"Networked Norms: How Tech Startups and Teen Practices Challenge Organizational Boundaries"

danah boyd
ASTD TechKnowledge: January 30, 2013

This talk was written for the TechKnowledge conference put on by the American Society for Training and Development. It was originally titled "Networked Learning: How Tomorrow's Workers Will Challenge Today's Organizations." This are the notes upon which my talk was based, but hopefully it provides a reasonable accounting of the core arguments I made. This talk is a work-in-progress. I'm trying to think through these ideas and am still struggling with many of them. Feedback is always welcome. zephoria [at] zephoria [dot] org.

Citation: boyd, danah. 2013. "Networked Norms: How Tech Startups and Teen Practices Challenge Organizational Boundaries." ASTD Tech Knowledge. San Jose, California, January 30.


Good morning! I am honored to be here today because I am deeply grateful for all of the work that you do to help train workers to navigate an increasingly technical world. I was asked to come here today to speak about how tomorrow's workers will challenge today's organizations. In grappling with how my research could inform your practices and thinking, I decided to pull on two strands of my research and combine them in ways that will hopefully showcase some of the ways in which organizational cultural and norms are being challenged and disrupted by communities who don't take the bounded logic of the organization for granted. To do this, I'm going to draw on work that I've done to understand startup culture and the tech industry as well as research that I've been doing on certain parts of teen life.

Although I began my career as a computer scientist, I was retrained by anthropologists to ask critical questions about how technology affects everyday practices. My first set of projects were focused on the rise of social media generally. I've lived and breathed startup culture and watched as entrepreneurs schemed up all sorts of new social media ideas. I've also worked for many different software companies and am currently employed at Microsoft Research, a branch of Microsoft. As a result of these different trajectories, I've gotten to witness the crazy dynamics of the software development and innovation in the technology sector. I'm also returning to these issues in some of my new work, but it's my research on teen practices that most people identify more directly with me.

For the last decade, I've been studying how youth incorporate new technologies into their everyday practices. I've watched the rise and fall of numerous major social technologies. I watched teens glom onto instant messaging and blogging services like Xanga and LiveJournal before turning to nascent social network sites like MySpace. Needless to say, I've followed the rise of Facebook, YouTube, and text messaging. More recently, I've been following the adoption of Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Tumblr, and a wide array of apps and social services. I spend a lot of time not just looking at the mediated outputs of youth practices, but actively observing teens as they socialize and hang out. I've interviewed hundreds of teens and followed them as they aged and transitioned. I've been watching as technology challenges educational practices and disrupts communicative norms.

I am going to use strains from both of these research projects in my talk today, but I'm not asking you to necessarily see teenagers or geeks as indicative of what's to come. They're not necessarily good markers of future practices. Teenagers are in a particular life-stage and cultural configuration that mean that they will "outgrow" many of their practices. And the startup world of the tech sector is quirky for a whole host of different reasons. But the ways in which both are challenging implicit cultural norms through innovative practices does actually raise significant questions about the logic underpinning many contemporary organizations. Perhaps the most significant assumption that both are challenging on a daily basis is the very logic of organizational boundaries. You may see teenagers and technologists as completely irrelevant to what you do, but I want to invite you to interpret their practices in a different light. I want you to see them as examples of an alternate way of seeing, communities with norms that wholeheartedly challenge the organizational status quo that many of you are deeply familiar with.

Inside big companies, we take organizational boundaries for granted. Traditional organizational logic suggests that most employees of big corporations should primarily only talk to other people at their organization to do their work and should only engage with "competitors" when a deal is being brokered or there is a particular need for cross-sector collaboration. In this frame, companies are quite protective of their intellectual property and company secrets and see any knowledge sharing between "competitors" as a weakening of their core assets.

To a teenager growing up in a networked world, this model makes absolutely zero sense. Even if they've been trained in a traditional educational environment where collaboration is pooh-poohed, if they have access to the internet, they've developed a sensibility for obtaining knowledge from a wide variety of sources. More importantly, many youth in creative class environments are growing up with the idea that knowledge is something that you tap into, not something you innately have. Knowing where to turn to get relevant information is often as valued as knowing the answer. This is completely sensible when you grow up in an internet-saturated world where technology puts information at your fingertips. But it completely contradicts the notion in many organizations that you can only access information from people within the bounded world of the organization itself.

Teenagers' confusion about boundaries is realized even more concretely by geeks in the tech sector who have radically challenge many of the core tenants of organizational culture through their very practices. I am going to begin by considering shifts in software development and the tech sector and then draw on dynamics in youth culture before turning more generally to the implications that these dynamics have for organizational culture writ large.


