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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the cost of lying

This afternoon, i did an interview with MTV. Although the clip will be only 3 minutes in length, they interviewed Zadi Diaz and i for almost two hours. The core of our conversation concerned the story of a teenage boy who wrote a suicidal message on his MySpace. Zadi saw it and contacted the boy; he wrote back indicating that he was in the middle of taking a lot of pills. Zadi wrote to her friends, begging for help. One of her friends found the boy’s school on his profile and contacted the principal who, in turn, contacted the family and got an ambulance to the boy in time.

I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if this boy had followed the “safety measures” that most parents groups advocate. The data that made him traceable – his school, his real name – helped a kind stranger save his life. I wonder how many people’s lives are saved (or enhanced) by the presence of authentic data online.

Many years ago, a young Ani DiFranco fan contacted me. She wrote to me regularly about how her mother abused her, how she wanted to commit suicide. I pleaded with her to get help. I offered to help her find someone to talk with. But she would never give me identifying information. I knew she lived in Ohio, but that was it. Her email address was a Hotmail account (and there’s no way Microsoft was going to help). She was terrified of her mom finding out that she was telling on her. Her messages got more and more desperate and i begged for a way to contact her. And then she disappeared. I still live with the fear of what that girl might have done and am constantly asking myself what i could’ve done that would’ve helped more.

It’s a double-edged sword, isn’t it? The things that make us safest from others make us least from ourselves.

I also can’t help but wonder if there are other costs to all of this deception that we’re promoting as a safety mechanism. What does it mean to tell an entire generation that the way to be safe is to lie? Lie about your age, your name, your hometown, etc. All for good reason. Are we creating a generation of liars? Sure, it’s a “white” lie, but that’s a slippery slope, no?

Lying about one’s age is at the core of socialization into the Internet. Did Congress really believe that all 13-year-olds suddenly disappeared from the social sites regulated by COPPA? Ha! 8-year-olds are telling me that the way to get into this that or the other site is to say you were born in 1993. The technological affordances have forced them to lie to get what they want. Next, their parents will tell them to lie to be safe. What’s next? Lie to get into college? It sure is a funny moral, no?

The lying is certainly working. In my last round of talking with teens, not a single one of them put a real age on their MySpace profiles. They were no longer saying that they were 69 or 104 (typically identifiers for teens). Instead, they were choosing arbitrary ages ranging from 16-24. Think about that. If this is as common as i’m seeing, none of the data is remotely real when it comes to age. How far does this go? Does it extend offline? Many teens are well-versed at pretending to be 21 in this country… fake IDs have gotten more sophisticated but they haven’t gone away. But what happens when a 21-year-old starts talking to someone that he thinks is also 21 on MySpace?

I can’t help but think that all of this lying has a cost…

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24 comments to the cost of lying

  • Martin

    danah you’re probably quite sick of being told how awesome you are but really you are a star. Always perceptive, always to the point.
    The value of authenticity as a lived concept is not clear these days, if it ever has been.

  • I still see a range among my peers. Some of the savvier and more paranoid ones have a full plethora of hidden aliases, though that’s not so common most of the time. Others are suspicious about full disclosure and think that they’re lying and hiding all their information but are, in fact, pretty transparent. And some do a decent job of it all.

    In my own personal experience I’ve found that most of the time lies aren’t even necessary if your actions are contextually appropriate. I’ve had long discourses with bloggers too lazy to click back to my site who, when they finally do, are shocked to find my real age/identity… people will form an ‘image’ of whoever they are talking to and subtle cues can conjure up whatever picture is desired without any real lying or deceit–a kind of professionalism, as I see it.

    That doesn’t really carry over to MySpace, though. 🙂

    Good question, scary answer. What’s the alternative, in a world with endless records and no privacy? If I’m going to be tracked everywhere I go, I’m damn well sure going to use Bugmenot and make that data as meaningless as possible. This online reality has sharks circling all around, and I see no reason to throw in any chum.

  • Oh, I forgot one really important fact: It should be noted that all this lying takes place in the broader framework of a society which has become all too cavalier about the ‘truth.’ Adults aren’t exactly setting the best examples for teens, though I suppose it is debatable whether the ‘lies per capita’ has gone up in recent years. Long story short, the world at large doesn’t exactly ooze honesty.

    truthiness…

  • not only are teens lying “for their own protection,” but parents are lying to protect their teens. I’m not sure how much of this you’ve come across in your field work, but I know more than a few parents who create a MySpace, pose as someone around their child’s age of the opposite gender, and friend their child in order to view their child’s MySpace. one might even be able to envision a Springer-esque expose in which a high schooler discovers he/she has been flirting with his/her mother/father. more to the point, it’s quite indicative of the way that people see the Internet as a Big Scary Place in which one must do whatever one has to in order to survive.

