Earlier this week, Anil Dash wrote a smart piece unpacking the concept of “public.” He opens with some provocative questions about how we imagine the public, highlighting how new technologies that make heightened visibility possible. For example,
Someone could make off with all your garbage that’s put out on the street, and carefully record how many used condoms or pregnancy tests or discarded pill bottles are in the trash, and then post that information up on the web along with your name and your address. There’s probably no law against it in your area. Trash on the curb is public.
The acts that he describes are at odds with — or at least complicate — our collective sense of what’s appropriate. What’s at stake is not about the law, but about our idea of the society we live in. This leads him to argue that the notion of public is not easy to define. “Public is not just what can be viewed by others, but a fragile set of social conventions about what behaviors are acceptable and appropriate.” He then goes on to talk about the vested interests in undermining people’s conception of public and expanding the collective standards of what is in.
To get there, he pushes back at the dichotomy between “public” and “private,” suggesting that we should think of these as a spectrum. I’d like to push back even further to suggest that our notion of privacy, when conceptualized in relationship to “public,” does a disservice to both concepts. The notion of private is also a social convention, but privacy isn’t a state of a particular set of data. It’s a practice and a process, an idealized state of being, to be actively negotiated in an effort to have agency. Once we realize this, we can reimagine how to negotiate privacy in a networked world. So let me unpack this for a moment.
Imagine that you’re sitting in a park with your best friend talking about your relationship troubles. You may be in a public space (in both senses of that term), but you see your conversation as private because of the social context, not the physical setting. Most likely, what you’ve thought through is whether or not your friend will violate your trust, and thus your privacy. If you’re a typical person, you don’t even begin to imagine drones that your significant other might have deployed or mechanisms by which your phone might be tapped. (Let’s leave aside the NSA, hacker-geek aspect of this.)
You imagine privacy because you have an understanding of the context and are working hard to control the social situation. You may even explicitly ask your best friend not to say anything (prompting hir to say “of course not” as a social ritual).
As Alice Marwick and I traversed the United States talking with youth, trying to make sense of privacy, we quickly realized that the tech-centric narrative of privacy just doesn’t fit with people’s understandings and experience of it. They don’t see privacy as simply being the control of information. They don’t see the “solution” to privacy being access-control lists or other technical mechanisms of limiting who has access to information. Instead, they try to achieve privacy by controlling the social situation. To do so, they struggle with their own power in that situation. For teens, it’s all about mom looking over their shoulder. No amount of privacy settings can solve for that one. While learning to read social contexts is hard, it’s especially hard online, where the contexts seem to be constantly destabilized by new technological interventions. As such, context becomes visible and significant in the effort to achieve privacy. Achieving privacy requires a whole slew of skills, not just in the technological sense, but in the social sense. Knowing how to read people, how to navigate interpersonal conflict, how to make trust stick. This is far more complex that people realize, and yet we do this every day in our efforts to control the social situations around us.
The very practice of privacy is all about control in a world in which we fully know that we never have control. Our friends might betray us, our spaces might be surveilled, our expectations might be shattered. But this is why achieving privacy is desirable. People want to be *in* public, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to *be* public. There’s a huge difference between the two. As a result of the destabilization of social spaces, what’s shocking is how frequently teens have shifted from trying to restrict access to content to trying to restrict access to meaning. They get, at a gut level, that they can’t have control over who sees what’s said, but they hope to instead have control over how that information is interpreted. And thus, we see our collective imagination of what’s private colliding smack into the notion of public. They are less of a continuum and more of an entwined hairball, reshaping and influencing each other in significant ways.
Anil is right when he highlights the ways in which tech companies rely on conceptions of “public” to justify data collection practices. He points to the lack of consent, which signals what’s really at stake. When powerful actors, be they companies or governmental agencies, use the excuse of something being “public” to defend their right to look, they systematically assert control over people in a way that fundamentally disenfranchises them. This is the very essence of power and the core of why concepts like “surveillance” matter. Surveillance isn’t simply the all-being all-looking eye. It’s a mechanism by which systems of power assert their power. And it is why people grow angry and distrustful. Why they throw fits over beingexperimented on. Why they cry privacy foul even when the content being discussed is, for all intents and purposes, public.
As Anil points out, our lives are shaped by all sorts of unspoken social agreements. Allowing organizations or powerful actors to undermine them for personal gain may not be illegal, but it does tear at the social fabric. The costs of this are, at one level, minuscule, but when added up, they can cause a serious earthquake. Is that really what we’re seeking to achieve?
(The work that Alice and I did with teens, and the implications that this has for our conception of privacy writ large, is written up as “Networked Privacy” in New Media & Society. If you don’t have library access, email me and I’ll send you a copy.)
(This entry was first posted on August 1, 2014 at Medium under the title “What is Privacy” as part of The Message.)
In detailing the story of “Jane Doe,” a 16-year-old transgender youth stuck in an adult prison in Connecticut for over six weeks without even being charged, Shane Bauer at Mother Jones steps back to describe the context in which Jane grew up. In reading this horrific (but not that uncommon) account of abuse, neglect, poverty, and dreadful state interventions, I came across this sentence:
“While in group homes, she says she was sexually assaulted by staffers, and at 15, she became a sex worker and was once locked up for weeks and forced to have sex with “customers” until she escaped.” — Mother Jones
What makes this sentence so startling is the choice of the term “sex work.” Whether the author realizes it or not, this term is extraordinarily political, especially when applied to an abused and entrapped teenager. I couldn’t help but wonder why the author didn’t identify Jane as a victim of human trafficking.
Commercial sexual exploitation of minors
Over the last few years, I’ve been working with an amazing collection of researchers in an effort to better understand technology’s relationship to human trafficking and, more specifically, the commercial sexual exploitation of children. In the process, I’ve learned a lot about the politics of sex work and the political framing of sex trafficking. What’s been infuriating is to watch the way in which journalists and the public reify a Hollywood narrative of what trafficking is supposed to look like — innocent young girl abducted from happy, healthy, not impoverished home with loving parents and then forced into sexual acts by a cruel older man. For a lot of journalists, this is the only narrative that “counts.” These are the portraits that are held up and valorized, so much so that an advocate reportedly fabricated her personal story to get attention for the cause.
The stark reality of how youth end up being commercially sexually exploited is much darker and implicates many more people in power. All too often, we’re talking about a child growing up in poverty, surrounded by drug/alcohol addiction. More often than not, the parents are part of the problem. If the child wasn’t directly pimped out by the parents, there’s a high likelihood that s/he was abused or severely neglected. The portrait of a sex trafficking victim is usually a white or Asian girl, but darker skinned youth are more likely to be commercially sexually exploited and boys (and especially queer youth) are victimized far more than people acknowledge.
Many youth who are commercially exploited are not pimped out in the sense of having a controlling adult who negotiates their sexual acts. All too often, youth begin trading sex for basic services — food, shelter, protection. This is part of what makes the conversation about sex work vs. human trafficking so difficult. The former presumes agency, even though that’s not always the case while the latter assumes that no agency is possible. When it comes to sex work, there’s a spectrum. Sex work by choice, sex work by circumstance, and sex work by coercion. The third category is clearly recognizable as human trafficking, but when it comes to minors, most anti-trafficking advocates and government actors argue that it’s all trafficking. Except when that label’s not convenient for other political efforts. And this is where I find myself scratching my head at how Jane Doe’s abuse is framed.
