Why Snapchat is Valuable: It’s All About Attention

Most people who encounter a link to this post will never read beyond this paragraph. Heck, most people who encountered a link to this post didn’t click on the link to begin with. They simply saw the headline, took note that someone over 30 thinks that maybe Snapchat is important, and moved onto the next item in their Facebook/Twitter/RSS/you-name-it stream of media. And even if they did read it, I’ll never know it because they won’t comment or retweet or favorite this in any way.

We’ve all gotten used to wading in streams of social media content. Open up Instagram or Secret on your phone and you’ll flick on through the posts in your stream, looking for a piece of content that’ll catch your eye. Maybe you don’t even bother looking at the raw stream on Twitter. You don’t have to because countless curatorial services like digg are available to tell you what was most important in your network. Facebook doesn’t even bother letting you see your raw stream; their algorithms determine what you get access to in the first place (unless, of course, someone pays to make sure their friends see their content).

Snapchat offers a different proposition. Everyone gets hung up on how the disappearance of images may (or may not) afford a new kind of privacy. Adults fret about how teens might be using this affordance to share inappropriate (read: sexy) pictures, projecting their own bad habits onto youth. But this is isn’t what makes Snapchat utterly intriguing. What makes Snapchat matter has to do with how it treats attention.

When someone sends you an image/video via Snapchat, they choose how long you get to view the image/video. The underlying message is simple: You’ve got 7 seconds. PAY ATTENTION. And when people do choose to open a Snap, they actually stop what they’re doing and look.

In a digital world where everyone’s flicking through headshots, images, and text without processing any of it, Snapchat asks you to stand still and pay attention to the gift that someone in your network just gave you. As a result, I watch teens choose not to open a Snap the moment they get it because they want to wait for the moment when they can appreciate whatever is behind that closed door. And when they do, I watch them tune out everything else and just concentrate on what’s in front of them. Rather than serving as yet-another distraction, Snapchat invites focus.

Furthermore, in an ecosystem where people “favorite” or “like” content that is inherently unlikeable just to acknowledge that they’ve consumed it, Snapchat simply notifies the creator when the receiver opens it up. This is such a subtle but beautiful way of embedding recognition into the system. Sometimes, a direct response is necessary. Sometimes, we need nothing more than a simple nod, a way of signaling acknowledgement. And that’s precisely why the small little “opened” note will bring a smile to someone’s face even if the recipient never said a word.

Snapchat is a reminder that constraints have a social purpose, that there is beauty in simplicity, and that the ephemeral is valuable. There aren’t many services out there that fundamentally question the default logic of social media and, for that, I think that we all need to pay attention to and acknowledge Snapchat’s moves in this ecosystem.

(This post was originally published on LinkedIn. More comments can be found there.)

Keeping Teens ‘Private’ on Facebook Won’t Protect Them

(Originally written for TIME Magazine)

We’re afraid of and afraid for teenagers. And nothing brings out this dualism more than discussions of how and when teens should be allowed to participate in public life.

Last week, Facebook made changes to teens’ content-sharing options. They introduced the opportunity for those ages 13 to 17 to share their updates and images with everyone and not just with their friends. Until this change, teens could not post their content publicly even though adults could. When minors select to make their content public, they are given a notice and a reminder in order to make it very clear to them that this material will be shared publicly. “Public” is never the default for teens; they must choose to make their content public, and they must affirm that this is what they intended at the point in which they choose to publish.

Representatives of parenting organizations have responded to this change negatively, arguing that this puts children more at risk. And even though the Pew Internet & American Life Project has found that teens are quite attentive to their privacy, and many other popular sites allow teens to post publicly (e.g. Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr), privacy advocates are arguing that Facebook’s decision to give teens choices suggests that the company is undermining teens’ privacy.

But why should youth not be allowed to participate in public life? Do paternalistic, age-specific technology barriers really protect or benefit teens?

