Q&A: danah boyd on What We Know and Don’t Know About Teens and Social Networks


6.11.13 | Social media scholar danah boyd has been called the “High Priestess of the Internet” by the Financial Times. One of the first to study how youth are using social media and the tensions between public and private, boyd is now a senior researcher at Microsoft Research New England. Her work examines the intersections between technology and society.

This is part of a series of conversations with thought leaders on digital media and learning, then and now. In conversation with journalist Heather Chaplin, leaders reflect on how the field of digital media and learning has changed over time, and where it’s headed. Interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Spotlight: How did you get started in DML?


Photo/Sage Ross

danah boyd: I started my PhD at the University of California-Berkeley in 2003 to work with Peter Lyman. He was developing an interest in understanding how young people use technology and he was in early conversations with MacArthur when I began.  Peter, Michael Carter, and Mimi Ito initiated a project we initially called the “Digital Kids Project,” but it became publicly known as the “Digital Youth Research” initiative.  This ended up serving as one of the key foundations of the digital media and learning initiative. 

I was one of the students working on that project. I was interested in understanding how young people constructed a sense of identity when they used tools like blogging and instant messenger.  At the time, I was also working on a separate project focused on early adopters of social network sites like Friendster. In early 2004, those worlds would collide as early adopters left Friendster for MySpace and teenagers began adopting the site.  This created a whole host of new questions. 

Spotlight: Like what?

danah boyd: By and large, teens’ use of earlier social tools was not particularly public. This changed with MySpace.  We started seeing the rise of networked public spaces, which altered the very dynamics of sociality. My interest in identity morphed into a broader interest in understanding how teens saw social network sites and what they got out of participating in these networked publics.  I wanted to understand how youth made sense of the world they lived in, how they grappled with inequities and social inequality, and how they understood hanging out in these environments. Because teens’ lives are heavily regulated by adults—by everything from compulsory school to curfew laws to limits to their physical mobility—teens’ relationship with sociality is often in resistance to adults’ prescriptions. They turned to social media to reclaim some semblance of control over their social worlds.  Eventually, I would go on to interrogating myths that adults had about teens’ engagement in these spaces, such as the issues that emerged around online safety and privacy. 

Spotlight: So there are a lot of different strains in your work. Tell me about one and how it’s evolved over the last six years.

danah boyd: In 2005, the press had finally caught on to the fact that young people were using social media, and story after story was coming out with a sense of horror, like, “Oh my gosh, the internet is dangerous! Social network sites are fundamentally harmful to teenagers!” And usually the hook for these conversations was rhetoric around online sexual predators. It was interesting to watch this because I had lived through a previous version of that same rhetoric when I was a teenager in the mid-1990s. So I spent a lot of time interviewing young people and parents and trying to untangle what this anxiety about sexual predators was all about.

Around that time, 49 state attorneys general had decided to put pressure on MySpace for not protecting children. As part of the settlement, they agreed to create a taskforce to investigate solutions to online safety concerns. MySpace and the AGs couldn’t agree on who should run the taskforce, but they agreed to have a triumvirate consisting of John Palfrey, Dena Sacco, and me. We were seen as complementary and different. John had done a lot of government work and was running Harvard’s Berkman Center. I had worked with companies over the years and was respected for my research acumen. And Dena was a fantastic prosecutor who focused on cases involving child harm.  Ironically, given our diverse backgrounds, we ended up seeing eye-to-eye on how to proceed. We convened various experts and set up panels to get a complete roadmap of the research, available technologies, and policy approaches out there. Unfortunately, our report deeply upset the AGs, who expected us to find different results.

That project may have upset the politicians, but it allowed us to build a fantastic network of researchers, practitioners, and experts. Since then, we’ve teamed up on multiple occasions and coordinated many of those researchers to address a variety of issues, ranging from bullying to sexting. These projects keep intersecting with DML initiatives and the interdisciplinary networks that we have built have both strengthened and complemented DML over the years. 

