danah boyd on teens and 21st century work

danah boyd opened ASTD TechKnowledge 2013 with a keynote on teenagers, networks, and work in the 21st century.

danah spells her name in lower case, but everything else about her is upper case: Master’s in Sociable Media with Judith Donath at the MIT Media Lab, PhD at UC Berkeley School of Information advised by Peter Lyman and Mimi Ito, fellow at the Annenberg Center for Communication, fellow at the Berkman Center at Harvard, work at Yahoo, Intel, Google, and now Microsoft.

danah has been studying teenagers for a decade. She reminds me of Temple Grandin, the autistic horse whisperer who looks at the world from the animals’ perspective. boyd is an anthropologist who knows teenagers better than they know themselves.


danah boydTransformation happens at the boundaries of organizations, not the center. Organizations are like LP records: the outer edge is moving fast but the center hardly moves at all. Young people don’t understand why traditional employees gravitate toward the center. Why not go to the edge, where things are happening? Why stay inside the corporate walls when you can talk with everyone?

Information flows faster when it’s available to everyone. It’s stupid to keep secrets from customers and partners who can help you. Overall, young people are challenging the way boundaries work.

Changes in the technology sector are forcing us to consider changes in the organizational culture. Fifteen years ago, coding was a slow, laborious process. Programmers coded every function from scratch. Computers were slow. A programmer would submit a program on punch cards and wait hours for it to compile.

Computers got faster; compiling became instantaneous, and extensibility became the rule. How much of my code can be recycled? Instead of coding, programmers built apps by mashing up shared packages of code. Prototyping became fast and cheap. If a mashup produced a Frankenmonster, you threw it away and tried something else. Programming became communal, sharing replaced building from scratch, and programmers migrated to co-working spaces. They share information with competitors because sharing is to everyone’s advantage. It takes place after hours in bars. Social networks have become the fabric of the high tech industry.

Workers in high-tech know what their executives overlook. Learning is experiential. You learn from your peers and from doing things. Techies tend to move on every three years in search of fresh opportunities to learn.


Teenagers have a different perspective on what’s public and what’s private. They can talk with the world over the net, even when they are forbidden to leave home. They gain privacy by controlling the social situation.

A girl is horrified when her mom joins Facebook. Mom’s comments embarrass her. To tell her friends about breaking up with her boyfriend, she references a song from Life of Brian, Always look on the bright side of life. Her friends understand and begin texting her; her mother doesn’t get it. Privacy is attained by hiding in plain sight.

Sorry, but I can’t resist telling an old joke. A teenage boy writes, “Oh, no. My father has joined Facebook. WTF?” His dad writes, “What does WTF mean?” The son replies “Welcome to Facebook.”

Teens are hacking the Attention Economy. They play with boundaries, not within. Consider Remix culture. Mix Monty Python and the Holy Grail with Star Wars. It skips over the copyright boundary but creates something new and engaging. Teenagers on Twitter and Instagram have millions of followers. Their ecosystem exceeds that of adults. They see the Internet as their own.

The 21st century

Networks rule. People are organizing by networks instead of groups. This is a radical shift.

Success in today’s workforce is about being networked in a way that makes sense. How do you build relationships that help you sustain the right kinds of connections?

In traditional higher ed, colleges are not a place to learn skills. Professors give horrible lectures on esoteric subjects. They teach so they can do their research. People go to those institutions for social networking. Negotiating the dynamics of the Ivy League dorm room builds relationships that sustain the elite connections of our country.

This has gotten messier now with social media. Young people find people like them even before they get on campus. At work, people recommend people who are like them. This reinforces homogeneity. We need to train people about thinking how DIVERSE their networks are.

As you build skills, how to you build social networks and relationships?

When we see young people experimenting with networks, we encourage them. Yet young people are told not to meet strangers. We need to meet people who are NOT LIKE US in order to build and learn.

Building out relationships through social networking is not just an HR issue – it’s connected to the ability to become a lifelong learner. Exposing people to other people who know what they don’t know.

We need disruption to help grow things (e.g., outsiders coming into your organization).

How do we prepare learners for the skills of the future, and also how do we prepare them to engage with the ecosystem?

Future organizations

danah suggests that the high tech development approach is a great model for business organizations in general. I agree. The Stoos Movement is working to bring it about. For example, Steve Denning’s Radical Management concept mashes up the zeitgeist of Scrum, Agile, and Kanban with business management:

  • Delight customers
  • Dynamic linking
  • From value to values
  • Communications: conversations
  • Managers enable self-organizing teams

danah’s talk put another item on my to-do list: I’ve got to get to know some teenagers!



Cammy Bean’s live-blogged post on danah’s session was invaluable in writing this summary.