December 7, 2018

An Un-Complicated Review of It's Complicated by dana boyd

The following is a book review and analysis completed for my graduate Qualitative Methods class... enjoy!

An Un-complicated Review of “It’s Complicated” by dana boyd

This book review could literally take on a hundred different directions of analysis in light of the methods, theories, and self-exploration of ourselves that we have learned this semester. “It’s Complicated” by researcher dana boyd is a novel approach to explain the new digital frontier that our young people are navigating on a daily basis, exploring the meanings of privacy and how young people establish their identities online, and the conflict that this causes with parental anxiety in networked public spaces. This book review will first review dana’s methods to the ethnography, provide brief summary of her main points of the book, and then will explore several qualitative elements including discourse analysis of referring terms and tone.

This book of 213 pages plus extensive notes, bibliography, and appendix; was a relatively easy read and was definitely written for a non-academic audience: for teachers, for parents, and for people working with the youth of today. Her main points are introduced in the preface and introduction content; and then the following eight chapters describe the main points of her research. dana’s main thesis is to “describe and explain the networked lives of teens to the people that worry about them…” (boyd, preface). She defines these new digital spaces as “networked publics” which “are publics both in the spatial sense and in the sense of an imagined community” (boyd, p.9). “Networked publics are publics that are restructured by network technologies” (p.8) giving them the characteristics of being both “(1) the space constructed through networked technologies and (2) the imagined community that emerges as a result of the intersection of people, technology, and practice” (boyd, p.8). This book argues that as real public spaces disappear (like movie theaters or malls or parks) and as young people have busier and geographically-challenged lives that make getting together in person hard, they are seeking these accessible public places in this new digital environment to negotiate identity, find friends, or simply to hang out with others. She readily admits that the tools and apps used will continue to change, but that the needs these youth are meeting in these public spaces will not change and are the same that youth sought to fulfill in non-networked physical publics of the past.

I did not find that dana explicitly outlaid her research strategy nor the exact amount of interviews or interactions she had with youth: this would probably be impossible to account for in the face paced communication that happens online today. She did detail that she “crisscrossed the United States from 2005 to 2012, talking with and observing teems from eighteen states and a wide array of socioeconomic and ethnic communities” (boyd, preface). She goes on to report “166 formal, semi-structured interviews with teens during the period of 2007-2010” in various physical locations (homes, libraries, schools, etc.). It would be interesting to read some of the questions that she provided to the youth and to learn if the anonymity of the internet influenced her answers to be more truthful or less truthful. Were these interviews conducted over a recorded video chat or where they simply snippets of online text chat sessions: we don’t know this through her text and as a qualitative researcher, I would be interested to read some of these raw items. I am also interested in how she located these youth for interviews - did she randomly contact students? Did she contact them through schools? Did she find friends of friends? It’s not completely clear from my reading of the text.

I was surprised by several things as I read the book: topics of addiction and privacy that I had not considered before with regards to youth online. My views were especially challenged by boyd’s assertion that youth are not digital natives: something that I had assumed and used several times over the years when thinking about young people growing up in this technological world. She explores this topic of are youth digital natives in chapter 7. Being that I graduated from high school in 2002, I remember my family getting our first computer in the early 1990s, going from AOL dial up and then learning the new internet technologies of MySpace and Facebook. Thankfully, data was not collected on the scale it is being collected at now, and we did not have to worry about privacy as much in those very early days: we could make mistakes and then delete our posts or our accounts, and it wouldn’t have been recorded anywhere. Everything that we learned was from the same base that our parents were learning from; and our only computer was located in the living room because it was a shared resource - not a device for being constantly publicly connected like the youth of today feel the need to be. Researcher boyd makes references to several of these issues of privacy and identity seeking and cites that young people see privacy differently than we as adults do - and that trying on identities happens for several reasons in the online networked public that can have meaning - or not!

