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"Knowing Someone" in Social Spaces is Complicated

danah boyd is on my mind again tonight.  In her newest book It's Complicated, she argues that teens reveal different parts of their identities to different social groups using different social tools and services.  As an example, she spotlights a teen girl who uses Facebook to connect with friends from school and Twitter to connect with fans of One Direction -- a boy-band that she is passionate about.

While there was some mixing in her social circles -- friends from school who shared her passion for One Direction interact with her in both Facebook and Twitter and One Direction fans she meets on Twitter sometimes become a part of her network on Facebook -- she's gotten really good at contextualizing her identity from network to network.

As boyd explains:

"This young fan is a typical savvy internet user, comfortable navigating her identity and interests in distinct social contexts based on her understanding of the norms and community practices.  She moves between Facebook and Twitter seamlessly, understanding that they are different social contexts" (boyd, 2014, Kindle Location 705).

Context-specific participation in social spaces, though, doesn't come without digital hiccups.

While individual users may have a clear sense for their participation patterns in individual social spaces -- and while they may have a targeted audience for the content shared in those spaces -- controlling audience is almost impossible when content is posted publicly.

It is entirely possible, then, that outside observers might hold flawed assumptions about an individual because they are seeing only one side of the people they've discovered online.  Take the high school girl that boyd spotlights:  Find her on Twitter and she might appear shallow and one-dimensional, doing little more than fawning over British pop stars.

What's important to realize, I think, is that adults are using social spaces in much the same way.  Here on my blog, you see a largely professional side of me.  I'm writing about knotty issues tied to professional compensation, educational policy, fostering collaboration between teachers, and integrating technology into my instruction.  If this is the only space where you follow me, you might think I'm some kind of highfalutin intellectual kingpin.


On Twitter, you see a slightly more playful version of me.  While I'm still asking professional questions and sharing professional resources, I'm also picking fights with Canadians and losing bets to New England Patriots fans.  If that were the only place where you followed me, you might start to question why anyone takes me seriously at all.


And on Instagram, you see a deeply personal side of me because I'm almost exclusively posting pictures of my daughter -- who is my world.  Similarly, I'm almost always leaving comments on the pictures of other people's kids. I see Instagram as my chance to reach out and connect on a human level with the people I learn with in other spaces -- but if you only knew me from Instagram, you'd never know that I really DO have a few brain cells to rub together.


That means "knowing someone" in social spaces is a LOT more complicated than it looks.

Because users of social tools -- whether they are 19 or 49 -- are often contextualizing their participation and showing different sides of themselves in different spaces, you don't REALLY know someone until you are following them in more than one space.  And when you draw conclusions about someone -- positive or negative -- before having a sense for what side of themselves they are sharing in the social space where you have found them, you are probably mistaken.

This whole strand of thinking is leaving me with WAY more questions than answers.  

Personally, I'm wondering whether I need to do a better job articulating my individual purposes for the social spaces that I'm participating in -- or at the very least, whether I need to make it easier for people to follow me in all of the spaces that I've embraced so that everyone can see the unfiltered me.  If I try to control my audiences and limit who can follow me in various spaces that I've embraced, am I unintentionally setting myself up to be misunderstood?

I'm also wondering if I need to do a better job following people that I care about in multiple social spaces.  If the power in social spaces is REALLY found in the relationships that we build, isn't it essential to see multiple sides of the people that we THINK we believe in?

Finally, I'm wondering how many times teens are misunderstood by the old people in their lives who don't realize that different spaces serve different purposes for different people.  I'm also wondering what we're doing to help students understand that they don't control audiences when they are posting content to the web, so misunderstandings are inevitable -- especially when they aren't putting much thought into the permanence of the content that they are sharing.

Any of this make sense?

(Blogger's Note: Dean and I have been talking about this over the last few days, too.  Come and join us here.)


Related Radical Reads:

The Need to Connect Remains the Same

This is Who I Am


Braden Welborn commented on March 7, 2014 at 7:34pm:



Those who know me on Twitter or LinkedIn *mostly* know me professionally. Those who know me on Facebook *mostly* know me personally (or professionally in the past). I've made exceptions here and there.

Lately I've been wondering why the divide. I don't populate Facebook with remarks that would wound me professionally, so why not friend the many, many awesome teachers (read: PEOPLE) and colleagues I know? And why not let my Twitter presence mirror my whole self rather than only my professional interests? I'm sure there are all kinds of reasons to keep my worlds separate (what if someone takes me less seriously because of x, or thinks I'm a hypocrite because of y?). But do these reasons outweigh the benefits of having a larger circle of people who know me as a whole person?