How should we label Jane Doe’s abuse?
By the sounds of the piece in Mother Jones, Jane Doe most likely started trading sex for services. Perhaps she was also looking for love and validation. This is not that uncommon, especially for queer and transgender youth. For this reason, perhaps it is valuable to imply that she has agency in her life, to give her a label of sex work to suggest that these choices are her choices.
Yet, her story shows that things are far more complicated than that. It looks as though those who were supposed to protect her — staff at group homes — took advantage of her. This would also not be that uncommon for youth who end up commercially sexually exploited. Too many sexually exploited youth that I’ve met have had far worse relationships with parents and state actors than any client. But the clincher for me is her account of having been locked up and forced to have sex until she escaped. This is coercion through-and-through. Regardless of why Doe entered into the sex trade or how we want to read her agency in this process, there is no way to interpret this kind of circumscribed existence and abuse as anything other than trafficking.
So why isn’t she identified as a trafficking victim? Why aren’t human trafficking advocacy organizations raising a stink about her case? Why aren’t anti-trafficking journalists telling her story?
The reality is that she’s not a good example for those who want clean narratives. Her case shows the messiness of human trafficking. The way in which commercial exploitation of minors is entwined with other dynamics of poverty and abuse. The ways in which law enforcement isn’t always helpful. (Ah, yes, our lovely history of putting victims into jail because “it’s safer there.”) Jane Doe isn’t white and her gender identity confounds heteronormative anti-trafficking conversations. She doesn’t fit people’s image of a victim of commercial sexual exploitation. So it’s safer to avoid terms like trafficking so as to not muddy the waters even though the water was muddy in the first place.
(This entry was first posted on June 19, 2014 at Medium under the title “Why Jane Doe doesn’t get to be a sex trafficking victim” as part of The Message.)
Only two hours before the nightmare that would unfold, I was sitting with friends sharing my loyalties to travel programs. I had lost status on nearly everything when I got pregnant with my son (where’s parental leave??), forcing me to rethink my commitments. I told everyone about how I loved the fact that Avis had been so good to me, so willing to give me hybrids when they were available. I had been in an Avis car for 20 of the 28 days that month and I was sad that I didn’t have a hybrid in LA but the customer service rep was super apologetic and I understood that it was a perk, not a guarantee.
When I got into my car at 10PM that night, I discovered I had a flat tire. Exhausted and jetlagged, I called Roadside Assistance and braced myself to begin the process. I didn’t give it much thought given that I was 7 miles from LAX where it’d be easy to exchange a car. And it’s LA, land of cars, right? I had gotten stuck in much worse situations, situations without phone service. When I got the rep on the phone, we went through the process and I said that I didn’t feel safe driving significantly on a spare, especially not in LA. I asked how long for an exchange because we were so close. He said it’d be longer. I asked how long but he didn’t know; he said he’d text me when the order was placed. I figured go ahead and I can always call back and shift things. It was dark, I was falling asleep, and time passed.
An hour later, I still hadn’t heard anything. I called back, now much more frustrated. They told me that they still didn’t know. I pushed and pushed and they told me it’d probably take 4 hours. WTF? Are you serious!?!? How long for a spare to be changed I asked? Another 90 minutes they told me. They wanted me to wait until 12:30AM to get a spare tire on my car or until 3AM to get a replacement. I told them that this wasn’t safe, they asked if I was in a life-threatening emergency. No, it just wasn’t safe for me to sleep in my car in the middle of Los Angeles. I asked if I could just take a cab to the 24/7 LAX counter and hand over the keys. No, I couldn’t get a new car without giving up the old one and they wouldn’t receive the keys without the car. They reminded me that I was liable for the car. At one point, he recommended that I just leave the keys in the unlocked car. At this point, I knew the rep knew zero about the context in which I was in. Los Angeles. Late at night. In the dark. I was furious. Luckily, I have friends in Los Angeles. One is a late night owl and agreed to take the keys and do the exchange. I got driven to the hotel, angry as hell.
They texted us that they’d arrive at 4AM to pick up the car. They didn’t show up. At 9:30AM, I called back furious. They blamed the towing company and said another 30 minutes. Eventually they showed up at 11:30AM. Luckily, my friend was amazingly awesome and managed to make it work even though she worked and had to juggle. At 4PM, I called Avis to make sure they had the car. Nope. And they couldn’t close the account or look up the repair information. Roadside assistance told me to call customer service, customer service told me to call LAX rental directly, LAX rental sent me to his manager who went straight to voicemail. Not surprisingly, they didn’t return that phone call. I tweeted throughout and the only response that I got from the Avis rep was a polite note to say that they hoped everything worked out. I wrote back that it absolutely had not and got zero response. I wrote to the Avis customer service and the Avis FIRST email. No response. So much for being a valuable customer. Luckily I had done all of this through Amex Business Travel who was just awesome and leveraged their status to push Avis into taking care of it and giving me a refund.
I know lots of people have horrible customer service experiences with companies like Avis, but I’m still stunned by the acceptability of what unfolded. The way in which such treatment is considered acceptable, normative even. The absolute lack of accountability or recognition of how outright problematic that experience was. It all comes back down to markets and “choice,” as though the answer is simply for me to go to another company. Admittedly, I will walk away from Avis and my status now but it’s not simply because I think that a different company will be better. It’s because the entire experience soured me on the very social contract that I thought I had with Avis.
What if I was in a city where I didn’t have friends? What if I had been in a more remote setting (like I had been for 14 of the 20 days of rentals this month)? What if I had a plane to catch? I thought the whole promise of roadside assistance was that Avis would be there for me when things went haywire. Instead, they passed the buck at every turn, making it clear that they refused to take responsibility for their vendors. One of the phone reps eventually went off script and noted that some of the company policies are disturbing. But he was clearly resigned to it.
As customer service has become more automated, more mechanized, companies create distance between them and their customers. We aren’t people. We are simply a pool of possible money, valued based on our worth to the company. They do enough to keep us from going elsewhere if we are valuable, but otherwise do everything possible to not take responsibility. They don’t want us calling in so they pass the buck to keep their numbers and they stick to their scripts. The low-level employees have no power and they know darn straight that when we ask for their managers, we’ll never reach them. This is what Kafka feared and the reality of it is far more pervasive than we acknowledge in a market economy.
Old industries rage against new startups who are seeking to disrupt them, but what they don’t take account for is the way in which customers are fed up being beholden to the Milgram-esque practices of these large companies. When all goes well, working with big companies can be seamless. But when it doesn’t, you’re on your own. And that’s a terrifying risk to take. Cars break down, flights get delayed, hotels get oversold. The risks are more upfront with new disruptors but, above all else in peer economy stuff, you often get to interact with people. It’s not perfect – and goddess knows that there are incidents that are forcing the peer economy companies to develop better protections – but somehow, it feels better to know that you’ll be interacting with people, not automatons.
