"Choose Your Own Ethnography: In Search of (Un)Mediated Life"

danah boyd
The Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) Annual Conference
October 13, 2007

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

Citation: boyd, danah. 2007. "Choose Your Own Ethnography: In Search of (Un)Mediated Life." Paper presented at 4S, Montreal, Canada, October 13.


This paper is written in loving memory of Peter Lyman (1940-2007). It was Peter who taught me to treat ethnography as an evolving practice that had to take into consideration the shifting nature of social life.


For as far back as I can remember, I was intrigued by edges. It was always a love-hate relationship. A certain amount of healthy fear of heights kept me a safe distance from the most daunting cliffs, but I couldn't help but wonder what was on the other side of a given edge. As I began my career as a researcher, I couldn't help but chase after the carrots presented by the bleeding edges of technology.

Having grown up online and began my career as a computer scientist, I've always had a healthy skepticism of new technology and found joy in unpacking reality from hype. Nothing gives me more pleasure than understanding the differences between how a technology is conceptualized by its creators versus its users. I love weaving in and out and between circles of developers and users. But this position destroys the magic of supposed bleeding edge. The blood of venture capitalists and the edge manifested as media hype are not nearly as delectable as I had originally imagined. Yet, realizing that the bleeding edge is nothing more than a Neal Stephenson-esque dream gave me the perspective I needed to really focus on people and their interactions using mediating technologies.

My predilection or shall we say my compulsion to shatter utopic mirrors has prompted and shaped many of my research projects. I've tried numerous methodologies to help make sense of the interplay of people and technology. I began by building psych experiments to understand depth perception prioritization in order to show that 3D immersive virtual reality systems have hormone-based biases. I built interactive visualizations of social data to highlight how we all hold more data about each other than we realize. Lately, I've been obsessed with trying to make sense of how networked publics are incorporated into the lives of American teenagers. To get at this question, I embarked on a two year ethnographic study of how American youth are using social technologies as a part of their practices of everyday life. The easy way to say this is that I've been studying MySpace.


At its most surface level, ethnography is about writing culture. In practice, it's about diving into a particular culture and working to understand that culture on its own terms, interpreting signals to understand underlying signs. Traditionally, ethnography has concerned itself with cultures that are geographically framed or ethnically bounded.

From letters to the telephone to the Internet, geographies of social life are shifting because of mediating technologies. Increasingly, people live in a networked world where they communicate with people through mediating technologies, even when they share geographical proximity. This introduces questions about the boundaries of cultures. Geography is not the only meaningful delimiter or framer of culture, although it is not completely absent either. It just requires re-examination. Culture is still made up of people, artifacts, symbolism, etc. It's just that the underlying architecture that we've taken for granted has changed.

In trying to make sense of teen life, I wanted to understand how mediating technologies, and particularly networked publics that allow individuals to interact with friends and strangers through mediating technologies, shape the lives of teenagers. I wanted to know how teens experience and navigate the shifting architectural foundations introduced by mediating technologies - persistence, searchability, replicability, invisible audiences, scale of interactions, etc.

While I groan whenever the buzzword "digital native" is jockeyed about, I also know that there is salience to this term. It is not a term that demarcates a generation, but a state of experience. The term is referencing those who understand that the world is networked, that cultures exist beyond geographical coordinates, and that mediating technologies allow cultures to flourish in new ways. Digital natives are not invested in "life on the screen" or "going virtual" but on using technology as an artifact that allows them to negotiate culture. In other words, a "digital native" understands that there is no such thing as "going online" but rather, what is important is the way in which people move between geographically-organized interactions and network-organized interactions. To them, it's all about the networks, even if those networks have coherent geographical boundaries.


Rather than fetishizing MySpace, I want to understand how youth are engaging with it, why, when, and to what ends. Yet, getting at this presents challenging research questions, questions that are at the root of all studies that take into consideration networked life.

- What does it mean to "go native" in a networked world?

- How can you follow interactions when they occur seamlessly between mediums?

- What is the role of observation when people exist by writing themselves into being?

- How do you conceptualize spatiality when statements like "I talked to him" are used to reference in-person conversations, phone conversations, semi-synchronous IM or SMS messages, and asynchronous email interactions?

- How do you build trust with informants when your presence is barely visible? And what does it mean to be a visible researcher?

I don't have all of the answers to all of these questions, but they have critically framed my project at every turn. Instead of trying to offer answers, I want to highlight some of the ways in which I managed or mismanaged this with my own project and what I learned from this endeavor.


