My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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why i don’t build (right now)

People keep asking me why i don’t build my own YASNS. Usually, it comes in a sarcastic statement like “if you’re so smart, why don’t you do it?” The short answer is that i’m an academic, not an entrepreneur, but it’s more complicated than that.

First, as an academic, i’m interested in what people do, why and how. I’m not interested in capitalizing on them; this doesn’t motivate me. This is also why i’m far more aligned with the geeks than the entrepreneurs. Geeks, by and large, want to build something cool that people use. I get that and this sometimes motivates me too. This goal is about tapping into the motivations of the population, not trying to pervert them. I also want to tap into the human psyche. Unfortunately, right now, i think that my current goals require me to restrain from building and focus on analyzing.

Fast moving and highly complex spaces likes YASNS and social software require iteration. No one project is going to completely “get it.” Lessons will be learned, features stabilized across different applications. I certainly have ideas for the next iteration, but to develop them means to stop paying attention to the larger picture and work on just building that next level. Furthermore, to make a living doing it requires jumping into the entrepreneur space, which is something that i detest.

There’s another problem… In the case of YASNS, i don’t really care to make a working tool. Effectively, i want to experiment on people. I want to create technologies that bring out human traits in order to understand human behavior at a higher level. This is the kind of thing that makes any human subjects board FREAK. Highly not acceptable. And right now, i need to play nice with human subjects.

For those outside of academia, there didn’t used to be a subjects board. But then a bunch of psychologists (ahem, Milgram) started running studies on human behavior that sent many subjects (a.k.a. his grad students) into post traumatic stress. Human subjects boards were developed to protect subjects from those experimenting on them. Lots of 1960s research could never have been done under the current restrictions. You would never have heard of Milgram if there was a subjects board back then. But they’re here now and us academics must play nice with them.

That said… while i’m restricted in experimenting on people, entrepreneurs and entertainers aren’t. Thus, just as i rely on Jamie Kennedy to push human nature to its boundaries and provide me with a text to study, i count on technologists to create perfect fodder for my curiosity. My public critiques are not my academic output; they are intended to be my feedback to the domain whose creations i’m studying. They are channeled feedback from users, suggestions based on learned lessons and ideas for public discussion. In effect, they are publicly presented usability material without any pressure to listen to me whatsoever.

I do not think that i have all of the answers. That said, i do think that i’m asking a different set of questions than the creators of these technologies. And i believe that those questions are valid and valuable. For that reason, i offer some of the results publicly so that they can be part of the greater discourse. My apologies to those who don’t think that’s good enough. Perhaps one day i will go back to development, but not right now. Right now, i’m having fun.

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16 comments to why i don’t build (right now)

  • Ahem, darling, good point but… do you mean Zimbardo by any chance? Milgram shocked people, Zimbardo put them into a mock-jail. The latter really disturbed the participants (see Das Experiment,the movie, for a very interesting adaptation of this), the former merely disturbed the rest of the country 🙂 I could be totally missing your point though and, thus, totally wrong. So please disregard in that case.

    I DO agree that the absence of human subjects controls for industry experimentation (and even final product delivery) is an interesting oversight on the part of the idea of “protection of human subjects”. But although the corporate world in this country can nearly literaly get away with murder, they would rarely dare such a thing on purpose due to horrifying consequences to the health of their cash flow (real or projected). The human subjects board does one other thing for the educational institutions though, which is missing in the industry (and industry research I believe, but I could be wrong)… and that’s enormous concern they have with participant privacy. Such concerns do not exist in the industry, where, I think, they should be enforced most. But that’s a topic for a whole another discussion…

  • interesting point to ponder, that difference between research and industry with respect to testing subjects. some technologies are really horrible to their ‘subjects’. i see it all the time. the result is most often that people develop low self esteem, conclude that they ‘just don’t get’ technology, and are intimidated by nearly half the things they own. perhaps when market share and features are the primary measure, we create really hostile environments for ourselves.

  • John Poisson

    At the risk of losing my fuzzy-hat wearing priveleges, I’ll cop to being someone with one foot on the dark side–someone looking for viable business in the sparks of disruptive technology.

    Still I think there’s a way to bridge both worlds.

