needed to be engaged and informed. Technical solutions are needed to support these different actors. But there is no magic silver bullet. The problems that exist cannot be solved by preventing adults from communicating with minors (and there are huge unintended consequences to that… including limiting social workers from helping kids) and they cannot be solved by filtering the content. It’s also critical that we engage youth in the process because many of them are engaging in risky behaviors that put them in the line of danger because of external factors that desperately need to be addressed.

If you’re a parent, a teacher, a law enforcer, or simply a concerned citizen, I beg you to read at least the Executive Summary (if not the whole report). The kids need our support, our attention, and our love. They need us to move away from our fears and address the very real dangers and issues that they face. This isn’t a black and white story. This is a very complex set of issues that require people to get informed.

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!