One of the most crucial aspects of coming of age is learning how to navigate public life. The teenage years are precisely when people transition from being a child to being an adult. There is no magic serum that teens can drink on their 18th birthday to immediately mature and understand the world around them. Instead, adolescents must be exposed to — and allowed to participate in — public life while surrounded by adults who can help them navigate complex situations with grace. They must learn to be a part of society, and to do so, they must be allowed to participate.

Most teens no longer see Facebook as a private place. They befriend anyone they’ve ever met, from summer-camp pals to coaches at universities they wish to attend. Yet because Facebook doesn’t allow youth to contribute to public discourse through the site, there’s an assumption that the site is more private than it is. Facebook’s decision to allow teens to participate in public isn’t about suddenly exposing youth; it’s about giving them an option to treat the site as being as public as it often is in practice.

Rather than trying to protect teens from all fears and risks that we can imagine, let’s instead imagine ways of integrating them constructively into public life. The key to doing so is not to create technologies that reinforce limitations but to provide teens and parents with the mechanisms and information needed to make healthy decisions. Some young people may be ready to start navigating broad audiences at 13; others are not ready until they are much older. But it should not be up to technology companies to determine when teens are old enough to have their voices heard publicly. Parents should be allowed to work with their children to help them navigate public spaces as they see fit. And all of us should be working hard to inform our younger citizens about the responsibilities and challenges of being a part of public life. I commend Facebook for giving teens the option and working hard to inform them of the significance of their choices.

(Originally written for TIME Magazine)

eyes on the street or creepy surveillance?

This summer, with NSA scandal after NSA scandal, the public has (thankfully) started to wake up to issues of privacy, surveillance, and monitoring. We are living in a data world and there are serious questions to ask and contend with. But part of what makes this data world messy is that it’s not so easy as to say that all monitoring is always bad. Over the last week, I’ve been asked by a bunch of folks to comment on the report that a California school district hired an online monitoring firm to watch its students. This is a great example of a situation that is complicated.

The media coverage focuses on how the posts that they are monitoring are public, suggesting that this excuses their actions because “no privacy is violated.” We should all know by now that this is a terrible justification. Just because teens’ content is publicly accessible does not mean that it is intended for universal audiences nor does it mean that the onlooker understands what they see. (Alice Marwick and I discuss youth privacy dynamics in detail in “Social Privacy in Networked Publics”.) But I want to caution against jumping to the opposite conclusion because these cases aren’t as simple as they might seem.

Consider Tess’ story. In 2007, she and her friend killed her mother. The media reported it as “girl with MySpace kills mother” so I decided to investigate the case. For 1.5 years, she documented on a public MySpace her struggles with her mother’s alcoholism and abuse, her attempts to run away, her efforts to seek help. When I reached out to her friends after she was arrested, I learned that they had reported their concerns to the school but no one did anything. Later, I learned that the school didn’t investigate because MySpace was blocked on campus so they couldn’t see what she had posted. And although the school had notified social services out of concern, they didn’t have enough evidence to move forward. What became clear in this incident – and many others that I tracked – is that there are plenty of youth crying out for help online on a daily basis. Youth who could really benefit from the fact that their material is visible and someone is paying attention.

Many youth cry out for help through social media. Publicly, often very publicly. Sometimes for an intended audience. Sometimes as a call to the wind for anyone who might be paying attention. I’ve read far too many suicide notes and abuse stories to believe that privacy is the only frame viable here. One of the most heartbreaking was from a girl who was commercially sexually exploited by her middle class father. She had gone to her school who had helped her go to the police; the police refused to help. She published every detail on Twitter about exactly what he had done to her and all of the people who failed to help her. The next day she died by suicide.  In my research, I’ve run across too many troubled youth to count. I’ve spent many a long night trying to help teens I encounter connect with services that can help them.

So here’s the question that underlies any discussion of monitoring: how do we leverage the visibility of online content to see and hear youth in a healthy way? How do we use the technologies that we have to protect them rather than focusing on punishing them?  We shouldn’t ignore youth who are using social media to voice their pain in the hopes that someone who cares might stumble across their pleas.

