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One of us: Microsoft anthropologist Danah Boyd gives a lecture in Australia on teenage Internet behavior.

Are young people different because of technology? Microsoft senior researcher Danah Boyd says not so much.

Adults worry about what young people get up to on the Internet, but Boyd says what happens there is no more than the usual coming-of-age stories about socializing, sex, experimentation—only now those stories are being written on the Web. Fears over teenage Internet use amount to “the same moral panic we’ve had for decades,” she says.

Businesses see young people through a similarly clouded lens, says Boyd, who has been hailed as the first anthropologist who is a member of very Internet tribe that she studies (she graduated from high school in 1996). Today, Boyd works in Microsoft’s research division in Cambridge, Massachusetts, doing pure social-science research, advising the company on how to navigate teen Internet use, and studying the so-called “meme” culture of online pranksters, bloggers, and repurposers of content.

Like any other workaholic Internet commentator, Boyd herself is overconnected and overcommitted. This past Christmas she announced on Twitter that she would travel to Easter Island and Patagonia for a monthlong digital “sabbatical” from computer screens. She made time on her return to answer questions from TR’s business editor, Antonio Regalado, via e-mail.

TR: What do businesses want to know most about young people today?

Boyd: Companies both fetishize youth and are condescending toward them. They imagine that young people are the source of all things creative, but they also lament young people’s communication tools, information practices, and interaction styles. Some companies want to know if young people can come and save them through innovation. They also want to know if youth can be trained to be loyal corporate soldiers. In other words, some companies want youth to be magical disruptive forces, while others want to whip youth into submission. Worse: plenty of companies want youth to be a controllable disruption.

What are the questions businesses should be asking?

Amidst all of their questioning, many companies see youth as strange aliens from a different planet. The youth of their imagination come out of a sci-fi novel, permanently tethered to the Internet and unable to interact in an unmediated fashion. All too often, companies presume that these so-called “digital natives” are technologically savvy. Ironically, they are often less skilled when it comes to technology than those in the workforce. They may, on the whole, be more experimental, but they’re not necessarily more skilled. Given this, companies should be asking how they can support those who are generally more willing to take risks but who also don’t necessarily have deep skill reserves. This requires actually understanding what individual youth bring to the table and what they don’t yet know.

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Tagged: Business, Business Impact, business

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