Social Media, Privacy and Publicity with danah boyd
Last week I had the chance to attend at a symposium held at the Tilburg Institute for Law, Technology and Society (TILT) called ‘Privacy and Social Network Sites’. The keynote speaker of the day would be dr. danah boyd, who has joined many research groups in the past (‘way back’ to Friendster) and currently works at Microsoft’s Social Media research department. Much of her work as an ethnographer focusses on media use of American teenagers.
The keynote was split up in five sections, namely youth practices, networked publics, visibility, privacy and publicity. In the first section, boyd elaborated on how it came to be that youngster felt so attracted to online social networks. One of the driving forces behind this large-scale migration was ascribed to the fact that teenagers were both being pulled toward the commercialized public spaces (for example shopping malls and cinemas) while at the same time being obscured from these spaces due to the possibilities of shoplifting and the public discomforts of hanging groups. Together with an increasingly feeling of insecurity on the parent’s accounts (partly imposed by media and governments), they saw no other choice than to keep their offspring indoors. Thus hanging out simply ends up happening in Social Media.
According to boyd, hanging out in these (virtual) environments is just as crucial as it’s ever been, as it’s a social process of creating meaning of the world around you, and a way to learn about the social world. While the original network sites has been developed for goals other than just ‘meeting up’ (namely either for business networking or for dating), youngsters have developed their practices to create their own social space. What’s noticeable in their use, living double-lives and maintaining invisibility for unwanted audiences has been at times very successful (for example by by setting their age to 100).
In the second section, networked publics, boyd started out by outlining some of the intrinsic characteristics of digital networks. These aspects range from persistence (every expression is automatically recorded and archived), searchability (disclosed content can easily reach large publics through networks), scalability (blogs can be infinitely be indexed even if they’re not actually read) and invisible audiences (not all audiences might be visible or co-present at the moment of posting). According to boyd, these specifics together would’ve cause the social networks to represent a collapsed context since “the lack of spatial, social and temporal boundaries makes it difficult to maintain distinct social contexts”. Eventually, the coming of these fundamental different contexts would also demand a constant adjustment in our behavior.
In the next section, visibility, boyd elaborated on many case studies in which teenagers struggled with their double-lives. One of the named examples was a girl who posted the outcome of a quiz called ‘What drug are you?’, after her father was outraged after finding his daughter being involved in such practices. Fortunately, the conversation that followed turned up to be a valuable one after the daughter explained to him what it meant to participate in such a quiz in a social environment. In another example, a student (coming from Compton) was rejected from a scholarship after the board found his MySpace which was filled with hip-hop and gangster references. In the latter case the board had probably no idea that youngsters in suburbs like Compton have practically no other choice than to adopt these street culture to simply survive.
Thereafter privacy was covered, a term that boyd defined as “control over how information flows”, in social networks this would also mean conveying texts how it is meant, to the audiences it was meant for. In most cases, this privacy is not always just about hiding; the mantra of ‘security through obscurity’ is maybe not a weird start since people seek an audience all the time. Although teenagers acknowledge that their content might be watched by undesirable audiences, the ones that they most fear are the ones with ‘real’ power over them, such as their parents or teachers.
In the last section, of publicity, boyd compared two networks (Twitter and FaceBook) in terms of their intended publicity. While on Twitter, people often want to reach a larger audience, FaceBook users tend to prefer a network of people they know, build on mutual relationships. As with the Tila Tequila case: teenagers want to become celebrities, but in many cases overlook the possible social consequences of such a status, for example paparazzi. However, this doesn’t mean that on Twitter people want to bluntly reach the largest possible audience, but more often expand it to the level of “comfort with public”.
Concluding, many teenagers approach social networks as an opportunity to express themselves in disclosed online environments (‘disclosed’ as in amongst friends online), which doesn’t mean the content is meant for anyone. Consequently, parents’ fears of this publicity lies in the fact that they might encounter things they wouldn’t want to see (bullying for example). Noticing these gaps call for education that goes beyond just parents and youngsters, as anticipating to online behavior needs different approaches and insights. With the four intertwining areas that Lawrence Lessig introduced in ‘Code’ – namely market, law, social norms and architecture – we constantly need to reshape the role and place of policy in these networks, and try to understand the profound implications these technologies can have.