While the popular conceptualization of "going native" is highly derogatory, anthropologists often use this term to refer to an engagement with the "other" that does not other that population. In other words, doing one's damndest to understand a culture on its own terms. As white anthropologists studying Aboriginal populations know, a foreign anthropologist will never be an Aboriginal and there will always be markers that separate her from the tribe.

I study American teenagers and their use of social media, primarily networked publics and social network sites like MySpace. Having a MySpace or Facebook profile does not make me native. I will never use MySpace like teenagers do, nor should I. This is akin to buying a cock and putting spurs on it and thinking you know about Balinese cockfighting. It's not about the technology or the artifact, but about the culture in which those technologies and artifacts are embedded.

Going native in a networked world is extremely difficult. What makes the experiences of say teens so vibrant is cluster effects. They're using the technologies with their friends. It's not about them and the machine. It's about them and their friends interacting through the machine. One of the things that I figured out really quickly is that having a profile did me absolutely no good. I needed to have friends who would interact with me so that I would get what it was like to experience the technology as a mediating force. Thus, I have dragged my friends kicking and screaming into using these tools just so that I could get it. Using these tools in my own social framework is not the same as experiencing what teens experience, but I needed to feel the social awkwardness, the consequences of power relations, the gulp factor when a comment was taken out of context, and the uh-ohs involved in expressing information in a persistent and searchable manner in the face of broad audiences. And this required my friends to be involved.

Technological awareness is not enough to study social interactions in a digital era. I do not believe it is possible really study the role of a technology in social life if you fetishize the tool. Pushing past that is critical and it takes time and innovative forms, something that we all need to think through.


The next challenge for me was trying to understand how interactions moved between spaces. While cyberculture dreams were all about a life fully lived online, most people do not experience that and thus you cannot simply watch from an online vantage point. Seeing a teen's life through the lens of MySpace is akin to seeing their life through their time in school. It does get you part way there and it is important, but since I wanted to understand how social technologies fit into teens' lives, I knew I needed to go further.

To do this, I sought to observe teens online and offline and interview them. Luckily, I've always had a fascination with the U.S. I've spent time in 48 states, driven horizontally across the country 13 times, vertically four times and made uncountable other interstate trips. Whenever I do, I hang out in all sorts of community and public spaces from parks and malls to VFW diners and movie theaters. I love talking to locals and observing the dynamic that take place.

For the last two years, I've been going to different parts of the U.S., first to observe teens and then, once I finally had IRB approval, to do semi-structured interviews. Some of my favorite hang-out places in the last year have included: McDonald's after-school, Denny's or IHOP (or the local equivalent) after a football game, movie theaters on weekends, city buses after school, parks (or equivalents like The Pit in Boston), malls, and church services. I've been invited into schools and after-school programs just to hang out and watch. Upon IRB approval, I started visiting teens in their homes with parental permission.

In addition to 94 in-person interactions and hundreds of hours of observations, I spent a ridiculous amount of time on MySpace, LiveJournal, and Xanga. I surfed at least 100 profiles or blogs a day just to get a sense of the patterns and norms. In all, I analyzed 10,000 random profiles. In other words, I had no life.

Each and every one of these practices had its biases, but slowly, a picture started forming. Engaging with teens in these different spaces let me see how teens' interactions took shape.

Unfortunately, there's a huge weakness to this approach. I was not able to truly move between the spaces with teens. I couldn't follow an individual teen from morning to night, going to school, activities, home, etc. with them because of different structural limitations (think schools, laws and IRBs). My views of teen life were necessarily staccato, not seamless. And I found this deeply frustrating.


Another way in which I gained access involved being a visible researcher.

I started a blog over 10 years ago. In 2002, I began documenting the cultural practices surrounding a prior social network site called Friendster. I was not in school and I was bored so I began interviewing employees, venture capitalists, and users, documenting what I learned on my blog. Because people were curious about this phenomenon, my blog gained traction. People began sending me their own stories, sharing news coverage, providing inside views into what was happening. My blog became a central repository for coverage of Friendster.

When I returned to graduate school, my advisor teased me about my blog. While the site had certainly generated an unbelievable quantity of data, he was concerned that I had tainted my own research by documenting what I was learning along the way. He was also concerned that my role in the media was contributing to the hype that prompted new users to sign up. We made a deal. I would not blog about MySpace until it was clear that I could not influence its growth.

