Boyd, Danah. Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics. UC Berkeley, 2008, 393 pages.
The full dissertation can be downloaded and read here: http://www.danah.org/papers/TakenOutOfContext.pdf
Perhaps what is best about this book is also what makes it the most tedious—namely, that it is a dissertation. I totally value the fact that people write dissertations, I think they are important, but they are typically long exercises in delaying getting to the point. I wish there were some way around that problem that would also accomplish what dissertations are supposed to accomplish, which is substantive indication of research and reading in bibliographical material, combined with a formal contribution to the field under study. But that would mean writing something like Ludwig Wittegenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and since not everyone is capable of writing a game-changing intellectual work while fighting as a solder on the Western front, that cannot be the expected model.
But I digress. Each time Boyd addresses a topic, she backs up and offers analytical and methodological background to the substantive portion of her dissertation. In this case, since she is doing ethnographic research, this means offering rationale for how she narrowed and defined her “field,” how long she was in the field, what it meant to be in the field given that her field involved social networking. What constitutes ethnographic research on-line is still debatable, so her discussion of this topic was beneficial.
For example, one framework she appropriates to good effect is labeled the SCOT (Social Construction Of Technology). The assumption of this framework is that “technology shapes and is shaped by those who use it and the society in which it is embedded.” Researchers should account for these items in their data collection and analysis:
1) Relevant social groups- those affected by the technological artifact, including users and producers
2) Problems and conflicts- Issues that arise because of different usage patterns
3) Interpretive flexibility- Maybe the technology is understood or used by different groups in different ways. How?
4) Design flexibility- Design may not have followed a linear pattern (or may still not be following a linear pattern)
5) Closure and stabilization- The new technology might stabilize in design and usage patterns, but is there anything destabilizing it at times?
This is a beneficial set of questions that researchers do use when analyzing new technological artifacts, and it is intriguing how the questions line up if applied in faith contexts. It would be a good set of questions for a leadership team to look though as part of research before entering ministry in a new medium such as film or video games.
Second, although this seems like an obvious distinction, it’s actually quite profound and important, and in fact failure to make this distinction leads to all kinds of trouble (even, as I might argue, errors of judgment—for example, in thinking that you can have “church” while on Second Life). Boyd states that the Internet can be understood both as a culture and as a cultural artifact.” Indeed, and a few category mistakes could be cleared up concerning ecclesiology and social networking and games by attending to that distinction.
Finally, and central to Boyd’s overall presentation, “mediated environments like networked publics formalize and alter the identity process of self-presentation and impression management.” In fact, Boyd finds it an historical social oddity that this is “the first generation to have to publicly articulate itself, to have to write itself into being as a precondition of social participation.” I find this absolutely fascinating, and precisely the issue to pay attention to when analyzing teen use of social media. Identity formation is everything during the teen and young adult years, and understanding how teens manage identity formation in relation to on-line social networking is essential.That being said, what I found most fascinating about Boyd’s analysis is that there are not many surprises. This is where the dissertation nature of the book has huge payoff. Even though there are not (at least in my estimation) any major new discoveries, by proving ethnographically that teens are making use of social networking in rather mundane and normal ways, boyd’s research proves helpful and revelatory. The new media is not some strange and scary place teens are running off to and being corrupted by. Largely, they are simply “structuring their presence in a way that makes them visible to those who matter and invisible to those who don’t.” That’s what teens do off-line as well. Teens may be migrating on-line because there are less and less places for them to interact with each other in unsupervised publics—but then, aren’t we all?