Dr. danah boyd's brain is exactly as phenomenal as you think it would be. By day, she is researcher at Microsoft. By night, she's a youth advocate and activist of the highest order.

Her undergrad thesis focused on sex hormones and their affects on virtual reality, and she has applied these findings, along with her other cumulative years of research on online behavior, to both her activism and her book, It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.

And, as if that wasn't enough, she still finds time to maintain her Ani DiFranco lyrics page.

Who are you?

Hmm... that's the question we're all always asking, isn't it? Let's start with American-centric business-appropriate answers. I'm danah boyd, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder of a new think/do tank called Data and Society Research Institute. I'm a researcher, an activist, and a youth advocate.

What did you want to be when you were a kid?

I really wanted to be an astronaut. It wasn't something that wore off when I hit puberty either. My plan was to go to the Naval Academy and study engineering so that I could be a payload specialist. Unfortunately, I broke my neck when I was 16 which shattered any plans to go into space. But my love of science and math never died.

How did you become a Principal Researcher at Microsoft? What exactly does that mean?

As an undergraduate studying computer science, I knew how magical Microsoft Research (MSR) was. It's one of the few basic research laboratories in the world, modeled after Xerox PARC and AT&T's Bell Labs. The idea is to bring researchers together and give them phenomenal resources so that they can collectively imagine and develop technologies that will change the world. When I retrained as under anthropologists, I figured that I was no longer appropriate for MSR, but when I was finishing my PhD, I was invited to apply. And so I did. And, to my surprise, they hired me to help build a team of social scientists in a new lab in Cambridge, MA to help understand how technology and society intersect. I love MSR--it's really one of the most amazing institutions out there.

What is something people would be surprised to learn about you?

The difficulty with spending 17 years writing a blog about your life is that folks know a lot about me. Heck, I'm always surprised by things others know that I've forgotten. Perhaps it's not always obvious that I get really exhausted by people even though most folks think that I'm an extrovert. And I really really really like sleep so, even though I work my tail off, I try to get 8 hours of sleep per night.

Why did you begin writing It's Complicated?

Well, that's a complicated question. I started doing research on social network sites in 2003 which led to doing research on youth practices which led to wanting to explain what I was seeing which is what prompted the book. I wrote a version of my findings in my PhD dissertation in 2008. I wrote countless essays and blog posts and journal articles starting in 2005 that fed into the book. I started reworking the dissertation material in 2009, but threw most of that away and restarted the writing in 2011. Let's just say it was a long and arduous process. I find it much easier to write provocative rants than books.

During your research, what's the most interesting thing you discovered?

I really wanted to think that the internet would've transformed youth's lives since, in many ways, it transformed mine. I had to put that hope aside when I did my research and really listen to teen's stories. In the process, I realized how much of our society has changed and how today's youth are just trying to cope with the restrictions and limitations and stresses that they face.

What's the most compelling feedback you have received?

I don't know if it was compelling, but perhaps the most memorable came after I wrote a blog post in 2007 documenting the race and class divisions that I was seeing between MySpace and Facebook. The BBC picked it up as a formal report from Berkeley and I received over 1,000 messages the next day, mostly from people calling me every name in the book because, as I quickly learned, it's hard to talk about race and class in the US. What made all the difference in that process was the youth who wrote to me to help me better understand the nuances of what was going on in their peer groups. I'm still in awe of those teens who told me their stories, who helped me get clarity on things that I only partially understood.

What is one thing business leaders can do to be part of the solution, versus perpetuating the problem?

It's important that business leaders understand the cultural context in which they are building products. It's not that hard to sell products that amp up fear or that play into existing fears. This is a great way to get press and attention. It's a lot harder to recognize structural inequities, limitations youth face, and social challenges. I wish more businesses would really think as hard about the cultural P&L of their products as they think about the economic P&L.

How do you feel about brands desperately trying to connect with teens on social media? How are they failing? How are they succeeding?

We live in a commercial society. I don't like it and I think it's unhealthy for everyone, but people don't give youth enough credit. They're working with the commercial realities because that's what they've got. Brands gel with youth when youth can use them to get what they want, either social status or tangible benefits. I'm always humored at how often teens game brands without brands even realizing it. Never trust a brand's stats.

What can brands do to succeed in connecting with teens on social, while making a positive impact?

It starts by offering products that are beneficial to teens. From there, it's about actually providing youth with a service through which engagement is mutually beneficial. For this reason, plenty of brands make no sense trying to engage youth online.

What's your favorite social media platform?

I'm personally partial to Twitter because it's simple, public, and filled with information that I want. And I don't feel like I'm being manipulated every time I look at my feed.

Published on: Jan 29, 2015
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