Tag Archives: danah boyd

Online social networks and a teen's suicide

Last year Megan Meier, a 13-year-old from Missouri, committed suicide after an online relationship went sour. Megan thought she was dating a likable 16-year-old boy named Josh who she met on MySpace. After a month, Josh turned on her by sending cruel and abusive emails. It turns out that “Josh” was actually the 47-year-old mother — Lori Drew — of one of Megan’s ex-friends. Lori was avenging her daughter, who Megan had apparently spurned in the past.

The press have predictably dined out on the story, which has provided ammunition for those opposed to the dangers, and even evils, of online social networking. danah boyd’s post about this tragic event is interesting and mitigates somewhat against the media hype: Overprotective parenting and bullying: Who is to blame for the suicide of Megan Meier?

It’s true that mediating technology reduces social consequences — e.g. being punched by someone who you insult — because it takes away the immediacy of physical, real-time interaction. (This is not new. Good old-fashioned letters do the same. They shift time and space. But today’s mediating technologies are different because of persistence, searchability, replicability and invisible audiences.) So, does this reduction in social consequence mean that it’s easier to be rude and cruel in cyberspace? Another one of danah boyd’s posts — Musing about online social norms — provides some insight into answering this question.

What happened to Megan was the result of a deceiving, abusive, bullying adult. We should not blame the technology. Further, online activities usually mirror offline ones, e.g. if you are a vulnerable teenager offline, you’ll probably be one online. This looks like the case with Megan. While education about online activities and how to navigate this brave new world might not have saved Megan, it cannot be a bad thing and we should continue to educate young people about life in mediated publics. In this space certain social consequences are limited, but others are exaggerated due to the fact that what you say sticks around, it is searchable, it is replicable and it can be read by unintended audiences. Lori Drew was found out, after all.

Interview with danah boyd, social networking expert

danah boydIn an interview with danah boyd, she speaks about the impact of social networking on society and education.

Key points:

  • We live in a changing world, with new technologies and social media that allow people to easily connect, communicate, create and share content.
  • These changes are reshifting and reshaping public life as we know it. Our lives today, which consist in large part digitally, are more persistent, searchable, replicable and visible (in public spaces we don’t always anticipate).
  • We socialise young people into public life (what to wear, how to behave, who to stay away from, etc.) but we also need to socialise young people into these new mediated public spaces.

Impact on education:

  • We need to primarily educate on how to deal with constantly evolving and emerging technologies (above teaching about the technology or even with the technology itself). (Of course it can be argued that the best way to teach the primary goal is through playing with current technology.)
  • We need to teach critical thinking skills and new media literacies.
  • She is working on a teachers guide to Wikipedia (out next US summer, June/July 2008) that can be used to teach critical thinking skills around Wikipedia, and is happy for someone in Cape Town to localise the guide to the South African curriculum.
  • Social networking is here to stay, but it might not be as Facebook or MySpace. As a concept it will be integrated into other technologies and media, e.g. your cellphone.

Pull quote: “Let the kids do what they need to do, but teach them how to be critical.”

Image by Loren Earle-Cruickshanks (All rights reserved)