"Living Life in Public: Why American Teens Choose Publicity Over Privacy"

danah boyd
Association of Internet Researchers
October 23, 2010

[This is a rough unedited crib of the actual talk.]

Citation: boyd, danah. 2010. "Living Life in Public: Why American Teens Choose Publicity Over Privacy." AOIR 2010. Gothenburg, Sweden, October 23.


One day, Carmen, a 17-year-old Latina living in Boston, broke up with her boyfriend. The relationship wasn't working but she was still sad. Not suicidal sad, just normal sad. Whenever she was feeling moody, she posted song lyrics to Facebook. She wanted her friends to know how she was feeling but she was especially concerned with the possibility of upsetting her mother who she was Friends with on Facebook. So, rather than posting a sappy song lyric, she chose to post lyrics from "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." Her geeky friends immediately recognized the song from "Life of Brian" and knew that the song was sung when Brian was about to be executed. Her mother, on the other hand, did not realize that the words were a song lyric, let alone know the Monty Python reference. She took the words literally and posted a comment under Carmen's post, noting that she seemed to be doing really well. Her friends, knowing the full backstory, texted her.

Carmen's story complicates how we think about privacy and publicity and what it means for teens to live in public. On one hand, she wants to loudly tell all of her friends what's going on. She wants their attention and sympathy, support and love. So she turns to Facebook to proclaim her emotional state. At the same time, she's conscious of who might be listening and is particularly concerned about a certain subset of the audience - her mother. So in speaking publicly, she encodes her content, making it more meaningful to some than to others. This is an act of "social steganography."

Steganography is an age-old tactic of hiding information in plain sight. It is the ultimate "security through obscurity." The Greeks were notorious for using steganography - hiding messages in wax tablets, tattooing the heads of slaves and then sending them to their destination once their hair has grown back, etc. Children too learn steganography techniques as part of play - hidden ink pens are popular toys. Steganography isn't powerful because of strong encryption. It's powerful because people don't think to look for a hidden message.

When teens post content in public places online, there is often more meaning behind their message than meets the eye. I've been examining social media practices among American teens for 5 years - observing their practices and interviewing them about what they do. In the early days of MySpace, as teens were first engaged with social network sites, the meaning behind their comments was relatively easy to decode. Yet, as more and more people got online, teens became more sophisticated in what they do. They started thinking about audiences that weren't wanted but couldn't be avoided.


There's often a lot of backstory to content that's posted publicly, backstory that's impossible to get purely from observation. Two weeks ago, I was sitting with a 17-year old girl named Serena in North Carolina and we were going through her Facebook. I asked her about status update that I saw, written by Kristy. Kristy's update said: "I'm sick and tired of all of this." and was already "Liked" by over 30 people. I could imagine so many ways in which this could be interpreted so I asked Serena what this was all about. She launched into a 10 minute discussion about how Kristy and another girl Cathy were in a huge fight over a boy and how Cathy had written "She's such a bitch" on her Facebook and this was liked by a whole host of Cathy's friends and how Kristy had posted this in response and how Kristy's friends had all backed her. And on and on and on. Serena was just a bystander but she had a lot to say about the whole situation.

Teen drama - like that between Kristy and Cathy - is not particularly new. And teens have always rubbernecked over fights like this. So Serene's participation in what's happening is also not new. What's new is the degree to which this fight is publicly accessible to a much wider audience. Now, all of these profiles are protected, which means that the status updates aren't visible to just anyone, but the teens know that the audience of their updates is much larger than they want it to be. They know that their parents and teachers are looking and they often feel too disempowered to tell them to keep out. Teens don't know how college admissions officers see their Facebooks but they're pretty sure that they're looking.

(And btw, the answer is pretty simple... Teens who are being recruited to schools or who really want to go to a specific school will happily friend a college admissions officer or recruiter, making most of their friends' content available to them because they become friends-of-friends.)

So I asked Serena why Kristy and Cathy would write these things so publicly if everyone can see it. Serena smiled and told me that you didn't know what it meant unless you knew what it meant. In other words, you needed to be already in the know to be able to decode the meaning of the publicly accessible message. She's right - I read the message and I knew something was happening, but I didn't know what it meant or why it was posted. It's not just about being able to decode the content itself; it's about understanding the entire backstory.

In browsing Facebook with teens, I quickly learned that they too don't know the story behind everything that comes up on their newsfeed. Most teens ignore updates that seem to have no relevance to them, shrugging them off by saying that they're an in-joke for Person X's baseball team or stating that they're just Person X being weird. More nosy teens - especially girls - are more likely to investigate if something seems particularly juicy or interesting. But they too often have no idea why someone posted a particular song lyric or what a cryptic message might mean. This can go terribly awry.