Urban theorist Jane Jacobs used to argue that the safest societies are those where there are “eyes on the street.” What she meant by this was that healthy communities looked out for each other, were attentive to when others were hurting, and were generally present when things went haywire. How do we create eyes on the digital street? How do we do so in a way that’s not creepy?  When is proactive monitoring valuable for making a difference in teens’ lives?  How do we make sure that these same tools aren’t abused for more malicious purposes?

What matters is who is doing the looking and for what purposes. When the looking is done by police, the frame is punitive. But when the looking is done by caring, concerned, compassionate people – even authority figures like social workers – the outcome can be quite different. However well-intended, law enforcement’s role is to uphold the law and people perceive their presence as oppressive even when they’re trying to help. And, sadly, when law enforcement is involved, it’s all too likely that someone will find something wrong. And then we end up with the kinds of surveillance that punishes.

If there’s infrastructure put into place for people to look out for youth who are in deep trouble, I’m all for it. But the intention behind the looking matters the most. When you’re looking for kids who are in trouble in order to help them, you look for cries for help that are public. If you’re looking to punish, you’ll misinterpret content, take what’s intended to be private and publicly punish, and otherwise abuse youth in a new way.

Unfortunately, what worries me is that systems that are put into place to help often get used to punish. There is often a slippery slope where the designers and implementers never intended for it to be used that way. But once it’s there….

So here’s my question to you. How can we leverage technology to provide an additional safety net for youth who are struggling without causing undue harm? We need to create a society where people are willing to check in on each other without abusing the power of visibility. We need more eyes on the street in the Jacbos-ian sense, not in the surveillance state sense. Finding this balance won’t be easy but I think that it behooves us to not jump to extremes. So what’s the path forward?

(I discuss this issue in more detail in my upcoming book “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.”  You can pre-order the book now!)

Addressing Human Trafficking: Guidelines for Technological Interventions

Two years ago, when I started working on issues related to human trafficking and technology, I was frustrated by how few people recognized the potential of technology to help address the commercial sexual exploitation of children. With the help of a few colleagues at Microsoft Research, I crafted a framework document to think through the intersection of technology and trafficking. After talking with Mark Latonero at USC (who has been writing brilliant reports on technology and human trafficking), I teamed up with folks at MSR Connections and Microsoft’s Digital Crimes Unit to help fund research in this space. Over the last year, I’ve been delighted to watch a rich scholarly community emerge that takes seriously the importance of data for understanding and intervening in human trafficking issues that involve technology.

Meanwhile, to my delight, technologists have started to recognize that they can develop innovative systems to help address human trafficking. NGOs have started working with computer scientists, companies have started working with law enforcement, and the White House has started bringing together technologists, domain experts, and policy makers to imagine how technology can be used to combat human trafficking. The potential of these initiatives tickles me pink.

Watching this unfold, one thing that I struggle with is that there’s often a disconnect between what researchers are learning and what the public thinks is happening vis-a-vis the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). On too many occasions, I’ve watched well-intentioned technologists approach the space with a naiveté that comes from only knowing about human trafficking through media portrayals. While the portraits that receive widespread attention are important for motivating people to act, understanding the nuance and pitfalls of the space are critical for building interventions that will actually make a difference.

To bridge the gap between technologists and researchers, I worked with a group of phenomenal researchers to produce a simple 4-page fact sheet intended to provide a very basic primer on issues in human trafficking and CSEC that technologists need to know before they build interventions:

How to Responsibly Create Technological Interventions to Address the Domestic Sex Trafficking of Minors

Some of the issues we address include:

  1. Youth often do not self-identify themselves as victims.
  2. “Survival sex” is one aspect of CSEC.
  3. Previous sexual abuse, homelessness, family violence, and foster care may influence youth’s risk of exploitation.
  4. Arresting victims undermines efforts to combat CSEC.
  5. Technologies should help disrupt criminal networks.
  6. Post-identification support should be in place before identification interventions are implemented.
  7. Evaluation, assessment, and accountability are critical for any intervention.
  8. Efforts need to be evidence-based.
  9. The cleanliness of data matters.
  10. Civil liberties are important considerations.