    My biggest complaint at the moment is that in most domains we’re still building tools for geeks. Most of these YASNS systems are no exception, neither are most of the tools surrounding the blogging world.

    The simplest problem to solve is naming. We’re all cute with our RSSs and FOAFs and blogosphere’s, but these are geek terms for geeks. I’m not talking about dumbing things down, I’m talking about perspective and accessability.

    So I applaud anyone who’s willing to think about what users want, especially if this aspect is part of their thinking.

    What we really need is a BUNCH of geeks who want to build tools for their non-geek kid sisters and not for each other and who don’t care about the money but understand that dollar potential drives development which drives innovation (in good measure, exceptions noted).

    I’ve worked inside two hella-big mega-corporations and in both places I’ve seen both companies succeed at this at the same moment they ship other products that suck the dying breath from their users, so it’s always about the perspective of the people on the project.

  • I also look at the entrepreneur role more like John.

    We’re looking to bring social software tools like wikis and weblogs into businesses and organizations, where they help foster more collaborative, less “Taylorized” work methods.

    Money gives us resources to develop the tools and to help people come up with effective ways for using them in their cultural environment.

    One of the problems that you’ve pointed out is that geeks develop tools for other geeks, and ordinary people don’t think in the same ways.

    Being a business gives us an opportunity to step out of the geek-centric world and develop for non-geeks. We have customers who pay us money, in return we listen carefully to what they’re trying to do, and try our best to develop tools that are easy and fun to use.

  • Irina – there’s no doubt that Zimbardo took it to the next level. But Milgram originally caused trouble with his Obedience to Authority experiments and the random shit he’d make his grad students do…. Like get onto buses and ask old ladies to give up their seats to see how people would react.

    The thing about the entertainment industry is that they can get away with this because people will pay to see others in an uncomfortable or miserable situation…

  • So, I saw Das Experiment. I also saw some original footage from the Stanford Prison Experiment. (Stole the documentary from the tv station there, since I was feeling underpaid.) Das Experiment obviously diverges from what actually happened, about halfway through. But 90% of the first half of the movie was creepily accurate.

    Dr. Zimbardo showed up at the screening, took the stage uninvited, and started bitching. I wanted to throw pebbles at him and yell “You! it’s because of you that I have to run my shit by a human subjects board every time I want to watch someone surf the friggin’ web!”

    Anyway, so as not to be entirely off topic, I really appreciate folks who build stuff. I also appreciate people who take a step back, get the kind of perspective that you can’t get when you’re neck deep in building, and help us figure out what that stuff is for.

  • Don’t get me wrong – i LOVE folks who build stuff and i also realize that not all business is about corrupting people. But once software is built, one often has to choose between what is best for people and what is economically viable. There’s a different decision making process. And i agree that it is the business world that lets folks get out of building tools for other fellow geeks. But right now, i’m far more interested in having perspective than being deep in. The key to these sentences is *right now* because i realize that things might be different for me later. If i detested what other groups did, i wouldn’t include the right now….

  • Andy

    Hi! I’ve been reading your blogs for the past week, and I’m very intrigued, that I started reading some of your work. Basically, I started my own YASNS a month ago. Not because I wanted my own business, but because I was fascinated with the back-end working of such an endeavor. Ok.. I’m a computer geek who likes to play with databases, and I’ve had plenty of experience with building business applications that suited the customer. And since I just graduated college and am unemployed, I found it a very relaxing hobby. Now I’m at the point where I have approx. 135 members on my site all of whom are friends of friends. Each day I add a new feature or tweak an old one, allowing the membership to say what to do and what not.

    So this is still my hobby and I haven’t even though about charging for anything. One of my motivations was that a few different sites required payments to send an e-mail to a member. I thought that was ridiculous. Either way, I am listening. And I would like to help make a difference with this tool. While conglomerates like Friendster and Orkut are trying to control there members, I’m over here reading what not to do, and letting my members control me (within reason, of course).

    ~Andy

  • danah, two points…some tools businesses are building now hand over design to users, even if they aren’t coders, and there are other versions, rights and channels that broaden use…also, a tool that reflects human traits sounds like the kind of thing people would be interested in buying. The only question is what kind of impact you want to make and how to make it.

