"Teen Socialization Practices in Networked Publics"

danah boyd
MacArthur Forum
23 April 2008

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

Citation: boyd, danah. 2008. "Teen Socialization Practices in Networked Publics." MacAthur Forum, Palo Alto, California, April 23.

(Note: the teen quotes were not spoken; they were presented on the slides during that segment of the talk. The slides also had visual depictions of teens socializing in a variety of different contexts.)


Good evening! My talk tonite concerns friendship-driven practices and networked publics. In other words, I want to talk about why most American teenagers are hanging out with their friends on MySpace and Facebook.

For 2.5 years, I drove around the United States talking to teenagers about how social network sites fit into their lives. I observed teen practices in public spaces around the country and spoke with parents, teachers, youth pastors, and other adults involved in the lives of youth. I formally interviewed 94 teens and analyzed over 10,000 MySpace profiles. My case study does not focus on extreme practices, but rather the practices of everyday teens throughout the country.

When I asked teens why they used Facebook and MySpace, their explanation was simple - it's to hang out with their friends. Not only is it a fun, it's socially critical to participate.

Skyler Sierra (18, Colorado): If you're not on MySpace, you don't exist.

Tara (16, Michigan): Like everyone says get a Facebook. You need to get one.

So, what exactly are youth doing? Why? What are they responding to? And how have limitations opened up new possibilities with different consequences? These are the questions that I want to address.


The first thing to understand about social network sites is that, for teens, they are not primarily about networkING. They are about socializing in a networked peer public with one's social network. In other words, teens go onto MySpace and Facebook to hang out with the friends that they know from school, activities, church, and summer camp. Their online world is a reproduction of their offline peer networks. Their social interactions move fluidly between online and offline environments.

Teens don't automatically exist online. They aren't automatically a part of social network sites and their presence is simply an IP address. For this reason, teens begin by creating a presence. A digital body if you will. In social network sites, this digital body takes the form of a profile. Teens accessorize their digital body and attempt to express themselves to be as cool as possible, just like they do when they leave the house in their physical bodies. What exists offline is mirrored online.

Next, they start adding Friends, fleshing out their social network. In doing so, they create their peer public within the broader public context. Their understanding of the social context is created in this process. These are not teens' closest and dearest, but the peer publics in which they socialize. They include classmates that they don't particularly like but don't want to offend as well as their best friends.

There are teens who go online to make new friends, but this is not standard. At the same time, just as you meet new friends or potential love interests at your friends' dinner parties, teens meet new people through their friends and classmates and cousins and shared affiliations.

danah: Have you met anyone thru MySpace?
Samantha (18, Seattle): Not really. There was a girl who knew me, but I didn't know her, but I added her anyways and she started talking to me… We both attended Young Life at different schools, but then one night there was an all area young life and I met up with her there.

That's one of the benefits of socializing in a public setting. Teens enjoy being exposed to new people through trusted networks.

The third key component of a social network site is the comments section or Wall. This is where teens publicly converse. Often, the specific content is less relevant than the way in which that content helps teens maintain their relationships. In other words, "yo, wazzup" "not much, how you?" "goood" may seem pointless, but it has tremendous value. That supposedly meaningless interaction was a re-affirmation of friendship, a tightening of social bonds, and a confirmation that there is no drama. Those meaningless interactions are what builds the social ties that we rely on. In other words, what was really being said was: "I'm thinking of you and want validation that we are still friends and that you're willing to spend time talking to me." "Yes, of course we are friends. To prove it, I will say it publicly so that others know that we're still friends." "OK, cool. Thank you!!"

Networked publics like MySpace and Facebook provide the social infrastructure to allow teens to communicate, socialize, share information, and do all of the things that they relish about hanging out with friends. Furthermore, they allow teens to do this within the social context of peer publics. While hanging out with friends one-on-one is fun, much more is gained through hanging out in public and being forced to interact with peers and negotiate social situations.


Friendship plays a significant role in the lives of most teens. Friends influence each other's activities, interests, behavior, and outlook. On one hand, friends provide emotional support, guidance, and validation.

Shean (17, Los Angeles): It's just fun to talk to your friends on the phone, make sure they're okay and if they are having problems to help them get out of it, and it's cool to have that support.

On the other, friends can also cause drama and engage in battles over popularity and status. Yet, at the end of the day, even when teens' friends frustrate them, they love them very dearly.

While many relationships and situations in teens' lives are scripted, friendship is valued for its unstructured-ness. Friends do gather for specific events and activities, but they also gather just to "hang out." Unfortunately, hanging out has a bad rap - especially in activity-driven, workaholic communities. Many adults believe that such "wasted time" breeds trouble.

