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Searching for Identity In Collapsing Contexts

Teens face the same issues as adults when crafting an online identity, but with greater consequences.

Sometimes I skip book introductions, and at nearly thirty pages it was tempting to skim through this one. But the heart of danah boyd's thesis can be found in the introduction.

While each chapter stands alone, supporting her theories with thorough research, It's Complicated, delivers a compelling and articulate treatise on the social lives of networked teens with a large bibliography to back it up.

Chapter one deals with teens' search for identity in a world that has become both networked and contexts collapsed while their audience has become invisible. While it has been several decades since I was a teenager, going through a job change this summer has revealed a similar identity crisis of my own.

As audiences have become invisible, it is difficult to know who is hearing our messages. While teaching in the classroom, I know exactly who is listening to me - their gender, occupation, age, etc. I tailor my message in ways that my audience will best respond. Junior high students are different than high school and both are different from teacher's meetings. My own primary audience is changing from one school to another. And public online posts can be read by anyone, anywhere. Online posts need to be crafted in ways that the majority will interpret correctly.

Networking gives us many benefits, but at times it's difficult to manage how far the content goes. Posts intended for a select group can be easily redistributed. I've talked to junior high students who are well aware that Snapchat photos can be screen captured, but still send them hoping their friends respect an unspoken sense of privacy. Social networking inflates a person's reputation to levels never before seen and often difficult to control.

Postings become isolated and easily taken out of context because they are permanent and searchable.  Our thoughts become removed from time and location as context collapses on itself. What makes sense today (funny pictures with friends) becomes unsavory when applying for a job. This is probably the most difficult challenge for adults or teens to overcome, making sense of contexts that collapse upon themselves. We know what was meant at the time, but understanding how it will be perceived in the future is almost impossible. Context historically formed the framework that defined our communication. Without that framework, sarcasm becomes hatred and innuendo becomes fact.

Knowing how to communicate effectively through social networking is not simply "talking online" but an entirely new skill set. As adults, we are having to relearn how to effectively connect through digital means. Teens are also learning, but will hopefully fare better given time. This is why it's so important for adults and teens to learn together how to navigate the pitfalls of social networking.

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