My biggest takeaway from the fascinating keynote by social media and youth culture expert Danah Boyd, Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and Founder of the Data & Society Research Institute, was that we need to be very careful about analyzing social media, because apparently we misread a lot.
Boyd, an anthropologist and author of “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens,” noted that social media use by young people has gone from a consolidation phase (Facebook) to a state of complete fragmentation as young people dabble in a variety of platforms to meet their needs.
As such, it’s no longer simple to optimize analytics for social media because these platforms differ by structure, format and, importantly, the use or purpose for which young people have deemed each best suited, respectively.
Much of the migratory behavior we’re seeing in young people on social media these days is a response to a lack of privacy and the consequent desire to exert more control over what is shared with whom.
Boyd said young people care deeply about privacy, but not in the sense we “grown-ups” might think. She said they want to be in public, not to be public, and they’re migrating from platform to platform in an effort to exert control over their social situations.
Boyd cautioned the audience to not to take what’s posted online too literally, as young people are increasingly speaking in a sort of code or “social steganography”: much of what they post is a message hiding in plain sight intended for and whose meaning may only be deciphered by select insiders.
“My job as an ethnographer to get in deep and make sense of things has gotten harder,” Boyd said. “We’re missing things.”
They’re also gaming algorithms in ways that might throw you off. For example, Boyd said young people often insert brand names randomly in status updates because they know that it will bump them to the top of their friends’ lists.
“Youth know Facebook and other platforms use algorithms for commercial purposes,” Boyd said.
They do the same thing with Gmail, she added, whiting out text and pasting it into emails they send friends to trigger ads that are clearly targeted for other people for laughs, for example.
Boyd closed with a note about how young people are organizing by networks instead of traditional groups. “They get networks; they understand how to flow things,” she said.
The move from groups—characterized by established boundaries—to networks, which are porous, constitutes a radical cultural shift, Boyd emphasized.
The shift has implications for business culture, in particular.
Boyd noted young people are voracious learners, which in part explains why those who’ve entered the work force now switch jobs every couple of years. And true to networking, they retain the ties they’ve made at their old jobs while forging new ones, which may seem innocuous but may really not be.
Boyd noted that in Silicon Valley, for example, the new generation of hi-tech industry workers doesn’t see a problem exchanging, say, code with peers over coffee.
“They’re fundamentally networked,” Boyd explained. “They see no issue in meeting with friends from their old company and sharing information that might be considered intellectual property.”
The transient nature of the emerging labor cohort and the free flow and exchange of knowledge and experience inherent in the networked ethos will completely change the culture of business, she concluded.
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