  • Have a look at any site that asks for zipcode data. Bet you find the top ones are 90210 and 12345. Are your users really in Beverly Hills and Schenectady?

  • Re. parents creating fake MySpace profiles, the scariest and saddest thing is that they can’t just trust that they have access to their child’s true spaces and thoughts. So much of what parents fear can be obviated by simply being a welcome, active part of your child’s life.

    I guess my relationship with my daughter is unusual. I read her fotolog as soon as she posts it, and she knows that I do. Sometimes it’s a useful clue to her mood of the moment, but by and large I know what’s going on with her anyway, because she talks to me. She may not tell me everything right away, but eventually she does tell me, or ask me, about her observations, thoughts, and fears of what’s going on in her life, with her friends, etc.

    I wish I could define whatever it is I’m doing right and advise other parents how to do it! Not being afraid or suspicious of what she does online is certainly part of it.

  • “can’t help but thinking all this lying has a cost …” It’s easy to be glib and say that the social cost of a culture of lying can be seen in the consequences of Bush’s Iraqi policy.

    But the lying on MySpace might work to collapse two things that should be seen as distinct. The first is an aspiration, a goal, a dream, or even fantasy. The second is the effort it takes to make that real. To the extent that private diaries used to articulate the first have become our social faces that, in a sense, represent the second … we have a world where consequences are somehow distorted.

    Or perhaps that is just an old guy talking. In any case, another provocative post. Thanks.

  • This closely related to one of Lessig’s complaints about copyright law, as well–that one of the biggest problems with stupid laws is that it causes young people to grow up believing that all laws are stupid, and weakens the legal system as a whole.

  • Whoa. The problem here is not lying; the problem is people asking inappropriate questions in an attempt to invade users’ privacy.

    If a 13-year-old girl gets approached on the street by a 40-year-old man asking for her address and phone number, what should she tell him? Social networking sites should not require any personal information to set up an account unless they want to be lied to. Rupert Murdoch and Facebook are the perps here, not the users.

    Yes, it’s a shame that kids are getting into the habit of lying. If we did a better job of protecting them from rapacious data-miners (i.e., everyone running a social networking site), they wouldn’t have to. Don’t blame the victims.

    Middle America is in a tizzy over social networking sites because they intuitively understand that their kids’ privacy is at risk. In their confusion, they conjure up the mostly imaginary specter of the online child molester, when the real monster – the one they should be worried about – is the data-miner running the site. Teens _are_ being exploited online, but the “predators” they should be on guard against are the ones tracking their every move through the database on the back end.

    danah, I have to say that this post and your last one – the one where you characterize kids’ different reasons for staying off these sites – seem to have a gaping blind spot where the issue of data mining stands. Many kids understand, on some level, that marketers are tracking them in an attempt to sell them pyramid schemes and cigarettes as they get older. This is a very rational concern, and it’s distinct from kids’ objections to Rupert Murdoch’s politics that your last post mentioned. I know that you have a very sophisticated understanding of privacy issues… so why are they getting such short shrift in your analysis lately? Or am I just missing the part where you’ve factored this stuff in?

  • Don

    I met a woman through Match.com whose profile alleged she was 40 years of age.

    Right!

  • Matt – when a person on the street asks me my name, i typically tell them the truth. A lot of other information is written on my body. The question is who teens are being encouraged to hide from and the answer is not marketers or Murdoch. They are trying to hide from those who hold power over them in meatspace (teachers, admissions officers) and potential sexual predators. I’m all down with duping marketers and i sign up for a “savings” card every time that i go into Albertsons and then throw it out on the way out. (In the meantime, i continue to fill it out as “Nichola Negroponte” and send it to the media lab.) But when i’m talking about lying, i’m not simply talking about the forms that likely to be harvested for marketing; i’m talking about the blog entries, the about-mes, the photos, etc.

    I disagree with you that middle america intuitively understands that their kids’ privacy is at risk. They will happily give over unbelievable amounts of information to schemes where they might win a vacation. They are even more than willing to fill out forms that go to marketers. They are ravenously terrified of villains (perpetuated by a media frenzy) and their fear has more to do with the perceived nature of “public” life online than with a concern about their kids’ privacy in the witness of corporations or government. They don’t like the public life that teens have access to and they want to restrict their kids’ access to it.

    Anyhow, to fully address your concerns requires a much longer analysis which hopefully you’ll see coming in the next year or so. But don’t think for a moment that teens are consciously avoiding corporations in what they are doing – that’s far far far from the truth, even if it’s an accidental advantage of their data confusion.