I rent cars for work travel mostly because I like listening to NPR when I’m moving around. I like being able to explore when I don’t know where to eat and this has historically made it easier. But I’m reassessing that logic. I never want to have a repeat of the hellish night that I went through this week. I don’t trust Avis to be there for me. I have a lot more faith in the imperfections of the network of Uber drivers than the coldness of the corporate giant. When they leave you stranded, they leave you *really* stranded. As for my non-urban car rentals, I need to figure out what’s next. I am very angry at Avis. Truly, overwhelmingly offended by how they’ve treated me this week. Also, scared. Scared of what happens the next time when the circumstances aren’t as functional. But are any of the other companies any better? Do we really have market choice or is it a big ole farce?
Growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the 80s and 90s, I had a pretty strong sense of fear and hatred for cops. I got to witness corruption and intimidation first hand, and I despised the hypocritical nature of the “PoPo.” As a teen, I worked at Subway. Whenever I had a late shift, I could rely on cops coming by. About half of them were decent. They’d order politely and, as if recognizing the fear in my body, would try to make small talk to suggest that we were on even ground in this context. And they’d actually pay their bills. The other half were a different matter. Especially when they came in in pairs. They’d yell at me, demean me, sexualize me. More importantly, I could depend on the fact that they would not pay for their food and threaten me if I tried to get them to pony up. On the job, I got one free sandwich per shift. If I was lucky, and it was only one cop, I could cover it by not eating dinner. For each additional cop, I would be docked an hour’s pay. There were nights where I had to fork over my entire paycheck.
I had it easy. Around me, I saw much worse. A girl at a neighboring school was gang raped by a group of cops after her arrest for a crime it turned out she didn’t commit but which was committed by a friend of her first cop rapist. Men that I knew got beaten up when they had a run-in. The law wasn’t about justice; it was about power and I knew to stay clear. The funny thing is that I always assumed that this was because “old” people were messed up. And cops were old people. This notion got shattered when I went back for a friend’s high school reunion. Some of his classmates had become police officers and so they decided to do a series of busts that day to provide drugs to the revelers. Much to my horror, some of the very people that I grew up with became corrupt cops. I had to accept that it wasn’t just “old” people; it was “my” people.
I did not grow up poor, although we definitely struggled. We always had food on the table and the rent got paid, but my mother worked two jobs and was always exhausted to the bones. Of course, we were white and living in a nice part of town so I knew my experiences were pretty privileged from the getgo. Most of my close friends who got arrested were arrested for hacking and drug-related offenses. Only those of color were arrested for more serious crimes. I knew straight up that my white, blonde self wasn’t going to be targeted which meant that I just needed to keep my nose clean. But in practice, that meant dumping OD’ed friends off at the steps of the hospital and driving away rather than walking through the front door.
As I aged and began researching teens, my attitude towards law enforcement became more complex. I met police officers who were far more interested in making the world a better place than those who I encountered as a kid. At the same time, I met countless youth whose run-ins were far worse than anything that I ever experienced. I knew that certain aspects of policing were far darker than I got to see first hand, but I didn’t really have the right conceptual frame for understanding what was at play with many of the teens that I met.
And then I read Alice Goffman’s On the Run.
This book has forced to me to really contend with all of my mixed and complicated feelings towards law enforcement, while providing a deeper context for my own fieldwork with teens. More than anything, this book has shed a spotlight on exactly what’s at stake in our racist and classist policing practices. She brilliantly deciphers the cultural logic of black men’s relationship with law enforcement, allowing outsiders to better understand why black communities respond the way they do. In doing so, she challenges most people’s assumptions about policing and inequality in America.
Alice Goffman’s ‘On the Run’
For the better part of her undergraduate and graduate school years, Alice Goffman embedded herself in a poor black neighborhood of Philadelphia, in a community where young men are bound to run into the law and end up jailed. What began as fieldwork for a class paper turned into an undergraduate thesis and then grew into a dissertation which resulted in her first book, published by University of Chicago, called On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. This book examines the dynamics of a group of boys — and the people around them — as they encounter law enforcement and become part of the system. She lived alongside them, participated in their community, and bore witness to their experiences. She lived through arrests, raids, and murders. She saw it all and the account she offers doesn’t pull punches.
While I’ve seen police intimidation and corruption, the detail with which Goffman documents the practices of policing in the community in which she studied is both eloquent and harrowing. Through her writing, you can see what she saw, offering insight into a dynamic that few privileged people can bear witness. What’s most striking about Goffman’s accounting is the empathy with which she approaches the community. It is a true ethnographic account, in every sense. But, at the same time, it is so accessible and delightful that I want the world to read it.
Although most Americans realize that black men are overrepresented in US jails, most people don’t realize just how bad it is. As Goffman notes in her prologue, 1 in every 107 people in the adult population is currently in jail while 3% of the adult population is under correctional supervision. Not only are 37% of those in prison black, but 60% of black men who didn’t finish high school will go to prison by their mid-30s. We’ve built a prison-industrial complex and most of our prison reform laws have only made life worse for poor blacks.
The incentive structures around policing are disgusting and, with the onset of predictive policing, getting worse. As Goffman shows, officers have to hit their numbers and they’re free to use many abusive practices to get there. Although some law enforcement officers have a strong moral compass, many have no qualms about asserting their authority in the most vicious and abusive ways imaginable. The fear that they produce in poor communities doesn’t increase lawful behavior; it undermines the very trust in authority that is necessary to a health democracy.
The most eye-opening chapter in Goffman’s book is her accounting of what women experience as they are forced into snitching on the men in their communities. All too often, their houses are raided and they are threatened with violence, arrest, eviction, and the loss of children. Their homes are torn apart, their money is taken, and they are constantly surveilled. Police use phone records to “prove” that their boyfriends are cheating on them or offer up witnesses who suggest that the men in their lives aren’t really looking out for them. While she describes how important loyalty is in these communities, she also details just how law enforcement actively destroys the fabric of these communities through intimidation and force. Under immense pressure, most everyone breaks. It’s a modern day instantiation ofantebellum slavery practices. If you tear apart a community, authority has power.
For all of the abuse and intimidation faced by those targeted by policing practices, it delights me to see the acts of creative resistance that many of Goffman’s informants undertake. Consider, for example, the realities of banking in poor communities. Most poor folks have no access to traditional banks to store their money and keeping cash on them is tricky. Not only might they be robbed by someone in the community, but they can rely on the fact that any police officer who frisks them will take whatever cash is found. So where should they store money for safe keeping?
When you bail someone out of jail and they show up for their court dates, you can get your bail money back. But why not just leave it at the court for safe keeping? You have up to six months to recover it and it’s often safer there than anywhere else. In her analysis, Goffman offers practices like these as well as other innovative ways poor people use the unjust system to their advantage.
Seeing Police Through the Eyes of Teens
Reading Goffman’s book also allowed me to better understand the teens that I encountered through my research. Doing fieldwork with working class and poor youth of color was both the highlight of my study and the hardest to fully grok. I have countless fieldnotes about teens’ recounted problems with cops, their struggles to stay out of trouble, and the violence that they witnessed all around them. I knew the stats. I knew that many of the teens that I met would probably end up in jail, if they hadn’t already had a run-in with the law. But I didn’t really get it.
