Friday, March 18, 2011

Questions from a High Schooler

Why did you start writing articles about social networking sites for New York Times?

To the best of my knowledge, I never have. Where did you hear this? I am a PhD student and researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and for the extent of my work towards a masters in Sociology I worked on the Facebook Project. I wrote several papers on racism, sexism, identity, privacy, and social interactions on Facebook at the time it was just coming out, around 2006-8.

What are your personal opinions about Facebook?

This is a very broad question. Facebook, in many ways, is a reflection of normal human social life, with some quirks and twists. On the whole I think it has been quite transformative, and has bettered many people's lives. I'm curious to see where the company's policies go in the future, in many ways they've been more progressive. As the site reaches ubiquity (it has in many contexts already) I do wonder if it will start to seem a little banal, if not mundane. Personally I like it well enough to use it consistenty, though lately with the intensification of my dissertation process I've been spending less time there.

Do you think Facebook is a positive or negative contribution to teens today?

Generally most social scientists would answer this question by saying 'potentially both.' I think the more interesting question would be to give examples of positive and negative impacts on the lives of teens and adults alike. I think Facebook could act as facilitator for what Henry Jenkins (2006) calls participatory culture and it does give teens another medium or public to be with friends. The general trend with ICT adoption suggests that eventually the savvy users of internet social media will grow up and become parents themselves, and places like Facebook may cease to be third spaces (outside of school and home) hidden from parents. The internet does pose a lot of risks - with nearly unlimited access to information and little filtering of content comes great power and responsibility, it's hard to teach teens, who are often quite conflicted over their sense of identity and agency in the world, how to deal with this power appropriately. I wouldn't advocate limiting their access to Facebook, but instead suggest that educators and parents learn about what it means to them, and educate them about the kinds of things they ought to be concerned about. Even still, threats like cyberbullying, deindividuation, inadvertent archival/exposure of personal information are quite real. I just don't think the answer is to respond with fear, but to respond with a desire to understand.

How has the increase of Facebook use affected cyber bullying?

This depends on your context. I assume you're talking about American teens, and in this case I just think it provides another context where teens might pick on one another. Facebook has really done a lot to help people deposit aspects of their identity online, and so the stakes for embarrassment and reputation are probably higher, but it's also about what danah boyd calls the invisible audience: you may never know who's looking at your profile, and so you instead anticipate. Conversely people can surf around largely undetected, and my interviews with college students indicated that almost everyone snoops more than they're willing to admit to the general public. As a result of this lack of identity or accountability people might sometimes act in ways they wouldn't ordinarily. This could be good or bad, like a gay person feeling able to come out of the closet online (reconstruction of identity, good) or a person making mean comments anonymously on YouTube videos (the effects of deindividuation, bad).

How can we fix problems Facebook has caused?

I think this depends on the problem. I've given something of an answer to the question of how to shape teen use of Facebook for the better above: education and perspective-sharing. This begins mostly with good digital literacy education, which is something our public school system lacks, for the most part. In fact this is part of the topic of my dissertation.

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