When it comes to social media, teens are not all created equal

I wrote a post recently based on something that 19-year-old Andrew Watts published on Medium, about the way he uses various social media networks. It was a fascinating look at how different services — from SnapChat and Instagram to Facebook and Twitter — appeal or don’t appeal to Andrew and his friends. But as sociologist and teen expert danah boyd rightly points out in a follow-up post at Medium, it’s dangerous to extrapolate too much from what one teenager like Andrew does with social media.

This is something that boyd (who chooses to spell her name without using capital letters) is in a position to know better than just about anyone, because she has spent more than a decade studying the way that teenagers use social media, and has written a number of fascinating papers as well as a book devoted to what they do and don’t do.

In her post, boyd notes that there is a tendency in tech and media circles to see teenagers as a kind of undifferentiated mass about which little is known, and so when someone like Andrew speaks up about their own experience, their contributions are inevitably used to generalize about what teenagers as a whole want or don’t want from social media. As boyd puts it:

“I work hard to account for the biases in whose voices I have access to because I’m painfully aware that it’s hard to generalize about a population that’s roughly 16 million people strong. They are very diverse and, yet, journalists and entrepreneurs want to label them under one category and describe them as one thing.”

Social media and race

In my own defense, I did point out in my post that Andrew is a single user (something he noted as well) and also that he is a 19-year-old student at the University of Texas, and therefore his behavior and usage patterns wouldn’t necessarily apply to those of other users. But boyd goes into more detail about why we shouldn’t do generalize — and one of the reasons is that Andrew is a white male university student, and therefore likely from a relatively privileged background compared to lots of other social-media users.

Photo: Cienpies/Pond5

Photo: Cienpies/Pond5

This is especially important when considering what Andrew says about Twitter, boyd says: He mostly dismisses it as something that he and his friends don’t really understand or use, except perhaps to complain about school. But boyd notes that Twitter has played a central role in the discussion around events such as the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, and has been used by many members of the black community and others to spread both information and to rally support using hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter.

“Let me put this bluntly: teens’ use of social media is significantly shaped by race and class, geography and cultural background. The world of Twitter is many things and what journalists and tech elites see from Twitter is not even remotely similar to what many of the teens that I study see, especially black and brown urban youth.”

While there’s nothing wrong with Andrew’s viewpoint per se, boyd says, it represents only a specific segment of the population, and one that routinely gets more attention than other perspectives do — in large part because it comes from someone who is more or less like those in the tech industry (i.e, predominantly male, upper middle-class and white). The problem is that this attention “whitewashes teens’ practices in deeply problematic ways,” boyd says.

Others like us

To take another example, boyd notes that Andrew talks about WhatsApp as only being useful if you travel abroad, which “renders invisible” the way that many teenagers from immigrant families use the app to communicate with loved ones in other countries, where text messaging is prohibitively expensive (one recent study showed that in some countries like Qatar, the app is also used for general news and discussion, even more than Facebook or Twitter).

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I think boyd makes an important point, which is that by paying more attention to narratives that fit our own experiences, we not only miss interesting aspects of those networks as they apply to the lives of different users, but we also help reinforce what could be damaging biases about what those networks are for, or how they should be used — and that in turn can help determine which services succeed or fail. As she puts it:

“The fact that professionals prefer anecdotes from people like us over concerted efforts to understand a demographic as a whole is shameful. More importantly, it’s downright dangerous. It shapes what the tech industry builds and invests in, what gets promoted by journalists, and what gets legitimized by institutions of power.”

There’s no question that the temptation to focus solely on the perspective of users who are similar to us is a powerful one, and one I myself have succumbed to on more than one occasion, because doing so reinforces or validates our own behavior. But in many ways, looking at how people different from us are using those networks is not only more interesting but more valuable as well — because it can highlight strengths or weaknesses that would never have become obvious if all we looked at was the experience of our peer group.