I want to begin by telling you about a shift in computer programming, a radical reformulation of how software is developed. The implications of this go far beyond the world of software development. It fundamentally challenges how people think about the production of cultural artifacts and intellectual property.

When I was a teenage geek learning how to program, I purchased a book where I was taught how to build code from scratch. I reproduced the examples offered in the book and, at best, tried to modify them to see how flexible particular lines of code could be. I was taught to cautiously review my code for mistakes before I tried to compile and run my nascent program for fear that I would waste the computer's time offering code that wouldn't work. Code snippets were building blocks, but I was trained to understand the fundamentals of software and slowly develop a larger grammar so that I could get more creative with the kinds of code that I built.

When I went to college, this line of thinking became more formalized. I was taught how to think about the design of software systems more holistically. I was trained to understand something called "extensibility" which is the notion that the code that I was writing should be flexible enough to be able to change to adjust to new situations that I could not yet envision. I was taught to interface with other bodies of code by using libraries, but I was taught that I needed to be very conscious of how I used these libraries. My code was my code and I was responsible for its functionality from top to bottom.

Watching teenagers learn to code today is mind-blowing. It's the difference between watching a child learn to speak French and learning French by memorizing grammar and vocabulary. Teenagers grab snippets of code that they find on the internet and throw it into their editor, often semi-ignorant of what the original piece of code does. They test it out and see if it fits and does what is desired. And then they modify it, half expecting their modifications to not compile but knowing that they can fix whatever grammatical quirks they accidentally introduce by futzing with it enough. They piece code together like it's a collage, testing out each puzzle piece to see if it fits and then smiling when the Frankenprogram produces the desired end result.

As teens become more and more fluent in what works and what doesn't, their sensibilities for how to connect the pieces grows stronger. But they spend as much time reading others' code - grabbed from Github or random websites - as they do producing their own code. As a result, they are socialized into the idea that sharing code is a de facto practice. So once they've figured out an algorithm to do something dandy, they'll happily post it on a forum or share a working piece of code in a shared repository.

This sensibility is, of course, now at the root of free and open source software. Sharing has become so intertwined with producing within many software communities that many software developers can't imagine building something from the ground up without stitching together others' code. Far from being an isolated practice, software development has become highly sociable, communal, and collaborative. Furthermore, as anthropologist Biella Coleman highlights, this approach to development is political.

This shift in software development hasn't just changed the code. It's changed the very nature of technical workspace. In cities like New York and San Francisco, countless coworking spaces have popped up in addition to incubators and shared office spaces. As a result, you'll see engineers and entrepreneurs from supposedly competing startups sitting side-by-side in the same physical space, often occupying desks situated in an open space configuration. There are no cubes or offices. Everyone is within ear shot of everyone else. And if one needs auditory privacy, there are always headphones. They aren't just sharing space, they're sharing perspective. And code.

Why are employees of competing companies sitting side-by-side in a setting in which they could easily overhear each other's technical and tactical plans? Because they've learned that everyone benefits from shared knowledge. It's not uncommon to sit in one of these incubator spaces and hear someone call out something along the lines of, "has anyone figured out how to use XYZ API?" only to hear someone from a different company say yes and share the code they developed. This runs counter to any narrative of intellectual property produced by major corporations.

Of course, startup culture specifically and the tech industry more generally is especially peculiar. I once heard that the average tenure of an employee at a company in Silicon Valley is less than three years. I don't know if this is true, but I wouldn't be surprised. People switch between companies to learn new skills. In doing so, they build out phenomenally rich networks. Far from being isolated cogs in a machine, engineers at the major tech companies know other engineers at other companies. These are networks that they leverage in countless professional ways, for technical and business reasons.

In the tech industry, having technical skills is often not enough to be an effective contributor to the development of a system. Even though many people see engineers as asocial, having rich and diverse social networks is actually an essential part of being successful because engineers depend on having access to others' knowledge. As a result, there are all sorts of meetups where geeks gather to build connections. In NYC, there are Data Drink nights and Machine Learning Meetups in addition to more formal conferences. As Gina Neff points out in "Venture Labor," the more geek culture relies on people in the tech industry taking risks, the more that geek culture relies on rich cross-company social networks as a crucial backbone to the labor force.

Of course, this doesn't just affect people's professional development or enhance their social connections. It also affects how they do their work. As the tech industry has matured, we've seen the rise of platform development. Companies build technologies that fit together with technologies from other companies. There are all sorts of technical and informational dependencies. This isn't just because this makes the most business sense. It makes business sense because engineers are already interconnected anyhow. So you might as well leverage this.