  • danah, a very deep, important, and thoughtful piece. thanks. you’re awesome….

    ceo

  • musichollie

    danah- I know I am one of the people kids are trying to avoid on Myspace- but when I was browsing and found a site of a local 22 yr-old who had recently died in a motorcycle accident, and saw a very depressed comment on his still active site from his sister (who used to be my student) I still contacted the guidance counselors to check on her. I didn’t ask to be her friend (and her site was private anyway)- I just wanted her to be safe. I feel your concern!!!

  • Brian O' Hanlon

    I was leafing through this book earlier today, and the notion of privacy and shared spaces came up in all the designs featured. Residential environments at Cheltnham, Barcelona, Salmo Sweden, Paris and London.

    Front to Back: A Design Agenda for Urban Housing
    by Sally Lewis.

    Sally has written a very nice slim volume, that really contains many of the social factors etc, which should be considered in our living environment.

    But as Herman Hertzberger mentioned in his talk in Dublin a couple of years ago, most of the time, we adults want to lie about kids anyhow. We like to think they should fit into our world, that of manicured lawns and civilised behaviour, and we do not provide any suitable spaces, that are designed around the needs of the kids as they really are.

    As Herman would say, architecture shouldn’t make life easier for people, it should raise them.

  • Brian O' Hanlon

    I reckon the traffic engineer rather than the architect has designed the world we live in. I wrote about the traffic engineer here.

    Like the managerial mentality, the traffic engineer is another perception which is built into modern society, and affects the way we attempt to socialise in all kinds of spaces.

  • danah –

    Everything you wrote makes sense, and you obviously have the data to back it up. I suppose it’s just wishful thinking on my part, then.

  • Aprille

    This reminds me of something I read in an excerpt from : Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. One “sticky” idea they discussed was tainted Halloween candy. In 1985 researchers culled all Halloween incidents over a long period and found only 2 child deaths from candy, and both turned out to be caused by family members. Think about how different Trick or Treating is because of this “threat”.
    Think also about people who won’t go in the ocean for fear of shark attacks.
    Kids who reveal any info online are prey.
    These perceived threats are stickier than the few voices of reality. How do we fight and reverse this?

  • James

    LJ Abuse instigated the “livejournal emergency contact information” program, in which the info is put in a backdated first post, which only the user and the LJ Abuse team can read.

  • Steve

    Lying, on the Internet or otherwise, is a complex and multi-faceted subject. A few thoughts in no particular order.

    (1) Lying is a pervasive part of life, and has been for a long time. I suppose there are cultures which socialize approval or disapproval of various kinds of lies in various contexts, but I suggest that this only skews the content of a practice which remains universally pervasive in any case.

    The social scientists in the audience will perhaps be familiar with the concept of “pluralistic ignorance” which was taught in the sixties when I took my own soc classes. This is the idea of a community in which virtually everybody violates the officially held community norms, but almost everybody thinks they are the only one who does. Or, in other words, everybody’s lying.

    I think the discovery of pervasive dishonesty is particularly shocking to academics, because the academic community places a high official value on the norm of truthfulness, and tends to attract a constituency who are down with that. Plus, some unknown but surely significant portion of the academic community have some degree of Asperger’s Syndrome, the so-called “nerd disease”, one of whose symptoms is compulsive honesty. (I should point out, from my own experience that being compulsively honest doesn’t mean you can’t or don’t lie. To the contrary, if you can convince yourself that it is justified or permissible, you are usally much more effective as a liar than is the habitually dishonest person. Having a great love and respect for the truth gives you a head start in being able to effectively counterfeit it.)

    (2) Lying online has its own particular set of traditions and motivations. Let’s start out with the SF novel Ender’s Game, which is reputed to have had a strong impact on bright and alienated kids of the generation contemporary with it’s publication. One of the subplots concerns how Ender’s brother and sister, Peter and Valentine WIggins use the constructed online identities of Demosthenes and Locke who essentially take over the reins of power in their society through a carefully constructed public online political dialogue. Obviously, they don’t reveal their true status as young kids. (Well, peter does, when he surfaces to run as Hegemon, but by that time he is older.)

    And then there is the Internet guru whose name I forget who coined the saying “on the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog”. This was exemplary of a viewpoint which suggested and perhaps even advocated that one’s identity in the virtual world of online need not be closely related to one’s “real” identity, if that concept even had meaning.

    (3) From personal experience I can say what it feels like “from the inside” to create fake profiles, chat and email as the assumed identity, etc. Of course, as an older adult, this may not map precisely to what a teen might experience doing these things.

    First, there is simply the throwaway login to the site that demands your data in return for the free goodie of the moment. That’s where I just put down Charles U. Farley at 123 Main Street, email nobody@nowhere.com. I don’t even really think of this as lying, since I don’t expect any humwn processes the info. This is just hacking an automated system.