Perhaps the hardest interview I had was with a young man who had just gotten out of jail and was in a halfway house. When he was a small boy, his mom got sick of his dad and so asked him to rat out his dad when the cops showed up. He obliged and his father was sent to jail. His mom then moved him and his younger brother across the country. By the time he was a teenager, his mom would call the cops on him and his brother whenever she wanted some peace and quiet. He’d eventually ran away and was always looking for a place to stay. His brother made a different decision — he found older white men who would “take care of him.” The teen I met was disgusted by his brother’s activities and thought that these men were gross so one day, he planted drugs on one of the guy’s cars and called the cops on him. And so the cycle continues.
In order to better understand human trafficking, I began talking to commercially exploited youth. Here, I also witnessed some pretty horrible dynamics. Teens who were arrested for prostitution “to keep them safe,” not to mention the threats and rapes that many young people engaged in sex work encountered from the very same law enforcement officers who were theoretically there to protect them. All too often, teens told me that their abusive “boyfriends” were much better than the abusive State apparatus (and their fathers). And based on what I saw, this was a fair assessment. And so I continue to struggle with policy discussions that center on empowering law enforcement. Sure, I had met some law enforcement folks in this work that were really working to end commercial sexual abuse of minors. And I want to see law enforcement serve a healthy enforcing role. But every youth I met feared the cops far more than they feared their abusers. And I still struggle to make sense of the right path forward.
Although the teens that I met often recounted their negative encounters with police, I never fully understood the underlying dynamics that shaped what they were telling me. What I was studying theoretically had nothing to do with teens’ relationship with the law and so this data was simply context. Context I was curious about, but not context that I got to observe properly. I knew that there was a lot more going on. A lot that I didn’t see. Enough to make me concerned about how law enforcement shapes the lives of working class and poor youth, but not enough to enable me to do anything about it.
What Goffman taught me was to appreciate the way in which the teens that I met were forced into a game of survival that was far more extreme than what I imagined. They are trying to game a system that is systematically unfair, that leaves them completely disempowered, and that teaches them to trust no one. For most poor populations, authority isn’t just corrupt — it’s outright abusive. Why then should we expect marginalized populations to play within a system that is out to get them?
As Ta-Nehisi Coates eloquently explained in “The Case for Reparations,” we may speak of a post-racial society where we no longer engage in racist activities, but the on-the-ground realities are much more systemically destructive. The costs of our historical racism and the damage done by slavery are woven into the fabric of our society. “It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”
We cannot expect the most marginalized people in American society to simply start trusting authority when authority continues to actively fragment their communities in an abusive assertion of power. It is both unfair and unreasonable to expect poor folks to work within a system that was designed to oppress them. If we want change, we need to better understand what’s at stake.
Goffman’s On the Run offers a brilliant account of what poor black people who are targeted by policing face on a daily basis. And how they learn to live in a society where their every move is surveilled. It is a phenomenal and eye-opening book, full of beauty and sorrow. Without a doubt, it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It makes very clear just how much we need policing reform in this country.
Understanding the cultural logic underpinning poor black men’s relationship with the law is essential for all who care about equality in this country. Law enforcement has its role in society, but, as with any system of power, it must always be checked. This book is a significant check to power, making visible some of the most invisible mechanisms of racism and inequality that exist today.
(Photo by Pavel P.)
(This entry was first posted on June 9, 2014 at Medium under the title “The Cost of Contemporary Policing” as part of The Message.)
I’m intrigued by the reaction that has unfolded around the Facebook “emotion contagion” study. (If you aren’t familiar with this, read this primer.) As others have pointed out, the practice of A/B testing content is quite common. And Facebook has a long history of experimenting on how it can influence people’s attitudes and practices, even in the realm of research. An earlier study showed that Facebook decisions could shape voters’ practices. But why is it that *this* study has sparked a firestorm?
In asking people about this, I’ve been given two dominant reasons:
- People’s emotional well-being is sacred.
- Research is different than marketing practices.
I don’t find either of these responses satisfying.
The Consequences of Facebook’s Experiment
Facebook’s research team is not truly independent of product. They have a license to do research and publish it, provided that it contributes to the positive development of the company. If Facebook knew that this research would spark the negative PR backlash, they never would’ve allowed it to go forward or be published. I can only imagine the ugliness of the fight inside the company now, but I’m confident that PR is demanding silence from researchers.
I do believe that the research was intended to be helpful to Facebook. So what was the intended positive contribution of this study? I get the sense from Adam Kramer’s comments that the goal was to determine if content sentiment could affect people’s emotional response after being on Facebook. In other words, given that Facebook wants to keep people on Facebook, if people came away from Facebook feeling sadder, presumably they’d not want to come back to Facebook again. Thus, it’s in Facebook’s better interest to leave people feeling happier. And this study suggests that the sentiment of the content influences this. This suggests that one applied take-away for product is to downplay negative content. Presumably this is better for users and better for Facebook.
We can debate all day long as to whether or not this is what that study actually shows, but let’s work with this for a second. Let’s say that pre-study Facebook showed 1 negative post for every 3 positive and now, because of this study, Facebook shows 1 negative post for every 10 positive ones. If that’s the case, was the one week treatment worth the outcome for longer term content exposure? Who gets to make that decision?
Folks keep talking about all of the potential harm that could’ve happened by the study – the possibility of suicides, the mental health consequences. But what about the potential harm of negative content on Facebook more generally? Even if we believe that there were subtle negative costs to those who received the treatment, the ongoing costs of negative content on Facebook every week other than that 1 week experiment must be more costly. How then do we account for positive benefits to users if Facebook increased positive treatments en masse as a result of this study? Of course, the problem is that Facebook is a black box. We don’t know what they did with this study. The only thing we know is what is published in PNAS and that ain’t much.
Of course, if Facebook did make the content that users see more positive, should we simply be happy? What would it mean that you’re more likely to see announcements from your friends when they are celebrating a new child or a fun night on the town, but less likely to see their posts when they’re offering depressive missives or angsting over a relationship in shambles? If Alice is happier when she is oblivious to Bob’s pain because Facebook chooses to keep that from her, are we willing to sacrifice Bob’s need for support and validation? This is a hard ethical choice at the crux of any decision of what content to show when you’re making choices. And the reality is that Facebook is making these choices every day without oversight, transparency, or informed consent.
Algorithmic Manipulation of Attention and Emotions
Facebook actively alters the content you see. Most people focus on the practice of marketing, but most of what Facebook’s algorithms do involve curating content to provide you with what they think you want to see. Facebook algorithmically determines which of your friends’ posts you see. They don’t do this for marketing reasons. They do this because they want you to want to come back to the site day after day. They want you to be happy. They don’t want you to be overwhelmed. Their everyday algorithms are meant to manipulate your emotions. What factors go into this? We don’t know.