To people outside of the technology sector, the idea of employees moving from company to company in short intervals or having products that are seriously interdependent may seem like a disaster. Even in tech, many companies want to retain their top employees. And many try to provide in-house learning and development opportunities. But, a huge chunk of what makes the technology sector so innovative is the fluidity of the workforce and the collapse of boundaries that silo development.


I want to switch to talking about teens. I'm going to start by talking about really geeky teen practices and then shift to talking about more general norms.

In 2003, a 15-year-old named Chris Poole - also known as "moot" - created an imageboard website called 4chan, usually considered the underbelly of the internet but also a site of serious innovative cultural practices and resistance to normative values. 4chan became a digital home to countless teen boys who relished a space to anonymously share everything from pornographic images to juvenile humor. Because of the site's structure - initially driven by Poole's inability to pay to host the content of the site in perpetuity - content disappeared from the site after a bunch of new content was shared. To keep a particular post visible on the site, users had to repost it. And so, when they found something particularly compelling, they did.

It didn't take long for users to start building on the content that they reposted. Find a funny picture of a cat on the site? Reposting it is great. But even better is putting a caption on the image to make it funnier. And thus the lolcat was born. For those who are unfamiliar with lolcats, they are a canonical "meme" where people take pictures primarily of cats and add captions using impact font written in a particular grammar to tell a funny story about the image. When well done, these images get spread widely producing what marketers love to celebrate as "viral" content.

Countless memes have emerged out of sites like 4chan as young users find interesting ways to remix content and add commentary to help produce entertaining cultural artifacts. Sometimes, the humor is purely digital. At other times, the mediated and unmediated blur. Take, for example, the phenomenon of rickrolling. The origins of this practice are quirky and particular to 4chan, but the resultant meme quickly escaped that forum and ended up taking on a life of its own. A "rickroll" is a type of a bait and switch where someone thinks that they are going to visit a website or experience a performance only to be suddenly exposed to Rick Astley's 1987 song "Never Gonna Give You Up." There have been flashmobs and protests where this song plays a central role. And everything went full circle when Rick Astley himself performed a live rickroll at Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

So how should we make sense of these various pranks and memes? What you see emerging is a group of young people set on hacking the attention economy. They understand that, through media, all sorts of information flows. In an advertising-centric world, corporations desperately work to capture people's attention and drive it towards content that produces ad revenue. These teens are living and breathing these norms and they're finding funny ways of playing with the system. So they've developed ways of creating their own content that can flow.

With the rise of social media, numerous teens have leveraged social media in different ways to help create a new type of public culture. These teens take for granted the ability to use media to spread messages and capture attention. Some play with public culture by remixing popular media to tell new stories. For example, taking clips from Monty Python and Star Wars to tell a funny combined story. Others post entertaining videos of fun activities, like making their own videos that combine Mentos and Diet Coke to produce explosions. Or posting makeup tutorial videos. Or blogs dedicated to tracking fashion out in the wild. These are all practices that subgroups of teens are adopting to participate in a networked world. On Twitter and Tumblr and Instagram, you'll find teens who have hundreds of thousands - and even millions - of followers, more than most companies and more than many traditional celebrities.

One way of interpreting these teens' practices is as future marketers. Some indeed do to go into PR and communications writ large. But many others are just trying to figure out the contours of contemporary life. And much of what they're trying to do is gain some control over their life and the society in which they live. Control is a major issue for many youth. Many of today's teens are growing up in a world in which they lack control over many aspects of their life. They are forced to go to school and to study particular subjects. They are surrounded by rules and school bells, structured through activities and homework. They have little interstitial space to figure out who they are and how they fit into the world.

This is where technology comes into place. Teens turn to social media because it's a domain in which they can have control. And it becomes a training ground for independence, creativity, and personal self-expression. Teenagers don't see sharing their favorite song or remixing their favorite shows as illegal acts. They see them as mechanisms to express themselves. Corporate constructs like copyright aren't simply ignored - they're completely nonsensical to teens focused on participating in a networked society.

Of course, just because teens are trying to help shape public culture doesn't mean that they want their dirty laundry exposed. The notion that today's youth don't care about privacy is foolish. Sure, there are some teenagers who are exhibitionists, just as there are some adults who are. But most teens are very conscious about privacy, just as they're very conscious about their public self-expressions. Again, it all comes down to control.

