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Danah Boyd, SM '02

Celebrity academic studies teen life online

“Always on” describes Danah Boyd’s relationship with the digital universe. “When I’m not in front of my laptop, I’ve got my Sidekick and my iPhone with me,” says Boyd. “Even at dinner, when my partner and I get into an argument, we’ll whip out the phones to resolve it. Hopefully I’m not typing when I’m sleeping, but my phones are right next to me, and when I wake in the middle of the night, I scan e-mail or Twitter.”

Boyd’s scholarly work has made a media splash: the Washington Post called her “a celebrademic, the high priestess of social networking.” Certainly, she has a solid academic background. Boyd holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Brown and a master’s in sociable media from the MIT Media Lab, and she’s completing her doctoral dissertation in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley. The blog she began in 1997 drew broad public interest when she began writing about Friendster and other social media in 2003. These days her blog–at zephoria.org/thoughts–covers all things digital, as well as gender politics, participatory learning, and more.

“My dissertation examines how American teenagers socialize in networked publics like MySpace, Facebook, LiveJournal, Xanga, and YouTube,” says Boyd. “Teens use social-network sites as a form of public space. They do everything teens did in other public spaces (e.g., the mall, parks, etc.), including hanging out, gossiping, flirting, joking around, sharing information, jockeying for status, etc. Yet social-network sites are not entirely the same as other forms of public space. They are persistent and searchable; the content can be copied and pasted without much thought; and the acts that take place are accessible to invisible audiences. This changes the scale of sociability, but it also alters the ways in which teens interact with each other. Teens are learning valuable lessons through their participation and engagement with a new type of public space.”

Her research, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, is in high demand. She receives dozens of interview requests a week, and a bureau handles her speaking engagements. As a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, she’s codirecting the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, focusing on online safety for youth. She’s also plotting postdissertation projects with her MIT faculty mentors. “The research that I’m doing today is an extension of what I was doing at MIT,” Boyd says. “MIT is threaded through my research and social spheres in countless ways. Being at MIT was an intense experience, and it very much shaped who I am today.”

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