This year at SXSW -- as in every year -- speakers and participants struggle to explain hot social trends in the lens of emerging technology. On Friday, two presentations took two very different looks at how social media interacts with mainstream culture.
Researcher and technologist Danah Boyd is a longtime SXSW speaker and geek celebrity who this year examined fear: Fear of technology, fear caused by technology and the use of technology and fear to manipulate the public's emotions and decision-making.
Boyd framed technology as "the perpetual unknown" -- whether sewing machines, comic books or Facebook, people are paranoid about the latest technology and its consequences in their lives. Because we are terrible at assessing risk we place greater weight on first-person stories and direct, personal experience than logic.
Boyd studies young people and their relationships, and is constantly interrogated by parents about the risks kids face online. "Parenting is scary. There's no rulebook," Boyd said. "It's natural to be scared or unsure and parents' desire to protect enhances fear of outside threats like technology."
Parents are deeply concerned about cyberbullying and online predators. "Parents want to protect their kids from bullying," boyd said. "But the important thing to remember is that bullying isn't new, and it isn't unique to the online setting."
According to Boyd, most of the bullying children and young people experience is not anonymous: It's cruelty from the same people they already know, reproducing the dynamics of middle school hallway horrors on Facebook.
That named cruelty was a key theme in a panel convened by HuffPost Women to discuss how women present themselves online. Editor Margaret Johnson referred to this concept as women's "performance anxiety on social media". Panelists including author Susan Orlean, filmmaker Tiffany Shlain, Huffington Post Technology editor Bianca Bosker and journalist/TV personality Lisa Ling discussed how women reproduce the standard social anxieties online.
Orlean set the tone for the discussion with what became a central point: "The vocabulary of social media - "like," "follow," "friends" -- are painful artifacts of the teenage years. Only now we have an actual number."
Panelists discussed the ways women measure themselves against ideal standards, and social media and the construction of the online persona is another way in which women feel they should excel.
For many people, social media is like middle school on steroids. The interactions are defined by this desire to be liked, followed and friended, but now that desire and group approval quantified with numbers of people. As with bullying, these dynamics are not unique to the online arena; they're simply amplified and exposed by the scale that's uniquely possible online.
Journalist Lisa Ling created the Secret Society of Women, an online forum for women, after experiencing a miscarriage to facilitate opportunities to share the "things women hold inside." Ling said the forums have created powerful peer support, but she has simultaneously been astonished by the cattiness.
Ultimately, both the HuffPost Women panelists and Boyd came to the same conclusion. Whether it's online bullying or challenging self-esteem issues, online relationships replicate human dynamics, not unique to kids or women.
Technologists, parents and children alike must find ways to manage interactions with technology that expose and amplify the human need to be liked. Now that the social tone of the teenage years is extended to adulthood, parents must reassure their teens while worrying about their own status updates and tweets.
The next generation of social networks will cope with these struggles to reflect selves realistically, and safely for children, while understanding that people will misbehave.
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