This high-level overview is intended to shed light on some of the most salient misconceptions and provide some key insights that might be useful for those who want to make a difference. By no means does it cover everything that experts know, but it provides some key touchstones that may be useful. It is limited to the issues that are most important for technologists, but those who are working with technologists may also find it to be valuable.

As researchers dedicated to addressing human trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of children, we want to make sure that the passion that innovative technologists are bringing to the table is directed in the most helpful ways possible. We hope that what we know can be of use to those who are also looking to end exploitation.

(Flickr image by Martin Gommel)

Networked Norms: How Tech Startups and Teen Practices Challenge Organizational Boundaries

At the ASTD TechKnowledge conference, I was asked to reflect on networked learning and how tomorrow’s workers will challenge today’s organizations. I did some reflecting on this topic and decided to draw on two strands of my research over the last decade – startup culture and youth culture – to talk about how those outside of traditional organizational culture are calling into question the norms of bounded corporate enterprises. The piece is more of a provocation than a recipe for going forward, but you might enjoy the crib of my talk none-the-less:

“Networked Norms: How Tech Startups and Teen Practices Challenge Organizational Boundaries”

(Image courtesy of victuallers2)

 

Panel discussion on the #YoSoy132: Mexico’s Networked Social Movement – Sep 20, 5pm at the NERD Center

In collaboration with the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, Microsoft Research New England is hosting a discussion about the #YoSoy132 activist movement. Open to the public.

What: #YoSoy132: Mexico’s Networked Social Movement

When: Thursday September 20 at 5:00 PM

Where: Microsoft Conference Center (Barton Room) located at One Memorial Drive, First Floor, Cambridge, MA

Photo: (c) Omar Torres/AFP/Getty

Abstract

The role of social media in movements like the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street has been much discussed, and such “hashtagged” social movements continue to appear in multiple latitudes. The panelists will discuss the development of the #YoSoy132 movement, “I am 132” in English, an ongoing student-led activist group that fights for democracy and against media bias in an apparent attempt to impose the next president of Mexico during the recent 2012 general election. The movement embodies the collision between centralized traditional media and distributed social media, and reveals the limitations of social media in reaching beyond those who are already networked. The panelists include a member of the #YoSoy132 and researchers investigating networked social movements.

Bios

Sasha Costanza-Chock is a researcher and mediamaker who works on civic media, the political economy of communication, and collaborative design for media justice and communication rights. He is Assistant Professor of Civic Media at MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, Co-PI of the Center for Civic Media, and a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society. Sasha has been a part of the Independent Media Center network, the Allied Media Conference, and VozMob, among other projects. For more info see http://schock.cc. Twitter: @schock

Antonio Attolini Murra is a student at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México majoring in political science and international relations and the spokesperson of his university’s Local Assembly in the student movement #YoSoy132. He has participated in several conferences about transnational organized crime and political reforms in Mexico. In 2011, he was elected Secretary General of his university’s Model of United Nations. He writes in his school’s newspaper, specialized publications, and online news portals such as Animal Político and ADN Político. Antonio is an avid social media user and blogs at http://antonioattolini.blogspot.com Twitter: @antonioattolini

Mayo Fuster Morell does action research in the field of social movements (Global Justice Movement, Free Culture Movement, and recent mobilization wave of “Indignados” in Spain), online collaborative communities, and, public policies. Mayo  concluded her PhD at the European University Institute, and published a book on the influence of Free Culture Movement for the emergence of 15M/Indignados mobilization in Spain. She is currently a fellow at the Berkman center for Internet and Society, a researcher at the Institute of Government and Public Policies (Autonomous University of Barcelona), and a member of the Internet and policy steering committee of the European Council of Political Research. As part of her academic work, she is a promoter of Networked Politics collaborative action research, and the International Forum on Building Digital Commons. For more info see: http://www.onlinecreation.info Twitter: @Lilaroja

Andrés Monroy-Hernández is a social computing researcher at Microsoft Research and an affiliate at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. His research focuses on the design and study of social media systems that support collaboration for creative expression and civic engagement. His current research looks at the use of social media in crises, such as in the Mexican Drug War. Andrés’ work has been featured in the New York Times, CNN, and Wired. Andrés holds a PhD and a Masters from the MIT Media Lab, and a Bachelor’s from Tecnológico de Monterrey. For more info see: http://andresmh.com. Twitter: @andresmh

Arrival Guidance

Upon arrival at One Memorial Drive, kindly approach the Lobby Floor Security Desk; identity yourself, show your picture ID and sign the Building Visitor Log.