Spotlight: There does seem to be a theme of the importance of interdisciplinary work in DML

danah boyd: For me, that’s the screening process for what projects I work on. Under the DML umbrella there have been these extremely amazing cross-disciplinary events, where people can initially hear each other and try to think more holistically about the issues. I’m a passionate believer in the interdisciplinary sensibility that is at the crux of DML.

I didn’t expect my work to be so political or controversial.  So much of what I do is about making sense of practices that are pervasive and normative.

Spotlight: What has surprised you most about your own work?

danah boyd: I didn’t expect my work to be so political or controversial.  So much of what I do is about making sense of practices that are pervasive and normative. I don’t think of what I learn as revolutionary or shocking, but I do see my role as being a translator. But I’m consistently shocked by how upset people get when I try to offer a framework to explain practices and cultural logics that seem so obvious if you spend time with youth.

Spotlight: When you look at the current conversation around DML, is there anything you find frustrating? That you think, “this needs to change as we move forward”?

danah boyd: From my perspective, the biggest nightmare stems from overcoming the hurdles introduced by static and entrenched institutions. For example, DML is facing a huge obstacle in the form of the education system. For a long time, by focusing on informal learning, DML has skirted around these bigger institutional and cultural barriers. Now, though, it’s grown to the point of maturation where it’s actually time to grapple with these things directly.

Spotlight: What about for you, personally?

danah boyd: For me, personally, the challenges I’m grappling with go back down to basic questions of inequality. For example, I’m currently working on a project addressing the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). I’m dealing with what happens when everything we assume about how society interacts with children goes to hell. For example, when you look at CSEC issues, you cannot trust parents to be good actors. You cannot count on social services to be functional. You cannot count on a mental health infrastructure to exist.  This allows me to go back to basics and not assume the kinds of privilege that most middle- and upper-class folks take for granted. It’s important to remember how many people are failed by, if not outright abused by, the system.

My current research is not necessarily central to DML nor do I think that DML needs to go in this direction. For me, it’s very important. And I think that the kind of lessons and learning that I get from my work complicates assumptions in DML. For example, what role should parents play in DML? How can we address the differences in parental involvement?  That is something we take for granted across many streams of learning. Even when we recognize that more educated parents and more privileged parents give their kids better learning opportunities with digital technology, we still assume the general goodness of parents. In my project, this isn’t the case. That’s not something I can ever take for granted.

Spotlight: Is there anyone in DML who has been particularly inspiring to you, or whom you’re watching right now?

danah boyd: I was enamored with Mimi Ito in 2003 and continue to think that that woman is a goddess. Her ability to synthesize all sorts of divergent streams of thinking makes me drool. I can only dream of being as thoughtful and wise as she is. I’ve also been lucky to work with amazing people through the DML network who inspire me on a regular basis.  I think part of what I love most about the DML universe is being involved in such a rich network.  I’m deeply grateful to Connie Yowell for spearheading so much of this. She’s not just a funder; she’s a brilliant thinker who can move seamlessly between intellectual strategy and tactical implementation. I continuously learn from her.

I think it’s important to remember that the power of DML stems from its broad-reaching network.

Spotlight: Is there anything else you think DML people should be thinking about?

danah boyd: I think it’s important to remember that the power of DML stems from its broad-reaching network.  It’s not just a set of discrete projects but a field-building exercise. It’s important to continuously think about constructively bringing together different points of view, different disciplines, and different ideas in order to make something bigger than the sum of its parts. I think we’ve just started to see how much can come from that. It’s exciting. My question as we move forward is how does this continue to scale? How do we continue to have broad impacts and have this rich environment where all sorts of people can come in and be part of the flow? How do we create space for people to jump in and engage without people feeling excluded?

Part of what I love about DML is that I see it as an ongoing project.  A work in progress. What exists right now is extraordinarily powerful, but there’s still so much more that can be done.  DML has the potential to impact a whole variety of additional spaces where there’s a nexus of young people, technology, and learning. I’m grateful to be part of it.


danah boyd, mimi ito


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