Researcher danah boyd on the weird science of teen online behavior


Editor’s note: The following is a post from Emily Alhadeff, a writer for

Remember “Weird Science,” the 1985 John Hughes comedy about two teen dweebs who use their computer, some wires and a Barbie doll to engineer their dream woman? After sparks and explosions, the dust settles and a partially clad Kelly LeBrock appears in the doorway, ready to transform the once-bullied “zeroes” into heroes.

This zany movie parodied early computing systems, but parts of it ring prophetic. Not only do online social networks allow users to create identities and manipulate social situations, but studying the technology provides insightful data about the evolution of human interaction.

“Human nature is pretty much always in beta.”

Teens’ online behavior is one of Microsoft Principal Researcher danah boyd’s main areas of research. She explores the topic in her new book “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens” (Yale University Press).

“The teenagers who are growing up with technology today aren’t like my peer group,” says boyd, 36. “We were total geeks, freaks and outcasts. We weren’t part of the mainstream at all. And this is part of the mainstream now.”

Twenty years ago, “jacking in” to the Internet provided an escape for boyd from the social trials of high school life. According to her book, teenagers today use social networking sites to do just the opposite: to supplement their physical social activity with photos, videos and conversations. In this way, teens are doing what they’ve always been doing: hanging out in the socially designated “cool” place. Adults disturbed by the gravitational tug of social media on teens may be comforted to know it’s the virtual equivalent of the previous generation’s mall food court.

boyd, who spells her name in lower case in rebellion against caps and in honor of funky typography, went on to Brown University, where she became a rare female specimen in the field of computer science. “I went to study computer science because I wanted to build these systems I was deeply appreciating,” she said. “The thing is, I found the questions I was actually asking were about how people interact with these technologies.”

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