Achieving privacy in networked publics is not an easy task because new technologies make it much easier to share broadly than narrowly. Yet, just because teenagers want to be IN public does not mean that they want to BE public. So they work hard to find ways to share and yet have control over their privacy. Some of how they do this is quite innovative, particularly tactics that allow them to achieve privacy in public. For example, I'm enamored with the idea of "social steganography," which happens when teens choose to post something very publicly knowing the the meaning is completely lost on anyone who is not in-the-know. In this way, teens don't focus on trying to restrict access to content; they focus on restricting access to meaning. This is one of the most effective ways in which teens achieve privacy in public. [Note: see paper I co-authored with Alice Marwick on "Social Privacy in Networked Publics"]

Privacy isn't simply about controlling access to information. It's about having control over a social situation and that's very different than focusing on controlling information. Controlling information emphasizes technical affordances. Controlling a situation is about being able to navigate boundaries. And teens are developing those chops by experimenting in highly social situations.


So what do startup culture and teens' attempts to construct and navigate public life have to do with the future of work and the kinds of learning that are needed? More than anything, they call into question some of the basic assumptions that have become de facto in contemporary organizations. Today's organizational culture emerged because hierarchies and boundaries were the most viable way of achieving organizational alignment and optimizing for particular kinds of output. They are a product of a system focused on division of labor for industrial or agricultural outputs. They make sense when the only way to do large scale communication is through broadcast mechanisms. In other words, they are a very reasonable product of the 20th century.

And yet, today, we're living in the 21st century. Networks of people are being mediated such that people are easily able to see who is connected to whom and leverage loose ties to achieve all sorts of work-related goals. Individual knowledge is often less important than being connected to the right people. And technology makes a lot of this easier. Social networks aren't technologies. They're relationships between people. And those relationships might be mediated through technology, but it's the relationships that matter more than the technology. Success in today's workforce isn't simply about having hard skills; it's about being networked in all sense of the word.

Ironically, the rise of these technologies create new conflicts alongside the opportunities that emerge because of them. When people think of American colleges, they often focus on the formal educational outcomes as the value. Yet, if you look at what most Americans got out of going to prestigious institutions, it often has less to do with what got packed into their brains and more to do with who they got to know and the connections that they made. Elite institutions like Harvard aren't elite because research-oriented professors are better teachers. (To the contrary, us research-oriented professors are often lousy educators.) But the collections of people brought together by forced dorm living made for a fantastic network of contacts after four years. Misery actually breeds connection. Yet, today, students go off to college and focus on connecting to people who are like them, people who feel safe. They assess their future roommate through Facebook and make judgments long before showing up on campus, often asking for a roommate transfer even before the semester begins. Because of social media, many youth feel empowered to surround themselves by people who think and act like them. This actually defeats one of the most important outcomes of a college education.

As new educational technologies emerge in the landscape, people are focused on whether or not one can effectively learn core content through MOOCs or via automated instruction. There's no question that these technologies are going to make certain learning opportunities more accessible to more people than ever before. But knowledge and skills are only one part of the equation. Actively cultivating the right social networks both to activate in the moment and to help propel lifelong learning are actually fundamentally crucial.

When tech folks break down boundaries and make connections to people across institutions, they are not just building better code for their company. They are actually making certain that they are relevant to the industry. By increasing the flow of information, they guarantee that they continue to learn and develop as professionals. When teenagers experiment with producing content that flows across the network or work to achieve ways of limiting the interpretation of certain content, they aren't just engaged in teenage practices of privacy and publicity. They're learning how to make sense of the networks of public life, a skill that they don't even realize they will need to be professionals in today's workforce.

Many of you are helping people develop hard skills that they need to do a variety of jobs. This is utterly critical. Without those hard skills, people can't get very far in a knowledge economy that is dependent on highly educated and skilled workers. But if you want to prepare people not just for the next job, but for the one after that, you need to help them think through the relationships they have and what they learn from the people around them. Understanding people isn't just an HR skill for managers. For better or worse, in a risk economy with an increasingly interdependent global workforce, these are skills that everyday people need. Building lifelong learners means instilling curiosity, but it also means helping people recognize how important it is that they continuously surround themselves by people that they can learn from. And what this means is that people need to learn how to connect to new people on a regular basis.

Of course, much of today's organizational culture is at odds with this. There are still plenty of companies out there who focus on long term retention, even as their employee's knowledge base and networks grow stale. And there are plenty of employees who strive to be lifers, believing in a 1950s image of devotion to a company as the pathway to success. I believe that these models are what prompt large companies to grow stale and wither. Outside of the tech industry, we have not yet seen a radical disruption to organizational culture, but I would bet that it's coming for the simple reason that many knowledge industries are struggling tremendously.

And so my question to you is simple: are you preparing learners for the organizational ecosystem of today? Or are you helping them develop networks so that they're prepared for the organizational shifts that are coming?