While new tools for facilitating conversations are playing an increasingly prominent role in the 21st Century, few have spent as much time studying the unique characteristics of digital communication as danah boyd, a Social Media Researcher at Microsoft Research New England.

boyd—whose professional interest has always been the impact that social media is having on teens and identity—demonstrates early and often in her chapter of Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out (2010) that today’s teens value digital connections.

“While these teens may see one another at school, in formal or unstructured activities, or at one another’s houses,” she writes, “they use social media to keep in touch with their friends, classmates, and peers when getting together is not possible…For many contemporary teenagers, losing access to social media is tantamount to losing their social world” (p. 79).

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the digitally connected teen, though, is that they are always plugged in.

Paired with widespread access to high speed and/or wireless Internet connections, their mobile phones, iPods, and gaming devices extend the potential for communication in ways that were once impossible—and while most teens thrive on this newfound ability to talk at any time, there are social implications for unchecked connectivity.

Online profiles must be diligently maintained or students run the risk of losing status among their peers. Messages must be returned immediately or students run the risk of offending friends expecting instant responses. Public expressions of friendship must be at once significant and sincere or students run the risk of quickly becoming embroiled in social drama at school (boyd, 2010).

Complicating matters is that all of this interaction takes place in rapidly changing digital forums defined by four unique characteristics identified by boyd in a 2007 piece titled Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites:

  1. Persistence: Most electronic communication is permanent. Comments added to threaded discussions can be viewed days, weeks, or months later. Participants unable to be present at the time of a conversation can still see what others had to say. No one is left out of a digital conversation, and opinions expressed—whether good or bad—hang around.
  2. Searchability: When digital conversations are recorded and names are attached to content, the thoughts and ideas of any individual become instantly searchable. With little effort, users of digital communication tools can profile peers, accessing information publicly posted over long periods of time.
  3. Replicability: Content added to digital conversations can also be copied and pasted easily. Ideas and opinions shared spontaneously can be taken out of context and spread quickly through email, text and/or instant messaging services, carrying long term unintended consequences.
  4. Invisible audiences: When communicating with traditional audiences, speakers have a good sense for who is listening and can tailor messages accordingly. Digital audiences, however, are difficult—if not impossible—to define. The invisible members of digital audiences—those who inadvertently stumble across public expressions—may interpret ideas differently than they were originally intended.

(boyd, 2007)

The persistent, searchable and replicable nature of digital conversations held publicly in front of invisible audiences means that social gaffes can be especially costly for today’s teen. Pictures and videos of inappropriate or irresponsible behavior are copied and reposted across the Internet. Slurs and insults made in moments of frustration become public knowledge immediately. Rumors spread uncontrolled, leaving victims unprotected and socially destroyed.

The structural boundaries that limit communication in traditional environments—Who is present? What did they see and/or hear? What can they remember? Who will they tell? What evidence do they have to share?—are nonexistent in digital forums, amplifying the consequences of communication mistakes in the 21st Century (boyd, 2007).

But the same four characteristics of digital forums—persistence, searchability, replicability and invisible audiences—can have a positive impact on 21st Century students when electronic conversations become a regular part of classroom instruction. First, the transparent nature of electronic conversations provides an “equalizing opportunity” for students who are typically disenfranchised.

Often having difficulty academically and sometimes lacking status with their classmates, students who are socially or economically isolated are frequently stereotyped as non-learners by peers and judged as uninterested by teachers. Students in these groups, however, tend to participate in electronic conversations at higher rates than they participate in traditional classroom conversations, earning intellectual recognition for perhaps the first time (Ferriter, 2005).

Students who face social pressures to conform also engage in electronic conversations at higher rates than they participate in traditional classroom conversations. The potentially anonymous nature of digital dialogue serves as a “safety blanket” for students afraid of ridicule. Because joining in electronic conversations can be done anywhere, there is little risk of being embarrassed by poorly polished comments.

Thoughts added to electronic conversations can be carefully crafted before they are posted. These assurances encourage participation from students who would probably have sat on the sidelines in the classroom, hypersensitive to the potential negative reactions of their classmates and friends (Ferriter, 2005).

Finally, electronic conversations can challenge thinking. Students who participate in digital dialogue are forced to clarify their preexisting notions as they consider alternative positions. This process of mental justification is a higher-level thinking skill, and one of the strongest benefits of electronic conversations (Ferriter, 2005).

What’s more, students can tailor their participation in electronic conversations, following strands and/or individuals that are the most individually motivating, providing a level of intellectual differentiation that is hard to find in traditionally structured classrooms. Better yet, the permanence of electronic conversations means that they never lose their instructional value. Students can wrestle with new concepts or return to reflect on their initial positions whenever it is developmentally appropriate to do so.

The question for Radical Nation, then, is simple:  What role do digital conversations play in your classroom?

Are you giving your students opportunities to interact and experiment online, hoping to capitalize on motivation levels that are naturally high in order to extend learning beyond the walls of your school, or do you remain convinced that any conversation between teens online is a recipe for intellectual disaster?

If you are using digital conversations in your work with students, what successes have you had?  Are there any specific tips or tricks that you’d recommend to others?  Barriers that you’ve had to overcome before moving forward?

And if you aren’t using digital conversations in your work with students, what’s preventing you from taking that leap?  Are there policies in place within your school and/or system that discourage online conversations between students?  Technical challenges that are difficult to overcome?  Professional skepticism towards digital conversations as a meaningful instructional practice?


Works Cited:

boyd, d. (2010). Friendship. In Hanging out, messing around and geeking out: Kids living and learning with new media (pp. 79-115). Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Boyd, danah. (2007). “Why youth (heart) social network sites: The role of networked publics in teenage social life.” MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Learning—Youth, Identity, and Digital Media Volume (ed. David Buckingham). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ferriter, W. (2005, July 1). Digital dialogue. Tech & Learning. Retrieved from http://www.techlearning.com/article/4224

Share this post: