Danah Boyd: "We Can't Use Privacy To Justify Bad Behavior"

Danah Boyd, Researcher at Microsoft Research New England, talked to us about privacy, transparency and what’s public in social media.

As a researcher, Boyd says she tries to look in people’s online lives (for example, she searches for random words on Twitter) to get into worlds that are different than her own. She wants to de-familiarize herself and tries to change assumptions about what people are doing.

Danah Boyd LeWeb Paris December 2009

She gave three examples of situations where underlying assumptions were wrong

  1. The college admission officer
  • A few years ago, a college admission officer received an essay written by someone who wanted to get into college to leave his gang world. When the officer looked at his MySpace page, he realized that the individual was still in a gang and his profile was very much gang-oriented. The college officer assumed he was lying but his profile made sense in his community’s “gang culture”. He probably wanted to leave but he had to survive it. Two different contexts.
  • Parental access
    • A daughter inviting his father to become a MySpace friend and giving access to her profile. Dad saw that she’s displaying a “what drug are you?” quiz result showing the she is “cocaine”. Dad became uncomfortable and had a talk with his daughter. The father asked “How did you get to be “cocaine”?”. She answered that the kids that smoke pot and took mushrooms were lame and crazy. But she added that her dad’s generation did coke and they turned out ok (!?!). Dad did not assume/interpret what he saw and engaged a conversation. It was key in understanding his daughter’s behavior.
  • Violence
    • A young women kills her mother. She had a profile on MySpace. Her mother was alcoholic, she had abused her and a long period of time was documented on MySpace. Everything was publicly listed but nobody was looking. It was visible. When talking with her friends, people had reported it but nobody did anything about it.

    She then asked us “when should be looking when we’re not? Should we be looking at people in trouble? Should we look at different worlds than ours?” She mentioned a concept from Jane Jacobs: “the eyes on the street”. They’re the lookouts for our community and the best way to keep a community safe. How do we do that online? We use “privacy” to justify why we’re not looking. Just think of domestic violence. In the 1960’s, it didn’t exist (i.e. “I can beat my wife in the privacy of my home”). Now, we have a right to safety in a private space, in our home. We can’t use privacy to justify bad behavior. She says she sees a lot of kids crying out for help online.

    On bullying, she says that parents believe technology created a new evolution of bullying. It’s actually not more present than before but it’s more visible. People couldn’t see it before. Parents blame the technology thinking that bullying will go away. We can see these dynamics now. The internet is bringing diversity (different worlds) together. We should embrace the power of visibility. We’re making things we like and things we don’t like visible to everyone.

    I love the fact that Boyd specifically talked about online bullying because she was “bullied” via Twitter at the last Web 2.0 conference in New York. You can read about that on her blog.

    More in The Guardian and in ReadWriteWeb.

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