Digital Conversation Matters. . .

While new tools for facilitating conversations are playing an increasingly prominent role in the 21st Century, few have spent as much time studying the unique characteristics of digital communication as danah boyd, a Social Media Researcher at Microsoft Research New England.

boyd—whose professional interest has always been the impact that social media is having on teens and identity—demonstrates early and often in her chapter of Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out (2010) that today’s teens value digital connections.

“While these teens may see one another at school, in formal or unstructured activities, or at one another’s houses,” she writes, “they use social media to keep in touch with their friends, classmates, and peers when getting together is not possible…For many contemporary teenagers, losing access to social media is tantamount to losing their social world” (p. 79).

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the digitally connected teen, though, is that they are always plugged in.

Paired with widespread access to high speed and/or wireless Internet connections, their mobile phones, iPods, and gaming devices extend the potential for communication in ways that were once impossible—and while most teens thrive on this newfound ability to talk at any time, there are social implications for unchecked connectivity.

Online profiles must be diligently maintained or students run the risk of losing status among their peers. Messages must be returned immediately or students run the risk of offending friends expecting instant responses. Public expressions of friendship must be at once significant and sincere or students run the risk of quickly becoming embroiled in social drama at school (boyd, 2010).

Complicating matters is that all of this interaction takes place in rapidly changing digital forums defined by four unique characteristics identified by boyd in a 2007 piece titled Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites:

  1. Persistence: Most electronic communication is permanent. Comments added to threaded discussions can be viewed days, weeks, or months later. Participants unable to be present at the time of a conversation can still see what others had to say. No one is left out of a digital conversation, and opinions expressed—whether good or bad—hang around.

  2. Searchability: When digital conversations are recorded and names are attached to content, the thoughts and ideas of any individual become instantly searchable. With little effort, users of digital communication tools can profile peers, accessing information publicly posted over long periods of time.

  3. Replicability: Content added to digital conversations can also be copied and pasted easily. Ideas and opinions shared spontaneously can be taken out of context and spread quickly through email, text and/or instant messaging services, carrying long term unintended consequences.

  4. Invisible audiences: When communicating with traditional audiences, speakers have a good sense for who is listening and can tailor messages accordingly. Digital audiences, however, are difficult—if not impossible—to define. The invisible members of digital audiences—those who inadvertently stumble across public expressions—may interpret ideas differently than they were originally intended.

(boyd, 2007)

The persistent, searchable and replicable nature of digital conversations held publicly in front of invisible audiences means that social gaffes can be especially costly for today’s teen. Pictures and videos of inappropriate or irresponsible behavior are copied and reposted across the Internet. Slurs and insults made in moments of frustration become public knowledge immediately. Rumors spread uncontrolled, leaving victims unprotected and socially destroyed.

The structural boundaries that limit communication in traditional environments—Who is present? What did they see and/or hear? What can they remember? Who will they tell? What evidence do they have to share?—are nonexistent in digital forums, amplifying the consequences of communication mistakes in the 21st Century (boyd, 2007).

But the same four characteristics of digital forums—persistence, searchability, replicability and invisible audiences—can have a positive impact on 21st Century students when electronic conversations become a regular part of classroom instruction. First, the transparent nature of electronic conversations provides an “equalizing opportunity” for students who are typically disenfranchised.

Often having difficulty academically and sometimes lacking status with their classmates, students who are socially or economically isolated are frequently stereotyped as non-learners by peers and judged as uninterested by teachers. Students in these groups, however, tend to participate in electronic conversations at higher rates than they participate in traditional classroom conversations, earning intellectual recognition for perhaps the first time (Ferriter, 2005).

Students who face social pressures to conform also engage in electronic conversations at higher rates than they participate in traditional classroom conversations. The potentially anonymous nature of digital dialogue serves as a “safety blanket” for students afraid of ridicule. Because joining in electronic conversations can be done anywhere, there is little risk of being embarrassed by poorly polished comments.

Thoughts added to electronic conversations can be carefully crafted before they are posted. These assurances encourage participation from students who would probably have sat on the sidelines in the classroom, hypersensitive to the potential negative reactions of their classmates and friends (Ferriter, 2005).

Finally, electronic conversations can challenge thinking. Students who participate in digital dialogue are forced to clarify their preexisting notions as they consider alternative positions. This process of mental justification is a higher-level thinking skill, and one of the strongest benefits of electronic conversations (Ferriter, 2005).

What’s more, students can tailor their participation in electronic conversations, following strands and/or individuals that are the most individually motivating, providing a level of intellectual differentiation that is hard to find in traditionally structured classrooms. Better yet, the permanence of electronic conversations means that they never lose their instructional value. Students can wrestle with new concepts or return to reflect on their initial positions whenever it is developmentally appropriate to do so.

The question for Radical Nation, then, is simple:  What role do digital conversations play in your classroom? 

Are you giving your students opportunities to interact and experiment online, hoping to capitalize on motivation levels that are naturally high in order to extend learning beyond the walls of your school, or do you remain convinced that any conversation between teens online is a recipe for intellectual disaster?

If you are using digital conversations in your work with students, what successes have you had?  Are there any specific tips or tricks that you’d recommend to others?  Barriers that you’ve had to overcome before moving forward?

