While grossly unfair to pigeonhole her, I’ll paraphrase Wes Neff, her agent at Leigh Bureau (full disclosure—he’s mine too):
Lots of people in academia are studying social networks; Danah is the first one who can easily hold her own in that crowd, but whose power comes from knowing that culture herself, personally, intimately.
She’s hip, she’s smart, she’s well-spoken. She totally knows her stuff. She writes in a vividly personal, authentic voice.
And she has a knack for being controversial. One gets the impression she’s a bit surprised, a bit bemused, and a bit saddened by that—but it shouldn’t be surprising. She’s a revolution personified. When it’s about Danah Boyd, it’s not just about Danah Boyd.
Case 1. Danah was asked to comment officially on Michael Gorman’ post that I blogged about yesterday. Read her (excellent) commentary, and the illuminating 27 comments following. Result? Advantage, Boyd.
But Britannica wasn’t enough. Then the BBC tangled with her.
On June 24, Danah posted a brilliant little piece on her current research—how teens interact with social networks as part of their socialization process. She talked about the relationship between Facebook and MySpace, and some implications for socioeconomic status.
Neat stuff, very nicely written, very provocative. She called it a “blog essay,” and wrote:
Hopefully, one day, I can get the words together to actually write an academic article about this topic, but I felt as though this is too important of an issue to sit on while I find the words. So I wrote it knowing that it would piss many off. The academic side of me feels extremely guilty about this; the activist side of me finds it too critical to go unacknowledged.
The next day, the BBC published an article titled “Social sites reveal class divide.” It talked about “a long-term research project…”, “the conclusions are based on interviews…”, “in a preliminary draft of the research…”, and “…suggests a study.”
So : an American writes about class, it’s published in Britain, in what sounds like an academic study—but, not completely so. Instant controversy. In days, Boyd got 100,000 hits on her posting.
This, from the (back home) EastBay Express on June 28:
Local Academic’s Blog Generates Premature Controversy
Berkeley PhD candidate Danah Boyd, has the web astir after she posted an informal essay on her blog about the class divisions associated with the popular social-networking sites Facebook and MySpace. Boyd, who is already among the most prominent of academics of the Internet’s social sphere, posted the essay on Sunday. On Monday morning, the BBC reported on Boyd’s “conclusions”, and by midday Monday, nearly 100,000 readers had flocked to Boyd’s original entry. Though many have written in support of the essay, others have taken major offense, calling the work “racist” and academically unsound.
Boyd sees the negativity towards her essay as a product of its misrepresentation in the press—specifically in the BBC’s “hugely problematic” coverage of her essay—which she says referred to the essay as a final product of academic research, rather than the exploratory mid-process musing it was meant to be.
Danah Boyd is a lightning rod for the encounters between traditional, credentialist, individual-based academia, and the more free-wheeling, collabo, throw-up-the-beta-version ethos of the web. Libraries vs. databases. Wikipedia vs. encyclopedia. It’s bound to rub a few people the wrong way.
Here’s from Green Tea Ice Cream, in a posting on Experts and Social media:
the fall-out from Danah Boyd’s (inadvertent) media bomb . The reaction to Danah’s essay in the newspapers suggests that mainstream media are still very fond of privileging expert, authoritative discourse – when it suits them (i.e. when it gives an opportunity to discuss/reinforce class divisions, say “Oooh, it’s bad this Noo Medjaa stuff, isn’t it?” and so on…).
Or this, from Deep Jive Interests:
Will the “Danah” report be the kiss of death to MySpace’s valuation? Why Rupert Murdoch is probably cursing Danah Boyd’s name.
Wow. Britannica. The BBC. Influencing Murdoch’s market value. What’s next, the Queen? Where Dana goes, she can’t help but raise issues—she sits astride the intersection of old and new.
Maybe she thought she’d become a mover of markets some day; though I bet she didn’t think it’d happen like this. (Wes, on the other hand, who knows how academic celebrities get made, may be unfazed).
The Adventures of Danah are like the coming attractions at the movies. Arrive early to see what’s going to be playing in your own life soon.