When Lady Gaga launches her Born This Way foundation today at Harvard, she'll be teaming up with some awfully smart people. It's telling that Gaga connected with the Berkman Center -- Harvard's center for the "internet and society," and the former home of Danah Boyd, a rockstar researcher at Microsoft who is responsible for some of our best data on how kids's behavior -- on and offline -- is informed by and integrated with social media. Boyd is queer, a former raver and hacker, and possessor of a brilliant mind: she just got back from the World Economic Forum in Davos and was recently on the cover of Fast Company. So it's certainly not strange to see Boyd playing a prominent role in the BTW Foundation: she's co-editing one of the Foundation's first big research projects, a series of papers which include a survey of anti-bullying legislation and a list of dos-and-don'ts for educators confronting bullying in schools.
One hopes Gaga and Oprah know what they're in for. Anyone familiar with Boyd's work knows that she likes to pose tough questions and isn't afraid to take unpopular stances. A few days ago, she co-authored a piece for Huffington Post defending Dharun Ravi, the Rutgers University student who is on trial for inviting friends to clanestinely watch his roommate -- Tyler Clementi, a young gay man who later killed himself -- have sex with another man. "Tyler Clementi’s suicide is a tragedy," Boyd wrote. "We should all be horrified that a
teenager felt the need to take his life in our society. But in our
frustration, we must not prosecute Dharun Ravi before he has had his day
in court. We must not be bullies ourselves."
Boyd is concerned, in a larger sense, that adults' fear of their children being bullied has gone overboard. In December, she collected some of her most controversial ideas into a single blog post. "I’m not confident that our war on bullying is taking us down the right
path," she wrote. "I’m worried about the unintended consequences of our public
discourse and I’m worried about the implications that our decisions have
on youth, particularly in this high-stakes arena." She worried that a "moral panic" had set in around the issue of kids talking to strangers online; recalling her own queer teen years, she says that interacting with anonymous adults online helped her figure out who she was. She took aim at Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" project and asked whether it actually makes things worse for gay teens. She described arrests in the wake of the Phoebe Prince case -- a high-profile instance of teen bullying in Massachusetts -- as a witch hunt. And, on the basis of a conversation in a tent at a pre-millennial rave, declared that some students at Columbine dropped out not because of the shootings but because of the press coverage afterwards. Her conclusion: increased media attention to bullying -- something that will certainly result from the work of Lady Gaga's Born This Way foundation -- may actually "cause harm to youth."
Boyd isn't asking these questions spuriously -- she's earned the right to ask them by putting the research behind it, including her assertion that "most bullying is reciprocal" -- but I can't help but wonder whether the PR folks managing Gaga's foundation rollout have any idea who they've hired. The good news for them is that they've got one of the smartest, hardest-working, and most fearless researchers in the country on the payroll. Then again, depending on how they look at it, that may also be the bad news: this is not someone who is known for pulling punches. In academia, that's made her a hero. But she's about to enter a new world of celebrity scholarship -- one that tends to have far less tolerance for nuance. Last September, in New York state, a 14-year-old boy killed himself after being bullied for being gay. If something similar happens again next year, I have a feeling that the Born This Way Foundation will have something to say about it. But it probably won't sound anything like the New York Times op-ed that Boyd co-authored in the wake of that September tragedy -- in which she warned about the evils of . . . "antibullying rhetoric."