This is all quite unfortunate because there is actually a lot of value in hanging out. Not only that, there's a lot of LEARNING that takes place. What does hanging out provide? First, social and emotional reprieve - downtime as well as support and validation. Second, potential introduction to new ideas and cultural artifacts. Third, and most importantly, hanging out is where youth learn to make sense of social norms, peer relations, and status. This is where culture is transmitted, interpreted, and reproduced.

danah: So what do you gain from socializing?
Bianca (16, Michigan): Social skills. Like you would learn how to like deal with like different situations and different people, and just to work with people that you don't like so much. So it just like helps you.

You might be thinking that this is precisely why youth shouldn't hang out. What's valuable about negotiating status? What's valuable about youth culture? Avoid!

As dreadful as middle school popularity fights are, learning how to negotiate peer relations is key to growing up. Forced group projects in school do not provide the same complex social interactions as peer publics. As an adult, you understand your role in relation to others and you have a pretty decent understanding of how to not offend people around you. You learned this by messing it up a few times. That's what it means to learn how to negotiate peer relations. You don't magically learn it at 18. You need to experience it. Friendships and peer publics are critical for that.

As for youth culture... I'm not the world's biggest fan of our celebrity-ridden MTV-ified consumerist culture, but I can't blame teens for this. Teens became a demographic for marketing when our society began really age segregation in the 1920s. Condemning teens for participating in it while building a market that relies on such manipulation is hypocritical. Besides, telling youth not to participate only makes things worse. Teens should be socialized into this world with a critical eye and some media literacy. Their experiences in networked publics do actually familiarize them with the production of consumerism, even if they don't yet know how to critique it.

Teen public life involves hanging out, status negotiation, and even consumerism and youth culture. While I do believe we need to change some things about our society, I don't think that this should be done at the expense of teens. They have good reasons to want to be engaged with public life and I strongly support them. Besides, don't we need them to understand the world around them in order to make change?


So, if we take it for granted that hanging out in public has value, why does it have to be networked publics? Why can't friendships be formed the way they always have been?

danah: If you could choose between hanging out with friends or being online with them?
Tara (16, Michigan): Oh, hang out, for sure (laughs).
Lila (18, Michigan): But if you don't have the option, then you can just go online.

While many teens would love to hang out in person, that's often not possible. Teens do not have as much access to physical public space as they once did. While I had seen the studies that stated this, the stories from teens surprised me.

Some teens aren't allowed out because their parents are afraid. Stranger danger, fear of abduction, fear of gangs, fear of violence, fear of any nightmare you could possibly imagine.

Jordan (15, Austin): See, I'm not [allowed outside] so much. My mom's from Mexico and like – it's like completely like different.
danah: Why?
Jordan: I don't know. It's just like she thinks I'll get kidnapped.

Some teens, especially girls, aren't allowed out because parents believe that socializing with peers will corrupt them.

danah: Why don't your parents allow you out much?
Ana-Garcia (15, Los Angeles): It's just the fact of being overprotective, ‘cause my dad, he's Muslim, so he doesn't like me going anywhere, so I just stay home. He doesn't want anything to happen to me... I obey his rules.

Some teens don't have time to go out because they are over-scheduled and lack any form of unscheduled, unstructured time. This is particularly common in upwardly mobile middle and upper class communities who are designing their children for college.

Myra (14, Iowa): Mom says I have to have four years of music… I have been taking Czech summer school for, I think, seven years… Harp lessons… Track practice… I'd say 98% of [my time is scheduled and structured].

Some teens aren't allowed out because their parents think that the only thing that teens should do is homework.

Some teens can't get to friends because increased suburbanization often means no nearby friends, heavy reliance on cars or parents.

Kat (14, Massachusetts): I don't actually really hang out that much with any of my friends outside of school and outside of dance, because they don't live close to me.

Some teens don't go out because there's nowhere to go. Most public spaces require money and teens are regularly shooed from malls, parks, and cafes. When shooing doesn't work, there are curfew and loitering laws.

Some teens don't go out because their friends don't go out. It's not so much fun to go out alone. That's not the point. The reason to socialize in public is to socialize with friends and peers in public.

Sabrina (14, Texas): Well, I do [go out] sometimes, cause if I call a friend and say, hey, are you free? Yeah, let's go to the movies or something. But there isn't a whole lot of time when I'm free and the person's free, or someone's free at the same time.

So, while many teens would prefer to hang out in person, online is often easier and more accessible.

Amy (16, Seattle): My mom doesn't let me out of the house very often, so that's pretty much all I do, is I sit on MySpace and talk to people and text and talk on the phone, cause my mom's always got some crazy reason to keep me in the house.

Networked publics are where they can do as they please and goof around with their friends, even when they're stuck at home. Interactions can take place at interstitial times - between homework, after dinner, and between classes. And for a while, adults weren't there to fear monger or shoo them away. For quite a while, MySpace truly was a "place for friends." And teens love it for that.

The dynamics change when adults are present and as I give this talk, it's important to point out that another shift is underway. Towards the end of my fieldwork, teens pulled back, away from networked publics as anything other than glorified email. They added texting to their collection of media and are still looking for ways to hang out with a bunch of peers without parents.