Teens Text More than Adults, But They’re Still Just Teens

danah and I have a new piece in the Daily Beast. Summary: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In the last decade, we’ve studied how technology affects how teens socialize, how they present themselves, and how they think about issues like gender and privacy. While it’s true that teens incorporate social media into many facets of their lives, and that they face new pressures their parents didn’t—from cyber-bullying to fearmongering over “online predators”—the core elements of high-school life are fundamentally the same today as they were two decades ago: friends, relationships, grades, family, and the future.

Read the full piece here.

A lot of the research that we do involving teenagers seems obvious to teenagers themselves. “Duh.” “Why would anyone study that?” “Who cares?”

Unfortunately, teenagers aren’t the ones writing news stories about how Facebook is making us lonely, Facebook is full of creepers, or teens are pressured to reveal intimate details on Facebook (note: those last two studies sponsored by a company that creates parental blocking and monitoring software). They aren’t the ones passing anti-bullying legislation, appearing on television to tell parents that teens study less and are more narcissistic than a generation ago, or implementing 3-strikes laws in public schools.

Our public-facing work aims to explain teenage practice in clear language that isn’t sensationalistic or fear-mongering. Obviously, not all scholarship lends itself to this type of writing. But given that social media is often discussed in utopian or dystopian terms in the press, research can provide a rational, sensible perspective that’s badly needed. Like, duh.

The Power of Youth: How Invisible Children Orchestrated Kony 2012

To many people unfamiliar with Invisible Children, the Kony 2012 campaign looked like a brilliant example of “viral” media spread. The center of the campaign is a compelling 30-minute film where a father talks to his son about the evil practices of the Ugandan war lord Joseph Kony. The father makes it clear that his number one goal is to make Kony a household name in order to “raise support for his arrest and set a precedent for international justice.” In the days that followed, critics stepped up and critiqued the simplistic narrative (and colonial rhetoric) put forward by Invisible Children. (If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend Ethan Zuckerman’s “Unpacking Kony 2012.”) Yet, what about the media campaign itself? Activists (and brand marketers) everywhere are in awe of what appears to be a magical campaign that came out of nowhere. But there’s more than meets the eye here.

Over at the SocialFlow blog, Gilad Lotan (my partner) analyzed two aspects of the Invisible Children campaign:

  1. how pre-existing networks helped create the viral spread;
  2. how people targeted celebrities to garner attention philanthropy. There are many important aspects of this blog post, but I want to focus on the role of youth in this process.

Invisible Children is not a new organization. They have spent tremendous effort over the last decade reaching out to youth. They have widespread reach in high schools, colleges, and churches throughout the United States. Many youth are (uncritically) committed to helping stop bad things from happening to other children in Africa. Invisible Children has focused for years on the value of attention philanthropy. They work diligently to do whatever it takes to get people to pay attention to bad things happening in the world. They raise money to raise attention. They leverage celebrities and Hollywood film tactics to reach wide audiences in a hope to activate them to create more attention (and, thus, both funding and political pressure). They engage directly with churches, where word-of-mouth networks in the U.S. are strongest. For the last decade, they have worked on creating films and bringing in celebrities to raise attention to what is happening in Africa, first in Sudan (Darfur) and then in Uganda.

Much to the horror of many human rights activists, Invisible Children is not known for spreading accurate information as much as it’s known for spreading information widely.

Most of how they’ve gotten the message out is by engaging youth. Earlier films have been shown directly to youth (in schools and churches) and youth are actively encouraged to join the organization and participate in their campaigns. They provide toolkits for participation with the primary goal being to amplify attention to a particular issue.