Facebook is not alone in algorithmically predicting what content you wish to see. Any recommendation system or curatorial system is prioritizing some content over others. But let’s compare what we glean from this study with standard practice. Most sites, from major news media to social media, have some algorithm that shows you the content that people click on the most. This is what drives media entities to produce listicals, flashy headlines, and car crash news stories. What do you think garners more traffic – a detailed analysis of what’s happening in Syria or 29 pictures of the cutest members of the animal kingdom? Part of what media learned long ago is that fear and salacious gossip sell papers. 4chan taught us that grotesque imagery and cute kittens work too. What this means online is that stories about child abductions, dangerous islands filled with snakes, and celebrity sex tape scandals are often the most clicked on, retweeted, favorited, etc. So an entire industry has emerged to produce crappy click bait content under the banner of “news.”
Guess what? When people are surrounded by fear-mongering news media, they get anxious. They fear the wrong things. Moral panics emerge. And yet, we as a society believe that it’s totally acceptable for news media – and its click bait brethren – to manipulate people’s emotions through the headlines they produce and the content they cover. And we generally accept that algorithmic curators are perfectly well within their right to prioritize that heavily clicked content over others, regardless of the psychological toll on individuals or the society. What makes their practice different? (Other than the fact that the media wouldn’t hold itself accountable for its own manipulative practices…)
Somehow, shrugging our shoulders and saying that we promoted content because it was popular is acceptable because those actors don’t voice that their intention is to manipulate your emotions so that you keep viewing their reporting and advertisements. And it’s also acceptable to manipulate people for advertising because that’s just business. But when researchers admit that they’re trying to learn if they can manipulate people’s emotions, they’re shunned. What this suggests is that the practice is acceptable, but admitting the intention and being transparent about the process is not.
But Research is Different!!
As this debate has unfolded, whenever people point out that these business practices are commonplace, folks respond by highlighting that research or science is different. What unfolds is a high-browed notion about the purity of research and its exclusive claims on ethical standards.
Do I think that we need to have a serious conversation about informed consent? Absolutely. Do I think that we need to have a serious conversation about the ethical decisions companies make with user data? Absolutely. But I do not believe that this conversation should ever apply just to that which is categorized under “research.” Nor do I believe that academe is necessarily providing a golden standard.
Academe has many problems that need to be accounted for. Researchers are incentivized to figure out how to get through IRBs rather than to think critically and collectively about the ethics of their research protocols. IRBs are incentivized to protect the university rather than truly work out an ethical framework for these issues. Journals relish corporate datasets even when replicability is impossible. And for that matter, even in a post-paper era, journals have ridiculous word count limits that demotivate researchers from spelling out all of the gory details of their methods. But there are also broader structural issues. Academe is so stupidly competitive and peer review is so much of a game that researchers have little incentive to share their studies-in-progress with their peers for true feedback and critique. And the status games of academe reward those who get access to private coffers of data while prompting those who don’t to chastise those who do. And there’s generally no incentive for corporates to play nice with researchers unless it helps their prestige, hiring opportunities, or product.
IRBs are an abysmal mechanism for actually accounting for ethics in research. By and large, they’re structured to make certain that the university will not be liable. Ethics aren’t a checklist. Nor are they a universal. Navigating ethics involves a process of working through the benefits and costs of a research act and making a conscientious decision about how to move forward. Reasonable people differ on what they think is ethical. And disciplines have different standards for how to navigate ethics. But we’ve trained an entire generation of scholars that ethics equals “that which gets past the IRB” which is a travesty. We need researchers to systematically think about how their practices alter the world in ways that benefit and harm people. We need ethics to not just be tacked on, but to be an integral part of how *everyone* thinks about what they study, build, and do.
There’s a lot of research that has serious consequences on the people who are part of the study. I think about the work that some of my colleagues do with child victims of sexual abuse. Getting children to talk about these awful experiences can be quite psychologically tolling. Yet, better understanding what they experienced has huge benefits for society. So we make our trade-offs and we do research that can have consequences. But what warms my heart is how my colleagues work hard to help those children by providing counseling immediately following the interview (and, in some cases, follow-up counseling). They think long and hard about each question they ask, and how they go about asking it. And yet most IRBs wouldn’t let them do this work because no university wants to touch anything that involves kids and sexual abuse. Doing research involves trade-offs and finding an ethical path forward requires effort and risk.
It’s far too easy to say “informed consent” and then not take responsibility for the costs of the research process, just as it’s far too easy to point to an IRB as proof of ethical thought. For any study that involves manipulation – common in economics, psychology, and other social science disciplines – people are only so informed about what they’re getting themselves into. You may think that you know what you’re consenting to, but do you? And then there are studies like discrimination audit studies in which we purposefully don’t inform people that they’re part of a study. So what are the right trade-offs? When is it OK to eschew consent altogether? What does it mean to truly be informed? When it being informed not enough? These aren’t easy questions and there aren’t easy answers.
I’m not necessarily saying that Facebook made the right trade-offs with this study, but I think that the scholarly reaction of research is only acceptable with IRB plus informed consent is disingenuous. Of course, a huge part of what’s at stake has to do with the fact that what counts as a contract legally is not the same as consent. Most people haven’t consented to all of Facebook’s terms of service. They’ve agreed to a contract because they feel as though they have no other choice. And this really upsets people.
A Different Theory
The more I read people’s reactions to this study, the more that I’ve started to think that the outrage has nothing to do with the study at all. There is a growing amount of negative sentiment towards Facebook and other companies that collect and use data about people. In short, there’s anger at the practice of big data. This paper provided ammunition for people’s anger because it’s so hard to talk about harm in the abstract.
For better or worse, people imagine that Facebook is offered by a benevolent dictator, that the site is there to enable people to better connect with others. In some senses, this is true. But Facebook is also a company. And a public company for that matter. It has to find ways to become more profitable with each passing quarter. This means that it designs its algorithms not just to market to you directly but to convince you to keep coming back over and over again. People have an abstract notion of how that operates, but they don’t really know, or even want to know. They just want the hot dog to taste good. Whether it’s couched as research or operations, people don’t want to think that they’re being manipulated. So when they find out what soylent green is made of, they’re outraged. This study isn’t really what’s at stake. What’s at stake is the underlying dynamic of how Facebook runs its business, operates its system, and makes decisions that have nothing to do with how its users want Facebook to operate. It’s not about research. It’s a question of power.
I get the anger. I personally loathe Facebook and I have for a long time, even as I appreciate and study its importance in people’s lives. But on a personal level, I hate the fact that Facebook thinks it’s better than me at deciding which of my friends’ posts I should see. I hate that I have no meaningful mechanism of control on the site. And I am painfully aware of how my sporadic use of the site has confused their algorithms so much that what I see in my newsfeed is complete garbage. And I resent the fact that because I barely use the site, the only way that I could actually get a message out to friends is to pay to have it posted. My minimal use has made me an algorithmic pariah and if I weren’t technologically savvy enough to know better, I would feel as though I’ve been shunned by my friends rather than simply deemed unworthy by an algorithm. I also refuse to play the game to make myself look good before the altar of the algorithm. And every time I’m forced to deal with Facebook, I can’t help but resent its manipulations.