In analyzing the book in a more structural way and less content focus, dana’s tone remains professional yet entirely non-academic. Everything is explained in a way that the average parent or teacher should be able to understand (which can really be a wide range of understandings and literacy ranges). dana is advocating for these youth’s natural and safe exploration of this new digital world, and she wants everyone to be able to read and understand the points she is making. She is upfront with the main point of her book in the preface and in the introduction; she concisely and descriptively builds her points in the eight chapters following, using brief academic findings to support her thinking, but not straying from the simplistic way of describing the situations and youth perspectives regarding identity, privacy, addiction, danger, bullying, inequality, literacy, and how youth are simply searching for a “public of their own” where parents are not constantly looking over their shoulders at every conversation. Her tone is mostly third person as the narrator, separate and largely non-involved in the storyline past the role of the researcher. She maintains an etic perspective, perhaps because she is speaking to the adults of the world in her text.

dana is respectful when quoting the youth and names them all (or pseudonyms them) in her appendix “teen demographics” (boyd, p.215). In her book, she refers to the youth and others with respect and by name (or by pseudonym). I found it interesting to read through the youth characteristics and especially the services that they were active on: facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and others that don’t even exist anymore. When I interact with youth, I am amazed at the new apps they are communicating through and it is always changing: “even though many of the tools and services that I reference throughout this book are now passe, the core activities I discuss… are here to stay” (boyd, p.8). There will always be some new, more visual or more interactive app that the young people will be willing to explore to meet these needs of a “place to hang out and connect with friends” (boyd, p.5) that is “utterly essential to her social life” (boyd, p.5). As I also remember life pre-AOL dial up days, dana recounts that she too “spent my own teen years online, and I was among the first generation of teens who did so” (boyd, p.4), so while her tone remains from an etic perspective, she has definitely experienced for herself firsthand the beginnings of many of the new teen phenomena she tries to explain through her book.

In regards to Marilyn Lichtman’s definition of ethnography in our textbook, dana’s text addresses many of the ‘issues’ of ethnography as she describes her findings:

Issue (Lichtman p.74-75)
Example from boyd
Doing fieldwork and taking field notes
While boyd does not explicitly state that she took field notes nor does she provide any in the appendix, I am making the assumption that she kept some kind of researcher’s notes along her multiple year study.
Participant observation
Observation is where boyd’s study appears to begin and it is a tool that she continues to use throughout her study to guide her practice, find her interviews, and make generalizations. boyd conducts observations in person and online for her study.
Interviewing individuals
boyd conducts 166 formal, semi-structured interviews with youth. This implies that she also conducted many informal interviews with youth, but also with adults and perhaps adults within the networked publics space.
Gaining access
boyd did not detail much about how she gained access to interviews with the youth, nor how she chose the youth that she spoke to.
Informed consent
boyd would have most certainly had formal consent granted to speak to all the 166 formal interviews conducted. She did not detail how this unfolded in her study, but perhaps there is a more formal academic paper that details her methods.
Understanding cultures
boyd has done an excellent job understanding the culture of youth in the networked publics despite the anxieties and negative perceptions that an adult would approach this with.
Thick descriptions
Throughout this book, boyd is connecting concepts in a logical way and providing descriptions of a larger happening that she divides into the main chapter titles.
Underlying meanings
This aspect did not seem to be addressed openly in the text. It is assumed that the researcher reported honestly and that the youth had no motivations to lie, but this is not verifiable.
Reflexive behaviors
This issue is also not addressed openly by boyd. She does share her background and her interest in this subject, but does not connect it to her broader analysis.
boyd actively works to protect the youth’s identities while still accurately representing their accounts. While not stated directly in this book, it is assumed that she utilized consent for her interactions. As an advocate for youth rights, it is also assumed that she was respectful and ethical in all her interactions.
Writing or producing an ethnography
boyd has produced an organized, comprehensive description in an ethnographic format that is intended for a general audience.

In conclusion, dana boyd’s ethnographic book “It’s Complicated” is an enjoyable read that will inform the average person about what today’s youth are experiencing online in these new “networked publics.” It advocates for the often misunderstood youth’s perspective and it challenges adults to put their anxieties aside about digital communities and misconceptions about how youth are using these new communication tools. There will always be new mediums, faster ways to communicate from a distance, and new shiny apps with catchy features; but today’s youth need spaces to negotiate their adult identities and safely navigate to adulthood. Through dana’s presented perspectives, we can help support the youth pioneering these new forms of communications while combating the ever present inequalities and negative personalities that are present whether offline or online.


boyd, dana (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Lichtman, Marilyn (2013). Qualitative research in education: A user’s guide (3rd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

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