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The Fear Factor

An anthropologist says teenagers aren’t the digital experts, or aliens, we think they are.
February 29, 2012

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.

How do you define the generation that’s grown up with the Web? And are they different?

I loathe the term “digital natives,” because I think that it paints an inaccurate picture of what it means to grow up after the Internet was invented. The Internet did not magically do something to a whole generation of youth. It did not make them smart and it did not make them dumb. More importantly, it did not make them understand technology. There is a tremendously wide range of technical knowledge among today’s youth. Many of my peers (us mid-thirtysomethings) know far more about tech and the Internet than the teens that I interview. Many young people have extraordinarily limited media literacy, information literacy; their technical skills are also surprisingly bad. Yes, almost all of them know how to chat on Facebook and text their friends, but few understand their privacy settings on Facebook, let alone know how to create an app for their phone.

Everyone who integrates networked technologies into their daily lives and practices is “different” because of it, regardless of how old they are. But today’s young people are not that radically different from youth of previous generations. They are still focused primarily on socializing, even when their parents want them to be focused on education. It’s just that where they socialize is often different.

You’ve studied issues of information privacy and online bullying among teenagers. As your research subjects begin entering the workforce, what do you think will be the most important anthropological questions to ask about that transition?

As we look to the transition to work life, we need to ask ourselves about the learning norms that get created in high school and college. Ironically, most young people are not learning how to learn at school. School is a place where they’re being prepared for jobs that don’t exist. They’re taught to memorize facts and answer questions through tests. They’re taught to follow orders and formalized processes. School is structured to teach students how to learn to operate in an industrial era of work. Today’s white-collar and service-labor workforce looks nothing like school. Instead, it looks like the kinds of learning that they do when they’re engaged around interests and hobbies. Their experiences working with others online to collaboratively subtitle anime shows, or their efforts in building Facebook pages dedicated to their favorite basketball player, are more relevant to contemporary jobs than what they’re taught in school.

Much of what they need in today’s workforce is about communication, coördination, and collaboration. This is not what they learn in school but what they learn online. Yet online, when they collaborate, they don’t think about competition or boundaries or hierarchies in the same ways as their bosses will. This creates huge confusion when they enter the workforce. This appears to be a product of technology simply because the educational system is so broken.

When young people use computer skills to start a company, we call them entrepreneurs. When they deface websites, or release confidential documents in the name of a social cause, we call them hackers. Do you consider “hacktivism” antisocial?

Hactivism is antiauthoritarian, but it’s not antisocial. It’s highly social. Hackers create their own community where they come together to challenge the status quo. Unfortunately, the status quo sees any challenge to its authority—legitimate or not—as antisocial.  

I grew up among hackers who were passionate about hacking into any security system that they could get their hands on. They wanted to show off their skills and challenge authority. Most of the time, they did it just to prove that they could, [although] my cohort was also frustrated with those in power for a whole host of reasons.

The hacker ethos has not disappeared. Many marginalized youth still want to challenge the status quo. Hacking is one avenue in which this unfolds. Some of today’s youth are hacking security systems, corporate servers, and governmental agencies. But another group of them are hacking the attention economy. They’re tricking media agencies and social-media marketers by gaming different information systems. This is a core part of the Internet culture.

You’ve been invited to talk next week at South by Southwest. What will you discuss, and why did you choose that topic for 2012?

I am really interested in how technology transforms the culture of fear. Fear can be systematically generated to entice, motivate, and suppress people. The term “the culture of fear” refers to the ways in which fear is employed by marketers, politicians, and the media to regulate the public. The media has long played a role in generating fear, whether by broadcasting propaganda or through fear-mongering news reports.

Some people think that social media—because of its networked nature—can and will combat the culture of fear. We certainly hear this in rhetoric about how social media will enable democracy. But in my work with youth, I’ve found that social media is often a much more potent tool for fear-mongers. Fear spreads like wildfire through social media because people trust content that they get from their friends, colleagues, and peers.

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