danah boyd talks social networking, data interpretation with Lee Rainie

30 04 2010

Lee Rainie interviewed social networks researcher danah boyd on the future of the Web for a special session at this afternoon’s FutureWeb conference. They discussed the way in which institutions are handling data, bad actors in marketing, socioeconomic factors in

Social networks researcher danah boyd speaks with Lee Rainie in a special interview session at FutureWeb. (Photo: Dan Anderson, Elon University)

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.”

danah first addressed an issue she touched on in her keynote speech earlier this morning: the way in which institutions are handling data. She cited pleaserobme.com as a 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 in the marketing community, boyd said most of the misuses are unintentional. Still, she said it is this level of naïveté that gets us into trouble the most. 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. Instead, the public has to start thinking like hackers in order to anticipate unintended costs.

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 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.

“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 parents out of their rooms, teens are now trying to keep them out of their online environments.

Click here to watch boyd explain why some teens opt out of participating in social networks.

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 bulls eye on you,” she said.

Her research has revealed divisions between the use of MySpace and Facebook and they 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 philosophic 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. The blurring between public and private, and the challenges of the “invisible public” are altering the way that people navigate online forums.

“(Publics navigation of social networks) will be unstable for a really long time,” boyd said. “It really becomes a big challenge.”

By Ashley Dischinger

ADDITIONAL DETAILS FROM THIS EVENT…
Video and more written FutureWeb coverage:
http://bit.ly/imaginingtheinternet
FutureWeb YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/Futureweb2010#p/u
Flickr photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/38539612@N02/sets/72157623891937652/

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