"Understanding Socio-Technical Phenomena in a Web2.0 Era"

danah boyd
Microsoft Research New England Lab Opening
M.I.T. Cambridge, MA
22 September 2008

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

Citation: boyd, danah. 2008. "Understanding Socio-Technical Phenomena in a Web2.0 Era." MSR New England Lab Opening, Cambridge MA, September 22.


The title of my talk today contains two different buzzwords - one from social science and one from the tech industry. This is quite intentional because my talk today is going to be about the intersections between these two different areas of innovation and the implications bridging them has to benefit both research and technology development.

The study of socio-technical phenomena is about understanding the intersections between technologies and social practices. Researching socio-technical phenomena prompts questions like:
- How does technology inflect old practices in new ways?
- How do people adopt and adapt to the emergence of technologies?
- How do technologies configure people and how do people reconfigure technologies to meet their needs?
- How do these dynamics play out on individual, group, and societal levels?

For the last decade, my research has centered on social technologies. More recently, I've been examining the various Web2.0 phenomena and for the last three years, I've been doing ethnographic fieldwork with American teenagers to understand how they incorporate social media into their lives. My approach is socio-technical and I believe that this requires me to understand both the technologies and the practices.

In my talk today, I want to walk you through one slice of what it is that I do. I'm going to start by defining Web2.0 and putting it in historical and theoretical contexts, especially for the wary amongst you. I will then address a segment of my own research, noting a few findings and talking about some of the theoretical and practical implications. My goal in doing so is to offer one way in which research in this area can be done and what can come out if it. Finally, I will step out of my own work and discuss the importance of this type of research.

Let's begin!

What is Web2.0?

Web2.0 is all the rage, but the concept means different things to different groups.

For the technology crowd, it was about a shift in development and deployment. Rather than producing a product and shipping it to be consumed by an audience that was disconnected from the technologist, Web2.0 was about the perpetual beta. This concept makes all of us giggle, but what this means is that, for technologists, Web2.0 was about constantly iterating the technology as people interacted with it and learning from what they were doing. To make this happen, we saw the rise of technologies that supported real-time interactions, user-generated content, remixing and mashups, APIs and open-source software that allowed mass collaboration in the development cycle.

For the business crowd, Web2.0 started out as hope. Web2.0 emerged out of the ashes of the fallen tech bubble and bust. Scars ran deep throughout Silicon Valley and venture capitalists and entrepreneurs wanted to party like it was 1999. Web2.0 brought energy to this forlorn crowd. At first they were skeptical, but slowly they bought in. As a result, we've seen a resurgence of startups, venture capitalists, and conferences. Nerves are still jittery and Web2.0 is sometimes referred to as Bubble2.0, but there's something to say about "hope" even when the VCs start co-opting that term because they want four more years.

For everyday folks, Web2.0 meant something different. Web2.0 meant an information ecology that was organized around friends. It meant a mainstream shift from private communication channels to public communication channels and a shift from interest-driven publics to friend-driven publics. Let me explain.

While lots of people came online during the e-commerce wave, the most practices centered around information access and communication. Communication practices fit into two dominant paradigms. First, there were one-to-one and small-group tools like email and IM. Second, there were more public tools like virtual worlds, forums, and chatrooms. There were people who came online only to talk with people they knew; they primarily drifted to IM and email. Then there were folks who came online to meet others like them. These folks tended to drift towards more public technologies.

You can think of these two paradigms as "friendship-driven" and "interest-driven." Yes, most people have interests, but those interests are mostly commonly tightly tied to and driven by friendship networks. Interest-driven practices are those where the interests trump and there is more desire to meet strangers around an interest than to adjust interests to connect with friends. Web1.0 was pretty good at supporting interest-driven practices and many early adopters came to the Internet to relieve themselves of the social limits that they felt offline. While the Internet has been tremendous for the marginalized, ostracized, and geeky, their interest-driven practices are not mainstream. For most people around the world, friendship-driven practices trump their social engagements.

Web2.0 changed the dials of both of these styles of engagement. It expanded ways for interest-driven people to find real-world connections, but more significantly, it began enabling public environments that were friendship-driven.

Theoretically and practically, this is a radical shift. Web2.0 reshaped the face of the Internet. The vast majority of people out there are driven by doing things with people that they know. They were using IM and email to talk to these people online, but they weren't participating in the public parts of the web which was primarily interest or information-driven. Web2.0 introduced a series of technologies that enabled friendship-driven public spaces.

Networked Publics

These spaces are "networked publics." Networked publics connect people through networked technology and create public spaces through networked technology in which people can come together. User-generated content is a core part of networked publics. People don't just consume together - they produce together. And, ideally, they consume and produce as part of everyday participation.