The stories that Invisible Children create in their media put children at the front and center of them. And, indeed, as Neta Kliger-Vilenchik and Henry Jenkins explain, youth are drawn to this type of storytelling. Watch Kony 2012 from the perspective of a teenager or college student. Here is a father explaining to a small child what’s happening in Africa. If you’re a teen, you see this and realize that you too can explain to others what’s going on. The film is powerful, but it also models how to spread information. The most important thing that the audience gets from the film is that they are encouraged to spread the gospel. And then they are given tools for doing that. Invisible Children makes it very easy to share their videos, republish their messages on Facebook/Twitter/Tumblr, and “like” them everywhere. But they go beyond that; they also provide infrastructure to increase others’ attention.

Invisible Children knew that it was targeting culture makers and youth. And Twitter users no less. Indeed, check out the list of “culture makers” that they encouraged youth to target. It’s an interesting mix of liberals (George Clooney, Ellen Degeneres, Bono), conservatives (Rick Warren, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly), geeks (Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg), big philanthropy names (Oprah, Angelina Jolie, Warren Buffett), and pop stars (Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Jay-Z, Justin Bieber). Plus others. They also recommended contacting political figures. (Interestingly, they start with G.W. Bush and Condoleeza Rice and don’t list Obama at all.) As Lotan points out, these celebrities got pummeled with thousands upon thousands of messages from fans, predominantly young fans. And many of them responded.

When celebrities receive this kind of onslaught from their fans – and, especially their younger fans – they pay attention. And so they post out about this. This is exactly where the fuzzy feelings towards attention philanthropy kick in. Young people feel like they did something by getting a celebrity to pay attention to a cause. A celebrity feels like they’ve done some by talking about the cause to a wide audience. And, voila, Invisible Children taps into the attention economy to get their message out.

Yet, there’s more to this. It’s not just anyone who’s paying attention or a small cluster of people that are paying attention from which things radiate. This tag cloud from the SocialFlow blog represents the words that were in the bios of the accounts of those who posted about #stopkony or #kony2012.

Now, check out this network graph of the tweets:

The initial tweets that came out came from seemingly disconnected youth living in Midwestern and Southern towns who frequently refer to Christian values in their bios. In other words, these tweets appear to be coming from communities that Invisible Children had already activated prior to launching Kony 2012. Not only did they then each turn on, but they spread the messages to their friends. This allowed the conversation to “pop” and then spread. The one profile that does have a lot of cluster is the Invisible Children profile, highlighting how their audience was indeed ready to respond to them. But you also see tight clusters that geographically disparate who bridged from the organization and then spread in their local community with a level of intense density. With this kind of graph structure, it’s not surprising that it quickly became a trending topic on Twitter. And then, it could easily spread. Attention begets attention.

I’m especially intrigued by Gilad’s note on the role of religious youth in all of this. Gilad has only begun looking at the data so he doesn’t have a good scope on all of what’s happening, but I’m not surprised by the presence of religious language in the accounts of those who tweeted this message. I very much suspect that a lot of what made this pop has to do with strong pre-existing Christian networks. I’m always surprised at how often people in the tech community regularly underestimate the power of religious networks.

Architecturally, this is a brilliant campaign. It’s really too bad that the message is so deeply flawed. (Again, if you haven’t read Ethan’s post, read it now.)

The fact that privileged folks – including white American youth – can spread messages like this is wonderful, but my hunch is that they’re structurally positioned to spread information farther and wider than those who are socially marginalized. What happens when they try to speak out on behalf of marginalized voices instead of helping marginalized voices be heard? I’m really bothered by how Kony 2012 is all about white people – and primarily white Americans – talking about what should be done in a foreign country to help “poor black people.” I’m glad that NPR and a few other news organizations have sought out Ugandan/African perspectives, but none of those perspectives have broken through the tornado of chaos that has followed this event. So I can’t help but wonder… with the rise of attention philanthropy, are we going to see a new type of attention colonialism?

