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

Video and more written FutureWeb coverage:
FutureWeb YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/Futureweb2010#p/u
Flickr photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/38539612@N02/sets/72157623891937652/

danah boyd: privacy, publicity and ‘Big Data’

29 04 2010

Social networks researcher danah boyd, who has collaborated with Microsoft and Harvard’s Berkman Center, kicked off day two of FutureWeb with her WWW2010 keynote address. boyd focused her talk on “Big Data” and its implications in the world of Web 2.0, namely privacy and publicity consequences.

danah boyd delivers the WWW2010 keynote address, speaking about Big Data, privacy and publicity. (Photo: Dan Rickershauser)

“Data is the digital air in which we breathe and countless efforts are being put into trying to make sense of the data swirling around,” boyd said. “When we talk about privacy and publicity in a digital age, we can’t avoid talking about data.”

boyd described Big Data as the kind of information that marketers, researchers and businessmen and women use to track and analyze public behavior. She named social media tools, such as Facebook, Twitter and Google, as core hosts of data.

We’ve entered an age where data is cheap, but making sense of it is not, boyd said. People must become actively engaged in the data in order to accurately and efficiently analyze human behavior online.

boyd cites four key issues to understand when working with Big Data:

  1. Bigger Data are Not Always Better Data
  2. Not All Data are Created Equal
  3. What and Why are Different Questions
  4. Be Careful of Your Interpretations

“Nobody loves Big Data better than marketers,” she said. “And nobody misinterprets Big Data better than marketers.”

One limitation to Big Data, boyd warned, is that it can only reveal certain things. Making assumptions about interpretations of that data is dangerous. boyd said such misinterpretations are “beautifully displayed when people try to implement findings into systems.”

Related to the problem of data misconceptions is the question of ethics. She cited privacy and publicity as two key issues that come into play. The biases and misinterpretations that are present in the analysis and use of Big Data are fundamentally affecting people’s lives, boyd said.

“Just because data is accessible doesn’t mean that using it is ethical,” boyd said. “It terrifies me when those who are passionate about Big Data espouse the right to collect, aggregate and analyze anything that they can get their hands on.”

Unintended consequences of our actions, including invasion of privacy, are why ethics matter. boyd said people begin to feel privacy violations as soon as their expectations are shattered in the physical environment.

She also spoke about the psychological consequences people suffer from who experience an invasion of privacy.

“Making content publicly accessible is not equal to being asked for it to be distributed, aggregated or otherwise scaled,” she said. “Paparazzi make celebrities’ lives a living hell. When we argue for the right to publicize any data that isn’t publicly accessible, we are arguing that everyone deserves the right to be stalked like a celebrity.”

In the context of social networks, she said people are sharing “personally identifiable information,” but are usually just concerned about “personally embarrassing information.”

The questions that arise from open access controls are challenging. Just because we can publicize content, should we? Just because we can aggregate and redistribute data, should we?

The answers to these questions still remain unclear, boyd said.

She spoke specifically about Facebook’s history with privacy issues, beginning with its initial reputation as a trusted, closed system with boundaries. Over the years, developments such as the News feed, Beacon and changing privacy settings have “left many users clueless and confused.” Still, boyd says people are slowly learning how to manipulate the technology to control their privacy.

“Privacy will always be a process that people are navigating,” boyd said. “Big Data is made out of people. We have to develop systems and do analysis that balance the complex ways in which people are negotiating these systems.  You are shaping the future, and I challenge you to build the future you want to inhabit.”

-by Ashley Dischinger

Video and more written FutureWeb coverage:
FutureWeb YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/Futureweb2010#p/u
Flickr photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/38539612@N02/sets/72157623891937652/