by: danah boyd

had just finished giving a talk about youth culture to a room full of
professionals who worked in the retail industry when a woman raised her
hand to tell me a story. It was homecoming season and her daughter Mary
was going to go to homecoming for the first time. What fascinated this
mother was that her daughter's approach to shopping was completely
different than her own.

Using Google and a variety of online shopping sites, Mary researched
dresses online, getting a sense for what styles she liked and reading
information about what was considered stylish that year. Next, Mary and
her friends went to the local department store as a small group, toting
along their digital cameras (even though they're banned). They tried on
the dresses, taking pictures of each other in the ones that fit. Upon
returning home, Mary uploaded the photos to her Facebook and asked her
broader group of friends to comment on which they liked the best. Based
on this feedback, she decided which dress to purchase, but didn't tell
anyone because she wanted her choice to be a surprise. Rather than
returning to the store, Mary purchased the same dress online at a
cheaper price based on the information on the tag that she had written
down when she initially saw the dress. She went for the cheaper option
because her mother had given her a set budget for homecoming shopping;
this allowed her to spend the rest on accessories.

Mary's mother was completely flabbergasted by the way in which her
daughter moved seamlessly between the digital and physical worlds to
consume clothing. More confusing to this mother, a professional in
retail, was the way in which her daughter viewed her steps as
completely natural.

In the 1980s, Alan Kay declared that, "technology is anything that
wasn't around when you were born." In other words, what is perceived as
technology to adults is often ubiquitous if not invisible to youth. In
telling this story, Mary's mother was perplexed by the technology
choices made by her daughter. Yet, most likely, Mary saw her steps in a
practical way: research, test out, get feedback, purchase. Her choices
were to maximize her options, make a choice that would be socially
accepted, and purchase the dress at the cheapest price. Her steps were
not about maximizing technology, but about using it to optimize what
she did care about.

Examining e-commerce, many businesses have found that people use
online sources to research what it is that they want to buy. Few people
purchase cars online, but many more research their options there.
Online shopping sites are assumed to support offline purchasing. Yet,
for Mary and other teens that I've met, the opposite is also true: they
are visiting stores to research what they want so that they can
purchase it online at a cheaper venue. The stores allow them to touch,
feel, and try on material goods, while the digital world helps them
find the cheapest option without running from store to store.

Teens' interest in shopping is not simply about consuming material
goods. For many, sites of consumerism are the only venues available for
hanging out with friends. Malls, outlets, and box stores regularly
emerged as places where teens could meet each other to hang out.
Because security often shoos teens who are loitering away, they get
into the habit of window shopping, fondling items for sale as though
they may purchase them, and trying on clothes just so that they can
appear to be at the shop for a reason. When they have money, they often
do buy something, but most teens who hang out in shopping venues have
nothing to spend - they simply want a place to hang out with their

Teens who spend a lot of time hanging out around shopping spaces
begin to know what each store is selling and have a sense of how often
they update their inventory. As Nick (16) explained, "we'll go in the
hat store and look at different kind of hats they got. It's a lot to
do, but sometimes it gets boring 'cause if you go there enough, you
start, 'Oh, I saw that last week. They got the same stuff.' Sometimes
it's really boring to go in there and you see the same stuff over, and
over, and over again." New inventory makes the "task" of window
shopping much more interesting.

While shopping to hang out is a popular American teen past time, it
also has a reputation amongst some parents for being a venue for
troubled kids to gather. In talking with parents, I often heard
references to drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, gangs, and "the wrong crowd"
as reasons for why they did not allow their children to hang out at the
local mall. After intense amounts of pressure from her daughter, one
mother did begin allowing her 14-year old to go with her friends to an
outdoor mall under one condition: she would sit in Starbucks and her
daughter would have to check in every 20 minutes. Not surprisingly, the
daughter was not thrilled, but consented because it was her only
option. Still, many parents refuse to let their kids go to the mall to
hang out.

Teens do lie to their parents to get around this restriction. One
girl told me that she and her friends had their parents drop them off
at the movie theater adjacent to the mall. She would research the movie
ahead of time so that she could report back afterwards. She would walk
into the theater with her friends and wait until her parents left
before going to the mall to meet up with others who had less
restrictive parents. She would make sure to be back at the theater
before the movie finished. This practice is not new to this generation,
but it still highlights how critical shopping venues are for social

Online shops do not have the same hangout appeal and the majority of
teens that I've met who visit them do so with a purpose. They go to buy
something specific and usually with their parents consent because of
the credit card requirements. Online shopping is primarily
task-centric, while offline shopping is primarily social-centric.

All the same, some teens still value consumption as an end in
itself. As Shean (17) explained, "I want to get my own job and start my
own stuff and make my own money, a lot of it, so that I can buy
whatever I want. I want to be one of those people that can just walk in
and say I want that and that and that." To Shean, all that matters is
having the stuff because that's what it means to "live luxurious."

When it comes to teen culture, consumerism is still rampant,
although shopping is primarily about socialization. Aside from how the
mobile phone allows groups to coordinate, technology is not really
altering the tradition of hanging out in consumer places. What it is
altering is the ways in which teens research and purchase things that
they know they want.

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