A few years ago, “Carmen”, a 17-year-old Latino girl in Boston, split up with her boyfriend. She wanted to tell her friends how upset she felt and duly put a post on her Facebook page. But there was a problem. Carmen’s mother (like, I daresay, many FT readers) monitored her daughter’s Facebook page – and Carmen did not want to tell her about the break-up. So, to signal her loss to her friends, she posted a message with the Monty Python song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”.
Her mother thought this meant Carmen was happy: her friends, however, understood that Carmen was using private teen code, since they often communicated with songs. They started a conversation with text messages – away from her mother’s eyes. Carmen had thus maintained her “privacy”, even on a public space.
Just a trivial example of teenage behaviour? Danah Boyd, a digital anthropologist who now works at Microsoft Research, does not think so. She has spent the past decade analysing how teenagers use social media by watching the subtle cultural signals, rituals and group dynamics that a more traditional anthropologist might track in an Amazonian village or “tribal” Papua New Guinea. And after conducting extensive research in 18 states across the US, she argues in a new book, It’s Complicated, that some of the received wisdom about social media is wrong. Teenagers are not being corrupted by Facebook and Twitter, as (adult) pundits often fear. Instead, they are developing adaptive skills for this new digital age. As a result, the kids are (mostly) “all right”, she insists, even if their behaviour occasionally baffles adults.