  • Scott Moore

    I definitely agree with John Poisson’s argument that the current crop of YASNS are still aimed directly at geeks. I’ll further argue that the current crop of YASNS are still in the “networking for the sake of networking” phase. When these relationship connecting tools can be a *part of* and enhance a product or service (for- or *e-hem* non-profit) then it’s going to be more interesting (to me).

    As to Ross’ point about impact – I think it is important to break down the players because each of their expectations, backgrounds, etc. will affect the outcome. There are tools designers and builders – I think they should try to remain as neutral about the use of their tools as possible (but that means allowing the ability to regulate the use – like a safety switch on a powerdrill). Then there are the builders who will have an intent for their space. Then there are the people populating (who might also be builders, but I am assuming that with several thousand people, not all of them will directly build using the tools). They definitely have expectations and intent (and are most likely to subvert current processes in order to fulfill their intent).

  • Scott Moore

    I definitely agree with John Poisson’s argument that the current crop of YASNS are still aimed directly at geeks. I’ll further argue that the current crop of YASNS are still in the “networking for the sake of networking” phase. When these relationship connecting tools can be a *part of* and enhance a product or service (for- or *e-hem* non-profit) then it’s going to be more interesting (to me).

    As to Ross’ point about impact – I think it is important to break down the players because each of their expectations, backgrounds, etc. will affect the outcome. There are tools designers and builders – I think they should try to remain as neutral about the use of their tools as possible (but that means allowing the ability to regulate the use – like a safety switch on a powerdrill). Then there are the builders who will have an intent for their space. Then there are the people populating (who might also be builders, but I am assuming that with several thousand people, not all of them will directly build using the tools). They definitely have expectations and intent (and are most likely to subvert current processes in order to fulfill their intent).

  • Darnit, danah schooled me again! Although one of my professors in undergrad was a Milgram student, and spoke very highly of him and with a lot of amusement about the experiments, that’s not the point. Abuse of human subjects has been a historical practice both in medical and psychological experimentation (think little Albert for earlier examples). It is unfortunate that much of the IRB seems to be driven more by fear of lawsuits than by actual humanitarian concern and some of the rules seem somewhat ridiculous when they are applied both to medical and psychology research. Like any buerocratic organization, this one has its problems, but its hard to argue that it has no point. Sometimes, people still die from experiments done on humans (medical cases). Its hard to say whether such deaths are worth it.

    However, I actually think lumping industry research, technologist tinkering and entertainment industry together isn’t exactly fair. (well maybe technologist tinkering and entertainment industry – neither party seems to want to consider the full berth of possible (negative as well as positive) outcomes of each “great idea”) but I would like to bring up the distinction of industry research practices (tech or otherwise) or the entertainment industrie’s fascination with reality shows.

    The former has some serious IRB issues because in a lot of cases they either have a lighter process or none at all. The latter however, is a much different case – people will actually DO things on TV for those Warhol 15 minutes of fame – porweful carrot for some of us bunnies. That in itself, is a fascinating concept.

    The fact that neither the participants nor the organizers can predict the psychological impact of what they create is surely problematic. Then again, people put themselves in situations that later produce psychological disturbances quite often, without being paid, without having a commercial carrot in front of them, just because they can (think mountaineering for example – as someone who does some of that quite a bit, I am familiar with such insanity). That people voluntarily do this to themselves is incredible and I wonder if there is anyone out there studying this – the data is right there on TV every night.

  • Each of us, I should think, has a different set of associations when we think of the academic space or the entreprenuerial space. I’d be interested in hearing more of Danah Boyd’s views of the entrepreneurial space. Costs and benefits of what entreprenuers bring to the table? Is it that they seem intent on parasitically living off of what others invent?

  • David Molnar

    You may want to check out Scott Lederer’s post at
    http://www.ungrok.org/blog/archives/000073.html

    He argues that research into privacy interfaces should be separated from actually building those interfaces. There seems to be a shared principle here between your post and his post that an academic needs distance to really get what’s going on.

  • David – ::LAUGH:: Scott and i are roommates… It’s hysterical that we appear similar from anyone else but us!!

  • SNS 1.0: By Geeks, For Geeks

    I was reading up over at danah boyd’s blog and came upon an interesting post titled “why i don’t build (right now)”. In it, danah talks about a common questions she gets regarding social software: “if you’re so smart, why…