Elon University

Special Session: Social Web Expert danah boyd Shares Her Foresight

An interview about the future of the Internet hosted by Lee Rainie, Pew Internet

Brief description: Pew Internet & American Life Project Director Lee Rainie interviews danah boyd of Microsoft and Harvard University’s Berkman Center, addressing the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.

Details of the session

Erstwhile and effervescent host Lee Rainie interviewed social networks researcher danah boyd on the future of the Web in a special session at during the second day of the FutureWeb conference. The talk came a few hours after boyd’s stirring speech in which she issued a call for entrepreneurs and engineers of the Web to think before they act.

In their afternoon chat after the morning keynote, Rainie and boyd discussed the way in which institutions are handling data, bad actors in marketing, socioeconomic factors in technology and how teens are navigating the social networking environment.

Rainie introduced boyd as “the number-one reference for social networks – she’s been our teacher for a long time on this stuff.” He revealed that boyd and the Pew Internet team are applying for a federal grant to do a research study on the new ways people are interacting online.

Most of the amazingly fact-packed interview session was original information, compelling and highly detailed, but boyd first addressed an issue she had touched on in the earlier keynote speech: the ways in which institutions are handling data. She cited pleaserobme.com as a good reminder of how much data is available on the Internet.

“Many people take this site seriously, but it’s really just trying to make a delightful point about privacy,” boyd said. “It’s kind of an experiment that really gets to the heart of that.”

When asked about instances of data misuse by Internet-based companies, boyd said most of the misuses are unintentional. Still, she said it is this level of naïveté that causes quite a few problems. The challenge is that each company and each researcher means well, but they aren’t necessarily considering the consequences of how they are using data. She said this requires the public to start thinking like hackers in order to anticipate the unintended costs they might incur when they do things online.

A conference attendee posed the question of whether one can ever take full account of the data’s context and fully understand it. boyd’s responded with her number one principle in analyzing data: “Know the data you’re working with, and don’t make claims that go beyond that.”

boyd says that Internet companies can consider this is a prime opportunity to work with social scientists.

“We should be doing multi-prong questioning instead of waiting for people to come out with reports,” boyd said.

She acknowledged that a downside to easily accessible data is the potential for misinterpretation. The defense, she said, is to consider how data you are about to distribute could get misinterpreted, and how you will be accountable for it.

Ethical questions arise when considering data misinterpretation. We need to find a way to actively engage ethical practices, which become ways to think through a process, she said.

boyd also addressed the question of ways in which teenagers are navigating the online environment, and how their behaviors differ from older generations.

Danah Boyd Speaking WWW2010 Photo“Teenagers are looking to understand the world around them,” boyd said. “They come to social media with the understanding that friendship is driven through publicly accessible information. It’s important to them that friends can see them, but those who hold power over them cannot.”

This is nothing new, she said. Previous generations of teenagers valued the same principles, but instead of trying to keep their parents out of their rooms, today’s teens are trying to keep them out of their online environments.

Relating this example back to her ethics discussion, boyd questioned whether parents have the right to look at their children’s information online, just because it is accessible. She said instead, parents should think about how to help their teenagers by simply asking them questions and guiding them accordingly.

boyd’s research on teenagers has also provided insight into socioeconomic factors that effect the way they engage in technology.

“I’ve learned the hard way that talking about socioeconomic factors is the best way to really put the bullseye on you,” she said.

Her research has revealed divisions between the use of MySpace and Facebook and the way the sites are talked about in terms of class. She found discrepancies in the language that is used on the sites in accordance with the socioeconomic status of the users.

“My role as an ethnographer is to start with the people and then go up from there,” she said. “I have to actually observe what’s happening so you can see the diversity in what’s going on.”

When asked about her insights into how people navigate social networks, successfully and unsuccessfully, she referred to the philosophical discussion on “publics.” We live in multiple publics, each with a certain logic, and we engage in each differently, she said. Networked publics challenge people in the ways that we deal with it every day, all day. She said the blurring between the public and the private, and the challenges of the “invisible public” are altering the way that people navigate online forums. She noted there are four key properties to the challenges of invisible audiences: Persistence, ephemerality, replicability and searchability.

“The fact is, we are in a transition,” boyd said. “(The public’s navigation of social networks) will be unstable for a really long time. People will lose their jobs over this. People will lose their lives over this. It really becomes a big challenge.”

-By Ashley Dischinger, Imagining the Internet

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