And if you aren’t using digital conversations in your work with students, what’s preventing you from taking that leap?  Are there policies in place within your school and/or system that discourage online conversations between students?  Technical challenges that are difficult to overcome?  Professional skepticism towards digital conversations as a meaningful instructional practice? 



Works Cited:

boyd, d. (2010). Friendship. In Hanging out, messing around and geeking out: Kids living and learning with new media (pp. 79-115). Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Boyd, danah. (2007). “Why youth (heart) social network sites: The role of networked publics in teenage social life.” MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Learning—Youth, Identity, and Digital Media Volume (ed. David Buckingham). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Ferriter, W. (2005, July 1). Digital dialogue. Tech & Learning. Retrieved from

7 thoughts on “Digital Conversation Matters. . .

  1. Michael Mitchell

    I teach Japanese and I find using Google Voice gives my students an opportunity to speak in Japanese when doing so in class may be too uncomfortable. The students enjoy it and it is a great way to get them to speak in the target language outside of the classroom setting. This is a problem all world language teachers face with speaking. There are also apps on the iPad such as ShowMe that can empower students to find their digital voice. The great part of finding your digital voice in the world language classroom is that what is created lasts and can be used to assess growth and development in speaking skills over the course of a school year.
    I just started following your blog and enjoy it Bill. Keep up the great work. Michael

  2. Bill Ferriter

    Nancy wrote:
    In reference to this sentence, “What role do digital conversations play in your classroom?”, it’s unfair to hold individual teachers accountable for digital conversations unless their school systems embrace the digital world.
    This is definitely a question that I struggle with too, Nancy….In fact I think I wrote about it sometime recently but I can’t put my hands on the post just now!
    I think the question I’d ask in reply is does resistance on the part of school systems to make digital tools available to their teachers give us permission to stand around and do nothing? Do we bear any responsibility for owning the problem and advancing solutions?
    My answer to this question shifts almost daily. I feel frustration with fighting against underinformed decisions and being held accountable for a ton of poorly defined outcomes—-and on those days, I like to stand still. It’s kind of like surrendering.
    But that always feels so disempowering to me. If I’m a teacher leader—and if I want to see teachers become more influential in the decision-making process—I figure that we’ve got to do more than complain.
    Any of this make sense?

  3. Dina

    Or get off the bus?
    I just amazon-ed Danah Boyd’s book and am super excited to use it as a basis for a potential capstone mini-unit at the end of the school year. “Who are you digitally, kids? What do you want to use in school digitally and why? If you were writing a manual for your teachers to understand and use your connection to technology and how it affects your reading and writing, what would that manual look like?…and now, let’s write it!”
    That being said, I still maintain that in an ever-increasingly wired world, we are not as teachers charged with “going with the digital flow”. We are not even charged merely with helping kids meta-think about their wired experiences.
    In fact, we may be charged more deeply with providing the essential and decreasing grounds for such critical thinking: that is, the authentic, effective, NON-WIRED learning experiences that are rapidly dropping out of importance not only in our curricula, but in our kids’ every day lives. The play in the theatre. The wilderness field trip. Yoga and meditation. Playing a team sport. Playing an instrument.
    Aren’t teachers here, in the end, to give kids WHATEVER they need and don’t have?
    How about that? 🙂

  4. Chris

    Nice piece Bill.
    I have started to provide my students a bit more freedom to communicate electronically. I use a few forums for things like a monthly BookTV assignment. Also, students create and manage profiles on their Gaggle and Moodle accounts where they post classwork.
    It is important to note that I integrate activities and have had several class discussions to promote digital citizenship in my instruction. So far, it has been a good experience.
    Your post emphasized how today’s teens do feel constantly wired. This is a state of mind that is hard for me, a middle aged teacher, to understand.
    I feel, however, that this sense of being wired will only intensify in the years to come and this motivates me to “get on the bus” with my increasingly digitally engaged learners.

  5. Renee

    In our state, because of a new kind of standardized testing that uses our computer labs, there are huge blocks of time (3xper year for at least three weeks at a time) where we are not allowed access to the internet at all because our bandwidth cannot support the demand of the testing and individual use. Cell phones, MP3 players, digital cameras and other electronic devices are banned on campus (which is a joke) – except cell phones, which according to policy must be turned off and out of sight during school hours. Also a joke. We do have access to laptop carts in our department, but we cannot use them to do anything online that would require a student email address for access. Essentially, according to district policy, I can use laptops to create digital versions of pen/paper assignments. It is appalling.
    I am feeling very frustrated today as I try to map out my first project for the new semester. I feel there are more obstacles than opportunities. Thank you for giving a forum for the opportunities to shine!


    In reference to this sentence, “What role do digital conversations play in your classroom?”, it’s unfair to hold individual teachers accountable for digital conversations unless their school systems embrace the digital world. Many, many schools lock down access or ban so many digital devices that having the conversation is relatively pointless. We can advise students how to behave in the digital world, but it’s theoretical only; we can’t model good actions and techniques.
    Students always knew that certain behaviors (wearing a hat, for example) were not acceptable in school, but were pretty much OK everywhere else. “School” behavior around digital information as compared to “everywhere else” behavior is becoming ever more divergent as time passes.

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