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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ephemeral data

At some point last night, Tantek asserted that open data environments are more valuable than closed garden walled systems and i disagreed. In the process, i found myself articulating the value of closed systems during the exploratory innovation stage.

A lot of what’s going on in the Web 2.0 sphere is experimentation. Not only are developers learning how to structure network systems and tagging systems and whatnot, so are participants. One of Tantek’s concerns is that in a closed system, we lose all of the data when the system fails. My response: fantastic! There are consequences to the learning phase. On the technological side, we build things that don’t scale or aren’t extensible enough as the systems evolve. But on the social side, we try things out and deal with the scars of being burnt.

With Friendster pretty much dead to most early adopters, some lament the amount of data that is now closed off. Personally, i rejoice. I’m glad that this data is not available on archive.org. I’m glad that this data is virtually dead. It was not produced to be persistent – it was produced to be ephemeral. People are not yet comfortable in negotiating the boundaries between ephemeral and persistent – they don’t know how to speak for all space and time. So, when they are engaging in ephemeral acts, why make it persistent simply because you can? Wandering around early adopter Profiles nowadays is a bit eerie. 2003 wasn’t that long ago and yet there’s still a graveyard effect – time stood still. On one hand, i want to wander the graveyard in 2013 but i’m very OK with having to step inside to look around rather than running across 2003 every time i search for someone.

In the techno-centric world, we relish persistence yet that is so antithetical to the way in which we normally negotiate the social world. Information production and identity performance are not the same thing even if they both boil down to bits. Often, communication, sharing and identity performance are crafted in the moment for the moment, not for all of eternity.

So i’m kinda happy for the closed walls while we work the social issues out. I will enjoy the archeological digs, but i definitely want to have to visit them rather than be faced with the past and present simultaneously forever.

While i believe that creating data boundaries is good in the exploration phase, this of course does not mean that i believe companies should own people’s data. It’s important not to confound those two issues. Closed walls can have social value that is not about economic value.

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2 comments to ephemeral data

  • danah,

    I continue to be amazed how we are so very much on the same wavelength. I was speaking with Mary Hodder yesterday re how I despise the thinking that proposes all blogging is journalism. Sure–tell that to the many, many people who are on LJ and do not consider their simple entries journalism but rather expressions of identity and that to make their blogs searchable is a violation of that identity.

    I would counter, though, that those who believe their information based blogs are static rather than organic are not conscious of the evolution of their own personnas. Nothing we enter and project a portion of our personna into can be static. Even obsessive information gatherers are in the process of personna projection and their blogs reflect this. They are far more ephemeral than they perhaps believe themselves to be.

    Mary and also agreed that things age in the blogyears kind of like dog years. The ageing is contingent on the developments of technology and the human fascination with these developments that causes one to turn away from something quicker than one might in the off-line world. The blogosphere is a land of short attention spans 😉

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