There’s also a lot that I dislike about the company and its practices. At the same time, I’m glad that they’ve started working with researchers and started publishing their findings. I think that we need more transparency in the algorithmic work done by these kinds of systems and their willingness to publish has been one of the few ways that we’ve gleaned insight into what’s going on. Of course, I also suspect that the angry reaction from this study will prompt them to clamp down on allowing researchers to be remotely public. My gut says that they will naively respond to this situation as though the practice of research is what makes them vulnerable rather than their practices as a company as a whole. Beyond what this means for researchers, I’m concerned about what increased silence will mean for a public who has no clue of what’s being done with their data, who will think that no new report of terrible misdeeds means that Facebook has stopped manipulating data.
Information companies aren’t the same as pharmaceuticals. They don’t need to do clinical trials before they put a product on the market. They can psychologically manipulate their users all they want without being remotely public about exactly what they’re doing. And as the public, we can only guess what the black box is doing.
There’s a lot that needs reformed here. We need to figure out how to have a meaningful conversation about corporate ethics, regardless of whether it’s couched as research or not. But it’s not so simple as saying that a lack of a corporate IRB or a lack of a golden standard “informed consent” means that a practice is unethical. Almost all manipulations that take place by these companies occur without either one of these. And they go unchecked because they aren’t published or public.
Ethical oversight isn’t easy and I don’t have a quick and dirty solution to how it should be implemented. But I do have a few ideas. For starters, I’d like to see any company that manipulates user data create an ethics board. Not an IRB that approves research studies, but an ethics board that has visibility into all proprietary algorithms that could affect users. For public companies, this could be done through the ethics committee of the Board of Directors. But rather than simply consisting of board members, I think that it should consist of scholars and users. I also think that there needs to be a mechanism for whistleblowing regarding ethics from within companies because I’ve found that many employees of companies like Facebook are quite concerned by certain algorithmic decisions, but feel as though there’s no path to responsibly report concerns without going fully public. This wouldn’t solve all of the problems, nor am I convinced that most companies would do so voluntarily, but it is certainly something to consider. More than anything, I want to see users have the ability to meaningfully influence what’s being done with their data and I’d love to see a way for their voices to be represented in these processes.
I’m glad that this study has prompted an intense debate among scholars and the public, but I fear that it’s turned into a simplistic attack on Facebook over this particular study rather than a nuanced debate over how we create meaningful ethical oversight in research and practice. The lines between research and practice are always blurred and information companies like Facebook make this increasingly salient. No one benefits by drawing lines in the sand. We need to address the problem more holistically. And, in the meantime, we need to hold companies accountable for how they manipulate people across the board, regardless of whether or not it’s couched as research. If we focus too much on this study, we’ll lose track of the broader issues at stake.
In the recent Frontline documentary “Generation Like,” Doug Rushkoff lamented that today’s youth don’t even know what the term “sell-out” means. While this surprised Rushkoff and other fuddy duddies, it didn’t make me blink for a second. Of course this term means nothing to them. Why do we think it should?
The critique of today’s teens has two issues intertwined into one. First, there’s the issue of language — is this term the right term? Second, there’s the question of whether or not the underlying concept is meaningful in contemporary youth culture.
Slang Shifts Over Time
My cohort grew up with the term “dude” with zero recognition that the term was originally a slur for city slickers and dandies known for their fancy duds (a.k.a. clothing). And even as LGBT folks know that “gay” once meant happy, few realize that it once referred to hobos and drifters. Terms change over time.
Even the term “sell-out” has different connotations depending on who you ask… and when you ask. While it’s generally conceptualized as a corrupt bargain, it was originally of political origins, equivalent to traitor. For example, it was used to refer to those in the South who chose to leave the Confederacy for personal gain. Among the black community, it took a different turn, referring to those African-Americans who appeared to be too white. Of course, the version that Rushkoff is most familiar with stems from when musicians were being attacked for putting commercial interests above artistic vision. Needless to say, those who had the privilege to make these decisions were inevitably white men, so it’s not that surprising that the notion of selling out was particularly central to the punk and alternative music scenes from the 1960s-1990s, when white men played a defining role. For many other musicians, hustling was always part of the culture and you were darn lucky to be able to earn a living doing what you loved. This doesn’t mean that the music industry isn’t abusive or corrupt or corrupting. Personally, I’m glad that today’s music ecosystem isn’t as uniformly white or male as it once was.
All that said, why on earth should contemporary adults expect today’s teens to use the same terms that us old fogies have been using to refer to cultural dynamics? Their musical ecosystem is extraordinarily different than what I grew up with. RIAA types complain about how technology undercut their industry, but I would argue that the core industry got greedy and, then, abusive. Today’s teens are certainly living in a world with phenomenally famous pop stars, but they are also experiencing the greatest levels of fragmentation ever. Rather than relying on the radio for music recommendations, they turn to YouTube and share media content through existing networks, undermining industrial curatorial control. As a result, I constantly meet teens whose sense of the music industry is radically different than that of peers who live next in the next town over. The notion of selling out requires that there is one reigning empire. That really isn’t the case anymore.
Of course, the issue of slang is only the surface issue. Do teens recognize the commercial ecosystem that they live in? And how do they feel about it? What I found in my research was pretty consistent on this front.
Growing Up in a Commercial World
Today’s teens are desperate for any form of freedom. In a world where they have limited physical mobility and few places to go, they’re deeply appreciative of any space that will accept them. Because we’ve pretty much obliterated all public spaces for youth to gather in, they find their freedomin commercial spaces, especially online. This doesn’t mean teens like the advertisements that are all around them, but they’ll accept this nuisance for the freedom to socialize with their friends. They know it’s a dirty trade-off and they’re more than happy to mess with the data that the systems scrape, but they are growing up in a world where they don’t feel as though they have much agency or choice.
These teens are not going to critique their friends for being sell-outs because they’ve already been sold out by the adults in their world. These teens want freedom and it’s our fault that they don’t have it except in commercial spaces. These teens want opportunities and we do everything possible to restrict those that they have access to. Why should we expect them to stand up to commercial surveillance when every adult in their world surveils their every move “for their own good”? Why should these teens lament the commercialization of public spaces when these are the only spaces that they feel actually allow them to be authentic?
It makes me grouchy when adults gripe about teens’ practice without taking into account all of the ways in which we’ve forced them into the corners that they’re trying to navigate. There’s good reason to be critical of how commercialized American society has become, but I don’t think that we should place the blame on the backs of teenagers who are just trying to find their way. If we don’t like what we see when we watch teenagers, it’s time to look in the mirror. We’ve created this commercially oriented society. Teens are just trying to figure out how to live in it.
(Thanks to Tamara Kneese for helping track down some of the relevant history for this post.)
(This entry was first posted on May 27, 2014 at Medium under the title “‘Selling Out’ Is Meaningless” as part of The Message.)
In 2003, I was living in San Francisco and working at a startup when I overheard a colleague of mine — a self-identified libertarian — spout off about “the homeless problem.” I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I’m sure it fit into a well-trodden frame about no-good lazy leeches. I marched right over to him and asked if he’d ever talked to someone who was homeless. He looked at me with shock and his cheeks flushed, so I said, “Let’s go!” Unwilling to admit discomfort, he followed.