Thanks for making me think (as always), Bill.

Bill Ferriter Bill Ferriter commented on March 8, 2014 at 9:31am:

Braden wrote:

Braden wrote:

But do these reasons outweigh the benefits of having a larger circle of people who know me as a whole person?


It's fun to think about, isn't it, Braden?

What I'm wrestling with is whether it's really possible to have a relationship with someone if they haven't got a complete sense of who you are?  Don't we cheapen our connections with others when we ONLY know them through their professional and/or personal profile?  Aren't we essentially saying that important parts of the people that we "know" are disposable when we turn away from their presence in other spaces?

And looking from another angle, when we try to compartmentalize our own participation in social spaces, aren't we essentially trying to craft a semi-flawed portrait of who we are -- and doesn't that set us up for misunderstandings when we forget that we are crafting content for specific audiences in specific places OR when people from different audiences find us in the wrong place?

Wouldn't it be simpler to completely reveal ourselves to everyone?


Bill Ivey commented on March 7, 2014 at 9:37pm:

Awesome set of questions.

And reflections. This is the sort of blog I'll keep coming back too until I've absorbed enough of it that I feel I've really got it. Thank you for sharing the results of the thought, time, and effort it must have taken to get yourself to a spot where you would be able to write something like this.

For me, I find that Facebook is basically my friends-and-family place. That includes educator-friends (and friend-educators, as it turns out - unsurprisingly, having grown up in a college town, I've learned a lot of my old friends went into teaching themselves), but is mostly the place where I'm whimisical and playful and mostly concerned with connecting with people, liking their photos, keeping up with their lives. I'll go deep on occasion, but only in certain contexts and carefully choosing the moment. And I avoid contentiousness.

With that in mind, it may be a surprise that Twitter is a place where most all my interests can come together. Teaching and social justice, for sure, and I have lots of conversations, twitter chats, and retweets in those areas. But also sports, especially women's basketball and the Red Sox, exchanging news and pleasantries with a few random friends and relatives, links to music, pictures. Except perhaps for my running, you'd get a pretty decent sense of who I am through Twitter. Including how much time I spend there!

Perhaps in part because I do so much on Twitter, and a certain amount of stuff on Facebook, I'm less inclined to get involved in Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, or what have you. It might be different if my son were younger and we were still taking jillions of pictures, but honestly we're a pretty private family in many ways, and I would absolutely respect that under any circumstance.

As for helping students learn what they can and can't control about the audiences who can view their content online - our IT person is good about getting student feedback after his periodic presentations on the topic so he can make them more effective in the future. A lot of it is happening now in the Global Tech class that is a requirement for all 9th graders.

Finally, yes, I would absolutely agree many adults don't have a clue about these different worlds, how they're used, and how they are perceived by kids who have essentially grown up with them. Of course, you get more out of a face to face encounter, and so do they. But for kids, digital space (as near as I can tell) is much more like a big coffeeshop where random people stop by your table one after the other than the excitement and nervous of answering the phone and discovering it is a LONG DISTANCE CALL UH-OH THIS MUST BE REALLY SERIOUS. If you get my drift.

Bill Ferriter Bill Ferriter commented on March 8, 2014 at 9:37am:

Bill wrote:

Bill wrote:

Finally, yes, I would absolutely agree many adults don't have a clue about these different worlds, how they're used, and how they are perceived by kids who have essentially grown up with them


This can become a HUGE problem, too! 

You're right -- kids DO view social spaces as coffee shops.  To borrow boyd's terminology, they're "hanging out and messing around" there -- and they are rarely misinterpreted by other peers who understand that the core purpose of social spaces ISN'T to build a college resume or professional portfolio.

The hitch is that adults -- college admission officers and employers -- are audiences that kids don't intend or consider when they're posting content on the web.  They're like the creepy adult in the coffee shop who is trying to listen in on conversations. 

But they are there -- and they have organizational power -- and their perceptions of the content kids are sharing online ARE important.

How do we teach kids to recognize this imbalance and live in a world where their intendend audiences and purposes don't always neatly align with their actual audiences?


Ed commented on March 8, 2014 at 4:26am:

Interesting questions...

Interesting questions...

For me, it's pretty clear. I use Twitter for educational purposes.

I don't need my Twitter followers to know 'the whole me'. There are people with whom I have connected beyond the surface interaction of Twitter and that more personal conversation doesn't need to happen in a public space.

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