Educators That Rock!: danah boyd

danah boyd in a photo by Gilad Lotan.

Last week, findingEducation caught up with Dr. danah boyd at the American Association of School Librarians National Conference in Charlotte, N.C. boyd is an internationally recognized social media expert researcher for Microsoft Research New England, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and an ethnographer, blogger and contributing author to the book “Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media.

boyd explains on her blog that “there are a lot of reasons … some personal and some political” as to why she decided to omit the capital letters in her name. A keynote speaker at the conference, she drew from her research on social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook to explain how kids use these tools to communicate and to “create digital bodies” to express themselves.

In her online biography, boyd describes herself as a bored and rebellious student that went to “smart kids camp” in the summer but had trouble fitting in until she went online. “The Internet opened the door of possibilities to me. I found other smart kids year round … Strangers taught me so much about the world and about myself,” she wrote.

“Unstructured environments are critical to social learning,” boyd said in her talk. Educators must “work with the grain, not against it.” She told findingEducation, “It’s not about getting kids to be passionate about the things that librarians and teachers are passionate about, but using what kids are passionate about as gateways to learning.”

fE: Why is it important for educators to understand how kids act online when they aren’t in the classroom?

db: Educators are trying to help young people find their way. Learning doesn’t stop when kids step out of the doors of the classrooms. Educators send homework home, but they also deal with the dynamics of kids’ home lives in the classroom. The boundaries were never clean and neat.

It’s not that educators need to understand how kids act ONLINE when they aren’t in the classroom, but rather, it’s that educators need to have a sense of the context of kids’ lives to be effective as educators, mentors, advisors. And the online world is now part of kids’ lives.

fE: Are children spending too much time online?

db: I don’t think kids are spending too much time online, but I do think that they’re spending too little time in unmediated, unstructured spaces with their peers.  The problem is not the internet.  The problem is a culture of fear.  In most communities in the US, you don’t hear “go out with your friends and be home by dark” any longer.  Eight year olds don’t get on a bike and bike around the neighborhood
any longer.  That’s sad.  That’s what I want to see changed.  The internet is used to fill in the gaps taken away by adults.

fE: In your lecture last week you described how teenagers learned HTML and figured out how to “hack the system in order to get what they wanted” out of MySpace. How can teachers and librarians harness this kind of passion for learning and adapt these skills for use in the classroom?

db: Follow the passion… It’s not about getting kids to be passionate about the things that librarians and teachers are passionate about, but using what kids are passionate about as gateways to learning. This is the problem with our approach to curriculum. We start with what we as adults think is important and then try to make it relevant to kids. Why not start with what kids are passionate about and use that to get into things that we think should be taught? Work with the grain, not against it.

fE: In a talk this past April at Penn State, you explained your research on MySpace and Facebook, telling adults that today’s teens still behave the same way that teens 20 and 30 years ago did. “They still gossip, bully, flirt, joke around and hang out.” Yet technology influences the particulars of their behavior.

Unlike adults, you said, teens don’t use social networks to meet new people; they simply want to be where their friends are.

When you asked young people about how they chose between Facebook and MySpace, some said they chose one site over another because of the availability of certain function or design elements. The responses from other teens, however, revealed more about teens’ values and core beliefs.

Can you share with us two examples of such responses that you heard from students living in an upper-middle class communities?

db: Anastasia (17, New York): “My school is divided into the ‘honors kids,’ (I think that is self-explanatory), the ‘good not-so-honors kids,’ ‘wangstas,’ (they pretend to be tough and black but when you live in a suburb in Westchester you can’t claim much hood), the ‘latinos/hispanics,’ (they tend to band together even though they could fit into any other groups) and the ‘emo kids’ (whose lives are allllllways filled with woe). We were all in MySpace with our own little social networks but when Facebook opened its doors to high schoolers, guess who moved and guess who stayed behind… The first two groups were the first to go and then the ‘wangstas’ split with half of them on Facebook and the rest on MySpace… I shifted with the rest of my school to Facebook and it became the place where the ‘honors kids’ got together and discussed how they were procrastinating over their next AP English essay.”

Craig (17, California) said, “The higher castes of high school moved to Facebook. It was more cultured, and less cheesy… Any high school student who has a Facebook will tell you that MySpace users are more likely to be barely educated and obnoxious.

fE: Why are these findings significant?

db: There are all sorts of ways in which we can dissect the language that they are using, but what they are pointing to is a dynamic that exists that we’re not so good at talking about: the reproduction of socioeconomic status and class divisions in digital worlds…

Social network sites are not like e-mail where it doesn’t matter if you’re on Hotmail or Yahoo. Teens who use MySpace can’t communicate with those on Facebook and vice versa. So if you don’t participate, you’re written out of the story. This means that divisions are reinforced. Forget all of the rhetoric about how the Internet is the great equalizer—it’s the great reproducer of inequality.

-    From “Living and Learning with Social Media,” lecture at Penn State: State College, PA

fE: Do you consider yourself and your research controversial?

db: No, but I realize that my research forces people to think about things that they’d rather not think about. Folks don’t want to think that there’s inequality in the U.S. Folks don’t want to think about at-risk kids. What I see in the field feels so obvious to me. The internet mirrors and magnifies what exists offline. But these are often issues that folks prefer to not see.

fE: Had you always planned on being an academic researcher? How did you get where you are and what are some of the rewards of your job?

db: Oh, gosh, no … I didn’t know what grad school was when I was growing up. But when I was in college, my advisor asked me a lot of questions and he helped me realize that I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grew up. So we devised a plan and part of that plan was to spend one summer in industry, one summer teaching and one summer doing research. I fell in love with research and never stopped. Even when I left academia for a year, I didn’t stop doing research. In fact, it was being outside of the academia that made me realize how research is core to who I am and how I see the world.

I am where I am because of the combination of hard work, amazing support and pure luck. I can’t say it’s been easy, but it’s been a lot of fun. The biggest reward of my job is that I get to do what I love and that means that it doesn’t feel like work most of the time. It feels like I’m playing and learning and getting paid to be curious about the world around me. There’s nothing better than enjoying what you do for work.

fE : In a post from your blog a few weeks ago, you wrote about second wave feminism. You said, “[W]hile we’ve opened up doors for women, we haven’t addressed how sexism framed nursing and teaching in ways that are causing us tremendous headaches in society today.” How can we incentivize teaching?

db: We need to value teaching and teachers in our society. Right now, we don’t. When jobs are considered prestigious, people vie for them. When people vie for jobs, you get the best candidates.

fE : In 1998, you were one of the six original V-Day College Initiative organizers. What can you tell me about your work with the organization V-Day?

db: V-Day is a nonprofit working to end violence against women and girls, best known for putting on productions of “The Vagina Monologues.” I helped build various online tools to help organizers around the globe interact with one another. Originally, in 1998, I put together an e-mail list. Then it grew to an internal portal. In recent years, I’ve continued to help them reach out through the various forms of social media. I’ve always believed in V-Day’s mission and the work they do and I love supporting them. For more info on V-Day, see their Web site.

danah boyd’s Favorite Sites:
Boing Boing
Global Voices

Related Link Resources "The Not-So-Hidden Politics of Class Online"
American Association of School Librarians: General Sessions
apophenia: Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out