>We drove down to 6th Street, and I nodded to a group of men sitting on the sidewalk and told him to ask them about their lives. Then I watched as he nervously approached one guy and stumbled through a conversation. I was pleasantly surprised that he ended up talking for longer than I expected before coming back to me.
“He’s a vet.”
“And he said the government got him addicted and he can’t shake the habit.”
“And he doesn’t know what he should do to get a job because no one will ever talk to him.”
“I didn’t think…. He’s not doing so well…”
I let him trail off as we got back into the car and drove back to the office in silence.
San Francisco is in the middle of a class war. It’s not the first or last city to have heart-wrenching inequality tear at its fabric, challenge its values, test its support structures. But what’s jaw-dropping to me is how openly, defensively, and critically technology folks demean those who are struggling. The tech industry has a sickening obsession with meritocracy. Far too many geeks and entrepreneurs worship at the altar of zeros and ones, believing that outputs can be boiled down to a simple equation based on inputs. In a modern-day version of the Protestant ethic, there’s a sense that success is a guaranteed outcome of hard work, skills, and intelligence. Thus, anyone who is struggling can be blamed for their own circumstances.
This attitude is front and center when it comes to people who are visibly homeless on the streets of San Francisco, a mere fraction of the total homeless population in that city.
I wish that more people working in the tech sector would take a moment to talk to these men and women. Listening to their stories is humbling. Vets who fought for our country, under the banner of “freedom,” only to be cognitively imprisoned by addiction and mental illness. Abused runaways trying to find someone who will treat them with respect. People who were working hard and getting by until an accident struck and they lost their job and ended up in medical debt. Immigrants who came looking for the American Dream only to find themselves trapped. These aren’t no-good lazy leeches. They’re people. People whose lives have been a hell of a lot harder than most of us can even fathom. People who struggle on a daily basis to find food and shelter. People who we’ve systematically disenfranchised and failed to support. People who the bulk of tech workers ignore, shun, resent, and demonize.
A city without a safety net cannot be a healthy society. And nothing exacerbates this worse than condescension, resentment, and dismissal. We can talk about the tech buses and the lack of affordable housing, but it all starts with appreciating those who are struggling. Only a mere fraction of San Francisco’s homeless population are visible, but those who are reveal the starkness of what’s unfolding. And, as with many things, there’s more of a desire to make the visible invisible than there is to grapple with dynamics of poverty, mental illness, addiction, abuse, and misfortune. Too many people think that they’re invincible.
If you’re living in the Bay Area and working in tech, take a moment to do what I asked my colleague to do a decade ago. Walk around the Tenderloin and talk with someone whose poverty is written on their body. Respectfully ask about their life. Where did they come from? How did they get here? Where do they want to go? Ask about their hopes and dreams, struggles and challenges. Get a sense for their story. Connect as people. Then think about what meritocracy in tech really means.
(Photo by Darryl Harris.)
Two great local organizations: Delancey Street Foundation and Homeless Children’s Network.
(This entry was first posted on May 13, 2014 at Medium under the title “San Francisco’s (In)Visible Class War” as part of The Message.)
I rarely drive these days, and when I do, it’s bloody terrifying. Even though I grew up driving and drove every day for fifteen years, my lack of practice is palpable as I grip the steering wheel. Every time I get behind the wheel, in order to silence my own fears about all of the ways in which I might crash, I ruminate over the anxieties that people have about teenagers and driving. I try not to get distracted in my own driving by looking to see if other drivers are texting while driving, but I can’t help but muse about these things. And while I was driving down the 101 in California last week, it hit me: driving is about to become obsolete.
The history of cars in America is tied up with what it means to be American in the first place. American history —with its ups and downs — can be understood through the automobile industry. In fact, it can be summed up with one word: Detroit. Once a booming metropolis, this one-industry town iconically highlights the issues that surround globalization, class inequality, and labor identities. But entwined with the very real economic factors surrounding the automobile industry is an American obsession with freedom.
It used to be that getting access to a car was the ultimate marker of freedom. As a teenager in the nineties, I longed for my sixteenth birthday and all that was represented by a driver’s license. Today, this sentiment is not echoed by the teens that I meet. Some still desperately want a car, but it doesn’t have the same symbolic feeling that it once did. When I ask teens about driving, what they share with me reveals the burdens imposed by this supposed tool of freedom. They talk about the costs — especially the cost of gas. They talk about the rules — especially the rules that limit them from driving with other teens in the car. And they talk about the risks — regurgitating back countless PSAs on drinking or texting while driving. While plenty of teens still drive, the very notion of driving doesn’t prompt the twinkle in their eyes that I knew from my classmates.
Driving used to be hard work. Before there was power steering and automatic transmission, maneuvering a car took effort. Driving used to be a gateway for learning. Before there were computers in every part of a car, curious youth could easily tear apart their cars and tinker with their innards. Learning to drive and manipulate a car used to be admired. Driving also used to be fun. Although speed limits and safety belts have saved many lives, I still remember the ways in which we would experiment with the boundaries of a car by testing its limits in parking lots on winter days. And I will never forget my first cross-country road trip, when I embraced the openness of the road and pushed my car to the limits and felt the wind on my face. Freedom, I felt freedom.
Today, what I feel is boredom, if not misery. The actual mechanisms of driving are easy, fooling me into a lull when I get into a car. Even with stimuli all around me, all I get to do is pump the gas, hit the brakes, and steer the wheel no more than ten degrees. My body is bored and my brain turns off. By contrast, I totally get the allure of the phone—or anything that would be more interesting than trying to navigate the road while changing the radio station to avoid the incessant chatter from not-very-entertaining DJs.
It’s rare that I hear many adults talk about driving with much joy. Some still get giddy about their cars; I hear this most often from my privileged friends when they get access to a car that changes their relationship to driving, such as an electric car or a hybrid or a Tesla. But even in those cases, I hear enthusiasm for a month before people go back to moaning about traffic and parking and surveillance. Outside of my friends, I hear people lament gas prices and tolls and this, that, or the other regulation. And when I listen to parents, they’re always complaining about having to drive their kids here, there, and everywhere. Not surprisingly, the teens that I meet rarely hear people talk joyously about cars. They hear it as a hassle.
So where does this end up? Data from both the CDC and AAA suggests that fewer and fewer American teens are bothering to even get their driver’s license. There’s so much handwringing about driving dangers, so much effort towards passing new laws and restrictions targeting teens in particular, and so much anxiety about distracted driving. Not surprisingly, more and more teens are throwing their hands in the air and giving up, demanding their parents drive them because there’s no other way. This, in turn, means that parents hate driving even more. And since our government is incapable of working together to invest in infrastructural investments, thereby undermining any hopes of public transit in huge parts of the country, what we’re effectively doing is laying the groundwork for autonomous vehicles. It’s been 75 years since General Motors exhibited an autonomous car at the 1939 World’s Fair, but we’ve now created the cultural conditions for this innovation to fit into American society.