Networked publics have been a core part of the Internet for decades, but they've been primarily interest-driven. The blogosphere was the first significant reshifting. That said, the most visible practices in the blogosphere were the interest-driven ones, even though they were by no means the majority. Social network sites introduced an entirely new wave that was friendship-driven first, interest-driven second.

Since then, we've seen entirely new genres pop up that blend interest-driven and friendship-driven social dynamics. Many of the most popular allow both interest-driven and friendship-driven practices to prosper. Additionally, we've seen "information" get inserted into these spaces such that they are both communication platforms and information sharing environments. Take microblogging tools like Twitter or media-sharing platforms like YouTube and Flickr. Some content is entirely social while other content is "information." Some content is contributed in a friend-driven context while other is contributed with an interest-driven context in mind.

What is unique about these kinds of networked publics is that the reason someone might contribute something doesn't necessarily need to match up with the reason in which someone might consume it. I may contribute a photo because I want my friends to see the ridiculous poster at my local mall, but those who are interested in the topic portrayed may find it and it may be relevant to them. The tools let those people get access to my content and let them spread it on.

All of this of course depends on privacy settings. Participation in networked publics can be quite private, yet people also gain from participating in public. What is interesting is an emergent attitude amongst youth that boils down to "public by default, private when necessary." This will have considerable implications as networked publics continue to grow.

Social Network Sites and Teens

OK, enough high-level mumbo-jumbo... let's talk examples. In the United States, two social network sites captured the attention of teenagers, starting in 2004. Teens were by no means the first to adopt these sites. Nor were these sites the first of their kind. But teens' engagement with these sites brought them to the national stage, in part because their usage prompted a moral panic. I won't get into the MySpace moral panic today, but it should be noted that moral panics have historically done a tremendous job of popularizing all sorts of cultural creations - sewing machines, comic books, rock music, and even paperback fiction.

From the getgo, teenagers approached social network sites with friendship-driven practices in mind. They joined because their friends invited them. And they joined because participation became essential amongst their peers. Social network sites became a "cool" place to hangout and failure to do so often meant social isolation.

In joining, teens created expressive profiles, choosing content based on their expectation that their audience would be their friends and peers. This meant that they often lied to the system, not caring if the company thought that they were 95 years old because their friends would know that it was really them.

They approached profile creation in the same way that they approached decorating their bedroom wall or locker. Their practices had nothing to do with creating an "Internet identity," but rather, expressing themselves to their friends in a digital medium.

When asked to articulate a list of Friends, teens (and for that matter, adults) struggled to resolve the difference between "friend" in the everyday sense and "Friend" in social network sites. Most teens realized quickly that there would be huge social consequences if they didn't accept Friend requests from classmates, even if they didn't feel as though they were friends with that person. Teens quickly repurposed the Friends feature to fit into their model of social network site usage. For most teens, this meant connecting to anyone they knew from school, church, summer camp, etc. with one notable exception: avoid adults who hold power over you at all costs - parents, teachers, etc. Their choice of who to Friend said something very important about their usage of these sites - most saw them as peer spaces and their listing of Friends conveyed the context they imagined.

MySpace further complicated the Friending issue by forcing users to rank order their connections. In order words, teens were forced to list their best and bestest friends for everyone to see. For many teens, this feature brought on tremendous social drama because there's nothing fun about saying to someone that you like someone else better, especially when that announcement is made publicly.

Teens embraced the various communication features on social network sites to socialize in different ways. They sent private messages and posted bulletins to all of their Friends. Yet, the most unique communication feature was the Comments section. This is where people can leave messages for their Friends that will appear on those Friends' profile pages for everyone to see. This feature emerged from an earlier site's notion of "Testimonials" where Friends could recommend each other for strangers who were viewing the profile. Even then, strangers weren't really a part of most equations and so users often repurposed this section to carry on witness-able conversations. For teens, Comments became a key site of sociability. To an outsider, a lot of what is said in this space may not appear to be that significant. Lots of conversations in Comments are roughly "Yo, wazzup?" "Not much, you?" "Nothing." These conversations may seem pointless, but in fact, they allow teens to personally and publicly reinforce their connections with each other. The attention economy is not just affecting newspapers.

The sum of teens' engagement in social network sites resembles teen practices in other public spaces. Teens hang out and goof around with friends. They gossip and flirt. They mark social categories and jockey for status.

One interesting thing is that teens often engage in these practices online because they have no opportunities to get together with friends and peers in other unmediated spaces. The dynamics here are often shocking. The lives of American teenagers are highly structured and regulated. Their mobility is heavily curtailed for various reasons - increased curfew, trespassing, and loitering laws; the lack of social spaces that welcome teens; the rise in structured activities and the decline in free time; the increase in suburbanization and the decline in public transit. Above all, teens are restricted because of the culture of fear and parental concerns that leaving the house poses a danger to teens.