In Massachusetts, Kelly was unhappy about her relationship but didn't have the nerve to break up with her seriously depressed boyfriend. To set the stage for doing so, she started posting morbid messages and unhappy "emo" lyrics to her Facebook. Her friends knew what she was up to and didn't call her on any of it, but a girl in her class that she didn't know very well took these messages to be suicidal notes and kinda flipped out. Kelly was irritated because these messages weren't meant for that girl, but meant to set the stage for breaking up with her boyfriend. Working out the meaning behind content requires second guessing any message because it may not always mean what it appears to mean.

To complicate matters more, it's important to understand pranking practices, particularly among teen boys. This is a generation who was raised on Ashton Kutcher's "Punk'd" and Sacha Baron Cohen's antics. Many teen boys relish the opportunity to mess with their friends' - or siblings' - Facebooks. Roughly 3/4 of the teens that I've interviewed have given their password to a friend or significant other as an indicator of "trust." Furthermore, almost all teens have had access to someone else's Facebook profile either through borrowing their phone or using a computer when their friend is already logged into Facebook. While many girls believe that abusing this access would be mean, many boys see access as a great opportunity to mess with their friends. They jump in and change each others' profile content, upload funny pictures, post ridiculous statuses, and message people as a practical joke. Many of the girls just roll their eyes at these games, calling them "immature." But this is a central part of boy culture in many communities.

In North Carolina, 17-year-old seniors Trevor and Matthew are best friends. They love to prank one another whenever possible. One day, Trevor managed to get access to Matthew's account and posted a status about how he (Matthew) had gotten In-School-Suspension. The post noted that it was unfair that he got ISS for having a boner in class because he hadn't meant to. After school, Matthew works as a parking attendant. When he went to work that day, one of his colleagues approached him to ask about why he'd gotten ISS for having a boner. Trevor's prank had been successful - Matthew's colleague took the post seriously which is exactly what Trevor wanted. Pranking makes it hard to take everything that you see seriously. Some pranks are pretty obvious but, taken out of context, pranks can easily look like inappropriate content.


Teens are living in a networked world. Not only are they connected to their peers through technology, but they're constantly managing disconnected parts of their social network simultaneously. The ability to create a "friends-only" space is virtually impossible, for all sorts of reasons. First, teens lack agency and power. Many parents feel they have the right to know and demand access; their nosiness means that teens feel as though their parents are always "in their business." Second, technology requires a formalization of who's in and who's out. Explicitly constructed boundaries create social dramas and teens are often resistant to heavily structuring groups. This is why Facebook at this point is de-facto public for teens, as they connect to everyone that they've ever met or know of. Third, information flows. Even if something is meant for a small group of people, the likelihood that it gets spread if its juicy is high.

For all of these reasons, teens don't see privacy as a binary or about simply restricting access to content. They use privacy settings to keep "creepers" away but their real battles over privacy play out among people that they know. Privacy becomes about successfully controlling a social situation, managing interpretation not access. Teens will strategically post content to control the narrative before their friends post similar content with a different narrative. They will use in-jokes and encode information to limit visibility. But they will also prank one another, taking control away from each other. Just because teens make content accessible doesn't mean that its meaning is obvious.

This begs an important question... If teens care about privacy and control, and if its impossible to restrict access or flow online, why participate at all?

Privacy is of huge importance to teens because they want to have control over their lives. But publicity is also important because they want attention, support, validation, and access to broad sociality. Many teens are digital flaeneurs - they want to be seen, they want to watch, and they want to be seen watching. They are entering into a social world where online performances are an essential part of social participation. Yet, they aren't engaging publicly without reservations. They are engaging publicly while maintaining a sense of intimacy and keeping close what really matters.

A reporter once chided Angelina Jolie for publicizing every aspect of her life. She told the reporter that the more that she put out publicly, the more that they stayed out of her face about what was truly private. In a culture of paparazzi, the only way to have privacy is to appear to be fully public. In other words, choosing publicity can mean choosing privacy. Many of today's teens are taking a similar strategy, putting out immense amounts of information about their life in ways that actually permit privacy.

In a networked society, privacy isn't going to be about controlling or limiting access. It's going to be about controlling and limiting meaning. This doesn't mean that addressing access isn't important; it is. But rather, controlling access will not always be successful and cannot always be guaranteed. Because of teens' structural position, they don't depend on access as a barrier. They don't understand - and, thus, don't trust - Facebook's privacy settings. They try to keep things locked down as much as possible. But they also add another layer of protection when they encoded content, use in-jokes, or make references to things that require being in the know. It's not hard for anyone to read a song lyric, but knowing what it means requires knowing the circumstances in which it's posted.

The strategies that teens are adopting are not new, but the fact that they're learning them as a part of their engagement with social media highlights how increased publicity forces adaptation. Teens aren't giving up privacy just because they're engaging with newfangled publics. The social norms aren't radically changing. Rather, teens are embracing exposure and finding new ways to work around it.