A Message to the “First Responders” in Gay Kids’ Lives: Why We Need to Ditch the Politics of Blame, Stop Talking About “Cyberbullying,” and Move Toward Sharing Responsibility for the Loss of Tyler Clementi

2 March 2012 

A Message to the “First Responders” in Gay Kids’ Lives: Why We Need to Ditch the Politics of Blame, Stop Talking About “Cyberbullying,” and Move Toward Sharing Responsibility for the Loss of Tyler Clementi

 By Mary L. Gray

Cross posted on HuffingtonPost; maryLgray.org; Cultural Digitally

Senior Researcher Microsoft Research New England, Cambridge, MA

Associate Professor of Communication and Culture, Indiana University

Tyler Clementi’s death on 22 September 2010 was one of several highly publicized youth suicides that fall. In several cases, media coverage and political discourse connected these tragedies to cases of on and offline harassment saturated in homophobic sentiment. Research among students suggests that these hostilely charged environments are the norm rather than the exception. For lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth contemplating suicide, parents, peers, educators, faith leaders, and LGBTQ community advocates are key “first responders”—caring individuals on the scene, providing support—in the wake of this ubiquitous animus. Rallying to punish Dharun Ravi, the former Rutgers student standing trial for 15 criminal counts, including tampering with witnesses and evidence, invasion of privacy, and bias intimidation of Tyler Clementi, does not do justice to Clementi’s life nor does it move us one step closer to preventing another young person, like him, from turning to suicide.

Yet, for the past 2 years, anti-bullying advocates have had their collective frustration and political clout harnessed to further criminalize bullying rather than bolster the roles and resources of invaluable LGBTQ youth “first responders” on the ground. States and school districts rushed to crack down on bullies, prompted, in some cases, by their own convictions but, surely in others, by a political desire to appease constituencies without having to take an explicit stand on anything (who could be for bullying, after all). As a result, a record number of anti-bullying policies are now on the books. However, we have no concrete evidence that such top-down policies prevent or counteract bullying, particularly so-called “cyberbullying”—harassment carried out through texting and online social networks. Worse yet, some research on violent harassment among youth suggests that framing the problem as “bullying” actually works against youth reporting violence or identifying themselves as targets of it (Marwick and boyd 2011).

As we move forward, we need to shift from a dead-end politics of blame to build out the sources of support and ethos of shared responsibility that could make a difference, literally, between life and death for LGBTQ young people.

Rethinking homophobia. Tracing a causal link between Ravi’s homophobic actions and Tyler Clementi’s suicide dangerously oversimplifies homophobia. This formula suggests that homophobia is something “individuals have” rather than what our cultural norms perpetuate. Rather than presume homophobia vents an individual’s fear of homosexuality, researchers, such as sociologist CJ Pascoe (2009), have persuasively argued that it is a portable (I would argue concealable) weapon for policing sexuality and shoring up the fragile gender identities emblematic of tween and teen life. Young people, like Clementi, searching for communities to reflect who they are must constantly weigh if talking about how they feel, whether it’s with parents, close friends, or complete strangers, will work for or against them. If we are serious about preventing bullying and suicide, we need a calculus that always works in a young person’s favor.

The homophobia expressed in Ravi’s disgust for Clementi’s intimacy with another man, as much as the racism conveyed in Clementi’s joking suggestions that Ravi’s South Asian parents owned a Dunkin’ Donuts, signal our limited capacity to celebrate difference. We need to stop telling young people what they shouldn’t say or do and start teaching them—and ourselves—the social and emotional literacies they need to challenge the way they see themselves and each other. It’s time to start having direct conversations with students (beyond the platitude that such name calling “isn’t nice)” about the power that words like “fag,” “no homo,” “bitch,” and others circulate, not only through the person targeted by the slur, but also the person hurling it. Only then can we hope to turn homophobia from an easy insult to a powerful analytic tool for mining our own fears, insecurities, and discomforts with difference.