We’re going to see a decade of people flipping out over fear that autonomous vehicles are dangerous, even though I expect them to be a lot less dangerous that sleepy drivers, drunken drivers, distracted drivers, and inexperienced drivers. Older populations that still associate driving with freedom are going to be resistant to the very idea of autonomous vehicles, but both parents and teenagers will start to see them as more freeing than driving. We’re still a long way from autonomous vehicles being meaningfully accessible to the general population. But we’re going to get there. We’ve spent the last thirty years ratcheting up fears and safety measures around cars, and we’ve successfully undermined the cultural appeal of driving. This is what will open the doors to a new form of transportation. And the opportunities for innovation here are only just beginning.
(This entry was first posted on May 5, 2014 at Medium under the title “Will my grandchildren learn to drive? I expect not” as part of The Message.)
Close your eyes and imagine what it was like to be a teenager in the 1920s. Perhaps you are out late dancing swing to jazz or dressed up as a flapper. Most likely, you don’t visualize yourself stuck at home unable to see your friends like today’s teenagers. And for good reason. In the 1920s, teenagers used to complain when their parents made them come home before 11pm. Many, in fact, earned their own money; compulsory high school wasn’t fully implemented until the 1930s when adult labor became anxious about the limited number of available jobs.
Although contemporary parents fret incessantly about teenagers, most people don’t realize that the very concept of a “teenager” is a 1940s marketing invention. And it didn’t arrive overnight. It started with a transformation in the 1890s when activists began to question child labor and the psychologist G. Stanley Hall identified a state of “adolescence” that was used to propel significant changes in labor laws. By the early 1900s, with youth out of the work force and having far too much free time, concerns about the safety and morality of the young emerged, prompting reformers to imagine ways to put youthful energy to good use. Up popped the Scouts, a social movement intended to help produce robust youth, fit in body, mind, and soul. This inadvertently became a training ground for World War I soldiers who, by the 1920s, were ready to let loose. And then along came the Great Depression, sending a generation into a tailspin and prompting government intervention. While the US turned to compulsory high school and the Civilian Conservation Corps, Germany saw the rise of Hitler Youth. And an entire cohort, passionate about being a part of a community with meaning, was mobilized on the march towards World War II.
All of this (and much more) is brilliantly documented in Jon Savage’s beautiful historical account Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture. This book helped me rethink how teenagers are currently understood in light of how they were historically positioned. Adolescence is one of many psychological and physical transformations that people go through as they mature, but being a teenager is purely a social construct, laden with all sorts of political and economic interests.
When I heard that Savage’s book was being turned into a film, I was both ecstatic and doubtful. How could a filmmaker do justice to the 576 pages of historical documentation? To my surprise and delight, the answer was simple: make a film that brings to visual life the historical texts that Savage referenced.
In his new documentary, Teenage, Matt Wolf weaves together an unbelievable collection of archival footage to produce a breathless visual collage. Overlaid on top of this visual eye candy are historical notes and diary entries that bring to life the voices and experiences of teens in the first half of the 20th century. Although this film invites the viewer to reflect on the past, doing so forces a reflection on the present. I can’t help but wonder: what will historians think of our contemporary efforts to isolate young people “for their own good”?
This film is making its way through US independent theaters so it may take a while until you can see it, but to whet your appetite, watch the trailer:
(This entry was first posted on April 25, 2014 at Medium under the title “A Dazzling Film About Youth in the Early 20th Century” as part of The Message.)
(I wrote the following piece for Psychology Today under the title “Sexual Predators: The Imagined and the Real.”)
If you’re a parent, you’ve probably seen the creepy portraits of online sexual predators constructed by media: The twisted older man, lurking online, ready to abduct a naive and innocent child and do horrible things. If you’re like most parents, the mere mention of online sexual predators sends shivers down your spine. Perhaps it prompts you to hover over your child’s shoulder or rally your school to host online safety assemblies.
But what if the sexual predator image you have in your mind is wrong? And what if that inaccurate portrait is actually destructive?
When it comes to child safety, the real statistics don’t stop parental worry. Exceptions dominate the mind. The facts highlight how we fail to protect those teenagers who are most at-risk for sexual exploitation online.
If you poke around, you may learn that 1 in 7 children are sexually exploited online. This data comes from the very reputable Crimes Against Children Research Center, however, very few take the time to read the report carefully. Most children are sexually solicited by their classmates, peers, or young adults just a few years older than they are. And most of these sexual solicitations don’t upset teens. Alarm bells should go off over the tiny percentage of youth who are upsettingly solicited by people who are much older than them. No victimization is acceptable, but we need to drill into understanding who is at risk and why if we want to intervene.
The same phenomenal research group, led by David Finkelhor, went on to analyze the recorded cases of sexual victimization linked to the internet and identified a disturbing pattern. These encounters weren’t random. Rather, those who were victimized were significantly more likely to be from abusive homes, grappling with addiction or mental health issues, and/or struggling with sexual identity. Furthermore, the recorded incidents showed a more upsetting dynamic. By and large, these youth portrayed themselves as older online, sought out interactions with older men, talked about sex online with these men, met up knowing that sex was in the cards, and did so repeatedly because they believed that they were in love. These teenagers are being victimized, but the go-to solutions of empowering parents, educating youth about strangers, or verifying the age of adults won’t put a dent into the issue. These youth need professional help. We need to think about how to identify and support those at-risk, not build another an ad campaign.
What makes our national obsession with sexual predation destructive is that it is used to justify systematically excluding young people from public life, both online and off. Stopping children from connecting to strangers is seen as critical for their own protection, even though learning to navigate strangers is a key part of growing up. Youth are discouraged from lingering in public parks or navigating malls without parental supervision. They don’t learn how to respectfully and conscientiously navigate new people because they are taught to fear all who are unknown.
The other problem with our obsession with sexual predators is that it distracts parents and educators. Everyone rallies to teach children to look out for and fear rare dangers without giving them the tools for managing more common forms of harm that they might encounter. Far too many young people are raped and sexually victimized in this country. Only a minuscule number of them are harmed at the hands of strangers, online or off. Most who will be abused will suffer at the hands of their classmates and peers.
In a culture of abstinence-only education, schools don’t want to address any aspect of sexual and reproductive health for fear of upsetting parents. As a result, we fail to give young people the tools to handle sexual victimization. When the message is “just say no,” we shame young people who were sexually abused or violated.
It’s high time that we walk away from our nightmare scenarios and focus on addressing the serious injustices that exist. The world we live in isn’t fair and many youth who are most at-risk do not have concerned parents looking out for them. Because we have stopped raising children as a community, adults are often too afraid to step on other parents’ toes. Yet, we need adults who are looking out for more than just their children. Furthermore, our children need us to talk candidly about sexual victimization without resorting to boogeymen.
While it’s important to protect youth from dangers, a society based on fear-mongering is not healthy. Let’s instead talk about how we can help teenagers be passionate, engaged, constructive members of society rather than how we can protect them from statistically anomalous dangers. Let’s understand those teens who are truly at risk; these teens often have the least support.
(This piece was first published at Psychology Today.)