    Then there’s the “fun” profiles. These are exercises in fiction. It’s enjoyable to create fictitious identies, to pretend to be somebody you’re not, to see what it feels like to interact as that assumed person. This is akin both to creating a character in a role-playing game, and also has elements of how one constructs a character in a novel, or “becomes” a character as a dramatic actor. It’s intended as harmless fun, but it can have a dark side. I have been disturbed when I found that me troubled female anarchist teen character on yahoo began to attract responses from (presumed) real people who were wanting to bond with her. These kind of activities can raise energies that the user may not be able to fully control.

    Then, and this isn’t one I have done, is the “tribute” profile. This is put up in the name of some publiv respected (or historical) figure, and maintained in the first person via that person’s writings or speeches. The Stephen Hawking myspace profile is a good example. And then there are the paradoy profiles, constructed for public figures you don’t like. See the massive number of Rupert Murdoch myspace profiles, for example.

    And then, there are the anonymous profiles. These are just for the purpose of interacting without having to become known as your true identity. These may be “tweaked” as to age, gender, location, etc. to fit in with the milieu of the particular forum but the motivation is more simple concealment than fiction. This is more in the spirit of what Peter and Valentine did.

    Well, those are my thoughts of the moment. Hope they are useful.

    -Steve

  • TheWanderingAuthor

    Danah, you offered a perspective on the issue I hadn’t considered. There are a lot of analogies to the “identity theft” fears going around. Access to information is limited in ways that do almost nothing to stop identity theft, but cause all kinds of problems. The trouble seems to begin with politicians; they have a lot to gain by stirring up fears and offering quick, false “solutions” to them. That said, there are also some very good reasons for muddying your trail on the Internet. First, most people would be shocked to know how much can be learned about them when all the readily accessible information is put together. Say a woman meets a man in meatspace who turns out to be an obsessed stalker – an unfortunately not uncommon scenario. If there is already a sizable body of accurate information about her out there, even if she flees the clues to track her down are there for the stalker to find. Second, there are considerations of what the government might do in terms of collecting and using information. Read IBM and the Holocaust by Edwin Black. Some people disagree with his assessment that IBM in the US was involved, but I have not heard anyone disagree with another key revelation of his book; that Nazi Germany was the world’s first “information age” society. It was their collection of data, recording it on punch cards, and making wide use of it in government operations, which made them so efficient in rounding up the Jews. The information individuals and corporations can access, government can surely access as well. Do we really want them knowing that much about us?

  • I’ve done a lot of thinking on “name as brand” since I’ve used my full legal name everywhere online for several years. Cursory research revealed that there are a lot of tie-ins to the street art/graffiti world in this way of thinking, as well as older-school “hackers” etc whose handles represented a powerful, half-fictional self. I wonder if teens creating online identities [that exclude their real-life/legal information] still tap into these motivations, or if it’s purely fear driven. I also wonder what drove the online youth of ten years ago (when I was 14 and used 1337 pseudonyms that are now too embarrassing to bear mention) to “come out”, as I have, with regard to identity? Is it that I am “safe” now, as an adult? Is it blog culture, where a “real” name can lend an air of expertise or authenticity to online writing?

    Sorry for the rambling. The “name as brand” piece, though, it interesting to examine. Especially in an increasingly corporate culture.

  • Steve

    Possibly related to the impulse to create fake identities is the “anonymous” meme, which appears to have originated in the community surrounding the /b/ channel on the 4chan.org imageboard.

    “Anonymous” appears to have stood the social network concept on its head by creating a community in which it is an explicit norm not to know who anybody is.

    A typical expression of the anonymous ideal is the following:

    *****************************************
    Anonymous is legion.
    Anonymous does not forgive.
    And most of all, Anonymous does not f**king forget.
    Ever.
    United As One. Divided By Zero.
    *************************************************

    The Internet is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we *can* imagine.

    Good night, and good luck.

    -Steve

  • I’ll add that in our counter-marketing sessions to kids on junk food several VERY young kids (9 & 10) asked me to link to THEIR MySpace accounts…so lying and anonymity is clearly the order of the day.

    Wrote about this a bit re: the new media conference coming up this weekend. http://www.shapingyouth.org/blog/?p=255

    Are you speaking in N.Y.? If not, you SHOULD be. Your eloquence, logic, data, and POV is necessary!

  • seems each one’s entry to the net starts
    into bifurcationally – white lies or not ?

    we called it the hitchhiker talk once
    – and often I moaned – oh I would just love
    to meet a single one who was not being about
    to build a beautiful house for his mother …

    it might seem easier – with apparent no control
    – to boast a bit instead of staying real even if it
    might urge to explain naturally lacking perfection 😀

    also the desire to protect a leftover of privacy
    when exposing on public profiles, will cast its part
    for deciding conveniently and starting a second life.

    likely I’m not even exactly the good guy, yet
    smart enough to know how difficult it could be
    to keep track of all the uhm reality-smoothings …