Expanding parental support/holding parents accountable. One of the few things we know for sure is that parents, guardians, and adult mentors make a difference in the lives of LGBTQ youth. A young person, for example, who lives in fear of a parent’s condemnation is more likely to hurt themselves than a young person who feels supported and accepted at home (Ryan 2009). This is not surprising. But by not explicitly recognizing parents’ roles, we undermine their importance as a strategy for combating LGBTQ youth bullying and suicide. Parents and guardians provide a measure of incomparable respite when they celebrate, rather than stand neutral or second-guess a young person’s decision to question what it means to be straight. A modest expression of acceptance makes a measureable difference. But even that can be a tall order. Adults must negotiate and account for their own doubts and anxieties when a child asks such questions before they can effectively offer first responder support. Parents shouldn’t have to go it alone and, realistically, can’t do it all. They need allies, from family, faith communities, and other positive social networks, to counter the violence and hostility rampant in school environments and circulating online. We will know we’ve reached our goal when every young adult imagines they’d celebrate, rather than endure or suffer through, having an LGBTQ-identifying child of their own.

Focusing on basic research. Educators, researchers, and policy makers need to acknowledge that we know next to nothing about the quality of young LGBTQ people’s lives before we can even begin to contribute to meaningful strategies for supporting them. The data we arm ourselves with, even the universally cited statistics on higher suicide rates among lesbian and gay youth perpetuate a rudimentary, generic picture (Waidzunas 2011). But we have no idea what daily life is like for the average LGBTQ-identifying teen. Right now, there is no national instrument for measuring young people’s positive experiences around sexuality and gender. Most states don’t ask a single question about LGBTQ youth on their annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey, effectively erasing them from the discussion at the state and district level. Indeed, Massachusetts remains the only state with a standing Commission on GLBT Youth that funds support programs in its public schools through its department of education that gather data on the effectiveness of LGBTQ-specific outreach and education. What we need is a nationally funded, coordinated effort that links programming, outreach, and research on behalf of LGBTQ youth. Harvard University’s Born This Way Foundation, launched February 29, and the Massachusetts GLBT Youth Commission’s Research Consortium are 2 good examples of what needs to be done.

Where to go from here. Focusing our collective outrage on prosecuting an individual, whether seeking the harshest punishment we can wring out of Ravi’s case or lobbying for so called “zero-tolerance” policies that automatically expel any student implicated in bullying, implies that homophobia can be rooted out, one bad apple at a time. Turning this into a case of one individual driving Clementi over the edge moves us no closer to seeing the journey that brought Clementi to that edge. When it comes to understanding and preventing youth suicide, our research, educational policies, and legal actions can’t stop at weeding out the presence of homophobic individuals but must demand systems of accountability that address how we individually and collectively perpetuate homophobia in everyday ways. That is why the “first responders” fighting for young people’s federal rights to an equal education and the human right to free expression must call on us to more broadly share responsibility in making those rights universal over narrowly seeking the right bully to blame and lock up.

Citations:

Alice Marwick and danah boyd. (2011). “The Drama! Teen Conflict in Networked Publics.” Paper presented at the Oxford Internet Institute Decade in Internet Time Symposium, September 22.

http://ssrn.com/abstract=1926349

CJ Pascoe. (2007). Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Caitlin Ryan, David Huebner, Rafael M. Diaz, and Jorge Sanchez. (2009). “Family Rejection as a Predictor of Negative Health Outcomes in White and Latino Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Young Adults.” Pediatrics January 2009; 123:1 346-352; doi:10.1542/peds.2007-3524

Tom Waidzunas. (2011).Young, Gay, and Suicidal: Dynamic Nominalism and the Process of Defining a Social Problem with Statistics.” Science, Technology & Human Values, 0162243911402363-. doi:10.1177/0162243911402363

 

BIO

Mary L. Gray is a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research New England and Associate Professor of Communication and Culture, with affiliations in American Studies, Anthropology, and the Gender Studies Department at Indiana University. She draws on an interdisciplinary background in anthropology and critical media studies to study how people use digital and social media in everyday ways to shape their social identities and create spaces for themselves. Her most recent book, Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America (NYU Press, 2009) examined how youth in rural parts of the United States fashioned “queer” senses of gender and sexual identity and the role that media—particularly internet access—played in their lives and political work.