While networked publics are accessible, they aren't quite like other public spaces. Specific features and properties of these spaces alter the social culture and, in turn, the types of interaction that take place on these sites.

Having to articulate relationships created awkward social moments. Even worse was having to list Top Friends in a game that sounded a lot like middle school battles over best and bestest friends. Needless drama emerged because of this technical feature, requiring teens to invest time into being socially appropriate or try to reframe the meaning to make it less significant.

Nadine (16, New Jersey): As a kid, you used your birthday party guest list as leverage on the playground." If you let me play I'll invite you to my birthday party”…. Today it's the MySpace Top 8. It's the new dangling carrot for gaining superficial acceptance. Taking someone off your 8 is your new passive aggressive power play when someone pisses you off.

In addition to specific features, there are also five fundamental properties of networked publics that made these environments tricky.

Conversations become persistent which is great for asynchronicity, but not so great if someone wants to forget about a conversation. Digital media creates a persistence of memory.

Teens and their content have become searchable. My mother would've dreamed of the ability to scream search and find me. She couldn't, I'm thankful. Today's teens are searchable simply through their profiles. This is great when they want to be found, not so great when parents, teachers, college admissions officers, and others who hold power over them are searching for them.

Content can be replicated. An IM interaction between friends can be copied and pasted into Facebook for keeping and sharing. This is great if that conversation makes both parties look good, not so great when a private conversation is reposted to embarrass someone.

Public interactions are negotiated in front of invisible audiences. In physical environments, we can look around us and get a sense of who might be hearing our conversations. Online, this is not so possible. The lack of visibility can expose teens, but it also makes it tricky to manage social context. If you don't know the audience, how do you know what's appropriate?

All four of these funnel into a fifth property: scalability. Networked publics amplify many things. People can be much more visible, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are. Information can spread much more widely, but that doesn't mean it does.


These properties affect social processes because they change the rules. For teens, who are enmeshed in trying to learn how to negotiate social worlds, the properties of the environment matter.

For example, context is critical to socialization. Context is how teens assess a social situation and determine what is and is not appropriate. A huge part of teen socialization and friendship is learning how to recognize social signals from people and understand the social context. In theory, teens are socialized into specific environments by parents.

Emily (16, Pennsylvania): If you walk in [to a restaurant] and see what others are doing, then it kind of teaches you what you should do too…
Anthony (14, Pennsylvania): Our parents teach us how we should behave in public.

A parent teaches a child what's appropriate on the bus or at church or at the beach, regardless of whether or not she obeys. You learn to make sense of the context through time and experience, through people showing you the ropes.

Persistence, searchability, replicability, invisible audiences, and scalability destabilize context. As a result, teens learn to make sense of social contexts with these properties. This is probably a good thing. These environments aren't going away and if they learn to negotiate them now, they will be much better equipped to handle future social dilemmas.

This doesn't mean that they won't make mistakes, even mistakes that they regret. They will. But that is part of the process of growing up. And by and large, most of these mistakes are the type that create social bruises, not lifelong horrors. We teach our children to drive, even though there's a potential for accidents because we know that this is critical to the future. We also need to teach our children to navigate mediated social environments, because this too is critical to the future.

Just as context is destabilized through networked publics, so is the meaning of public and private. What I learned from talked to teens is that they are living in a world where things are "public by default, private when necessary." Teens see public acts amongst peers as being key to status. Writing a public message to someone on their wall is a way of validating them amongst their peers. Likewise, teens make choices to go private to avoid humiliating one of their friends.

Yet, their idea of public is not about all people across all space and all time. They want publics of peers, not publics where creeps and parents lurk.

Bly Lauritano-Werner (17, Maine): My mom always uses the excuse about the internet being 'public' when she defends herself. It's not like I do anything to be ashamed of, but a girl needs her privacy. I do online journals so I can communicate with my friends. Not so my mother could catch up on the latest gossip of my life.

Properties of technology have complicated what it means to be in public. We are all used to being in publics that don't include all people across all space and all time. Many of us grew up gossiping with friends out in public and stopping the moment that an adult walks over. This isn't possible when things are persistent. And it's really hard to be public to all peers and just keep certain people out. So teens are learning how to negotiate a world where the very meaning of public and private have changed. Again, this is a good thing. They're going to need these skills in the future.

At the end of the day, they are doing these things along with their peers, learning how to live in a new mediated world by hanging out with friends and peers. Along the way, they are learning how society and culture are constructed. As much as we like to shield our children from all of the problems in the world, they know that they need to learn to interact with them. They need to know how to interact in public.

Sasha (16, Michigan): The world is not just like a small group of people that you grew up with. Having a wide variety of people has really helped me… you have to learn to work with them.

And they are trying very hard to figure out how.

Thank you!



Thanks to the MacArthur Foundation for funding this work. Special thanks to the late Peter Lyman for supporting me and guiding me through this research. May he rest in peace.