The effect is networked - it doesn't matter if one teen can leave the house; if his friends can't, public spaces aren't social.

This combines to mean that teens engage with social network sites like they are public peer spaces. The practices that take place in these sites resemble those that take place in other publics. And yet, the technology inflects them in odd ways. For example, it's not quite normal to have to list your friends for the world to see.

Four unique properties of networked publics lead to three important shifts in dynamics.

These four properties fundamentally shape three different dynamics that alters how people interact in social media environments.

These dynamics have significant social and cultural implications. They radically alter how people work out identity in relation to those around them. They introduce new structures for social interactions. They complicate power dynamics, agency, and freedom. And yet, finding ways to navigate these spaces means learning how to handle a shifting world with greater complexity. As adults are panicking, teens have been learning. They understand the public world is being radically restructured and they're developing coping mechanisms.

Getting at the push and pull of this is essential. How might this affect education and policy? What does this suggest for civic engagement and new forms of learning? How might these assumptions play out in global business and governance?

The implications for technology and business are also great. How can technology support people's needs and desires while allowing them to grow in new ways? These technologies evolved with the ways in which people used them, but some have faltered when the invisible audiences, context collisions, and public/private convergence became too great. What are the breaking points for usage and how do we handle them? These systems are all about social and technical networks, but this also means that they are configured by network effects. How do these systems gain traction with record speed and how do they unravel even faster? How does information spread and what happens when it doesn't? What do these performed structures say about other networks and what does it mean for a global society?

These are just a few of the questions that are on my mind. <grin>

Studying Social Media

My research is just one approach for understanding socio-technical phenomena. I am an ethnographer - I like embedding myself in the lives of everyday people to get at the "how" and "why" questions. And I like building topological maps of cultural practices. Yet, this is just one of many ways to study social media. There are quantitative scholars who examine frequency of practices. Some work relies on direct information from people while other work examines the data that people produce through their behavior. There are folks who look at the relationship between a human and the computer while others focus on the ways in which technology mediates social interactions between humans. There are those who design systems to understand how technological shifts might affect behavior and there are those who examine people's relationship with pre-existing technologies.

Social media scholarship draws on a vast number of different intellectual disciplines and research methodologies. Scholars use a wide variety of techniques to get at practices, including surveys, interviews, content analyses, visualizations, social network analyses, etc. All of these approaches are valid and important, as each produces a different set of understanding about the relationship between the social and the technical. Different questions require different approaches and, when studying phenomena, it is all too important to be asking lots and lots of questions.

As scholars seek to understand socio-technical practices, they bring in additional frames to think about the implications of what they're observing. For example:

All of these issues - and many more - are currently being research by social scientists interested in social media. As you can imagine, there are tremendous opportunities for cross-disciplinary research embedded here. How can we model these dynamics? How can we build systems that encourage certain practices or take advantage of certain humanistic approaches?

In Conclusion

So, on a day in which we are celebrating the opening of a new interdisciplinary research lab, why is social media research important to the future of computing?

The origins of computing are very mathematical and scientific. The personal computer revolutionized computing because, when placed in the hands of millions, the computer didn't just serve as a large-scale calculator. People repurposed the computer to meet their needs and whole industries emerged in an effort to provide them with what they might want.

The Internet began as a military endeavor. Today, it connects billions of people across the globe with each and and with uncountable quantities of information. It is the site of tremendous amounts of learning, sociality, and play.

Many of the advancements in computing are due to a deep understanding of the technical issues. Some are due to an understanding of business needs. Yet, plenty are due to an understanding of how systems fit into people's lives. Many of the companies that we've seen blossom in the last few years are not a product of advancements in algorithms, but a result of social innovation. Any engineer would cringe at the codebase of most of these companies. Yet, at a social level, the advancements are tremendous.

This is not to say that scientific and engineering-driven advancements in computing are unimportant. Quite the contrary; they are absolutely essential. Yet, in an era where computing is being shaped by social practices and where social practices are being shaped by computing, we desperately need to get a handle on the socio-technical side of things.

The tech industry can only benefit by knowing what on earth it is that people are doing. As computing gets increasingly ubiquitous, understanding the relationship between people, practices, and technology can provide tremendous fodder for innovation.

Social media research also provides valuable insight into human behavior, social structures, and cultural dynamics. Through computing, we have access to much greater data and the ability to process that data. We can examine interactions at a much greater scale and develop better techniques for recognizing the interplay of seemingly unrelated issues. Through social media, we can advance our understandings of humanity. This, of course, has broad-reaching implications.

Web2.0 is restructuring many core elements of social life and our information ecology. This phenomena has brought tremendous change for technologists, businesspeople, and everyday users. It has also opened a floodgate of potential for research. Understanding what's happening helps further our knowledge of humanity and provide insight for future innovation.