It pained me not to blog about the growth of MySpace. I kept my mouth shut and pulled my hair out that other bloggers were not covering the evolution at all. Of course, it made sense... bloggers are a wee-bit self-involved and we have a bad tendency to blog about the things that we do rather than the things that others do. With the sale of MySpace to Murdoch's News Corporation for an astonishing $580M, my advisor and I declared the end of the silent period. And off I went to blog. Little did I know that a moral panic was about to explode and that I would be in the middle of it by having data about what it was that youth were actually doing on the site and by feeling the need to defend youth as the moral panic swept through the U.S.

I consciously made the decision to enter into and stay in the public realm with my work on MySpace. Like many anthropologists in the past, I couldn't stand by and not engage. I spoke with the companies, with the media, with the librarian activists, and with D.C. politicos. I spoke to parents, teachers, law enforcement, and youth ministers about what youth were doing. I became truly involved as an advocate.

It's easy to argue that I biased the phenomenon and, probably I did. But what surprised me is the ways in which this also opened the doors to greater access to data.

When I appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, I received dozens of MySpace messages from teenagers all over the U.S. telling me about their experiences, often begging me to talk to their parents. I also received uncountable notes from parents with mixed views. Over time, my articles and commentary reached a variety of different audiences. People from all over the country began telling me what they saw in their homes, their stores, their churches, their communities. Companies began sending me data and their own analyses, asking me to sit in on focus groups and work through the data they had. Frustrated teachers began sending me notices that schools disseminated about the evils of MySpace. Tom Anderson from MySpace began forwarding me letters from concerned parents. Even journalists started telling me what they heard but didn't have the space to print. My controversial blog essay on class dynamics and social network sites prompted over 1000 personal emails, 4000 blog posts, and uncountable comments on those blog entries. In other words, it sparked conversation and in doing so, I was handed immense data. Most interestingly, researchers began contacting me with data they had that backed the observation that I tried to document. Some of this work will be published this month.

I can't say that this has all been experientially positive. I have been lambasted by academics for publicly documenting my observations and for engaging with companies. I have been accused of being a part of a MySpace conspiracy by a father who blamed me for his son's suicide. Private photos have surfaced for public discussions of my sexuality and mental health. Most problematically, most of the data that I have I cannot use due to bureaucratic university policies meant to protect university bank accounts. To be honest, it's a lot easier to laugh off the malicious trolls and lunatic death threats than it is to stomach the cruelty of academics and the limitations of academic institutions.

But the reason that I didn't stop is because I feel as though being a public researcher gave me access to data about what was going on that I could not have otherwise gotten. Putting on some thousands of miles around the U.S. was invaluable, but getting letters of usage patterns like the one from a Southern teen who used MySpace for missionary work or the rural pro-NRA teen who told me that I was cool even if I was a liberal was priceless. The random assortment of data may not have been systematically acquired, but boy did it help me find holes in my arguments or see narratives that I hadn't considered. Above all, being a public researcher has allowed me to see things that were previously invisible to me. to get perspectives that I had never considered trying to account for, and to hear tales from a wide variety of people who either supported or condemned my research endeavors. In short, being visible made me feel like I was truly a part of the culture.


In his essay on thick description, Clifford Geertz offers an anecdote concerning infinite recursion to help the reader understand the complexity of culture.

"There is an Indian story - at least I heard it as an Indian story - about an Englishman who, having been told that the world rested on a platform which rested on the back of an elephant which rested in turn on the back of a turtle, asked (perhaps he was an ethnographer; it is the way they behave), what did the turtle rest on? Another turtle. And that turtle? 'Ah, Sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down.'" (Geertz 1973)

This view of culture and knowledge, while relieving to some, produces an image that culture is stacked layers. While the depth if culture is surely infinite, it appears possible to understand a layer or two. Yet, what I found in my own ethnographic work was a different topological map. Trying to locate myself and my questions in a fast-moving (if not exploding) phenomenon full of people moving between digital and physical spaces, shifting geography and time proved challenging. Understanding culture in a networked environment requires dodging bullets Matrix-style, weaving through groups, around technologies, and into in-between spaces and times. I found that Heisenberg's uncertainty principle applies just as much to ethnography as it does to physics. Doing participant/observation in a networked culture requires the ethnographer to be a node, a position that may fundamentally alters the culture being studied. Without this engagement, it does not seem possible to really be present in the networked environment.