My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and 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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woah…. omg. reflections on mega-viewership

Wow. ::jaw on floor:: When I posted my article last night, I sent it to some friends and academic lists figuring that it would stir a conversation. I figured that some usual suspects would read it and offer valuable critiques. I was not expected Slashdot, Digg, Metafilter, del.icio.us/popular, Reddit, and other aggregators to pick it up.

Meme flow on the web intrigues me. When I post a well-thought out, well-written analysis, I get a few thousands hits and maybe a BoingBoing mention. So far, I’ve received 90K hits for this latest piece, the most problematic of essays I’ve ever shared publicly. Figures.

I know that there are problems in that essay (and I tried to caveat and caveat away till I annoyed myself). So I am not surprised that folks are up in arms about all sorts of things. Still, the response is fascinating. I guess there’s nothing like something problematic to get a conversation started, eh?

I can’t decide if the response is good or bad. I’m clearly getting raked through the coals by lots of folks from lots of different perspectives. I actually find this quite constructive and helpful. I’m getting a lot of feedback from teens, parents, teachers, youth ministers, and other non-tech audiences which is extremely thought provoking. The feedback varies tremendously in tone and content. Some folks are saying I’m completely right; some are telling me I’m dead wrong. The latter clearly gives me an opportunity to follow up with folks that I’m not representing well and I hope that it’ll be a chance to learn what I’m missing.

I think some folks misinterpreted this piece as an academic article. No doubt this is based on my observations from the field, but this is by no means an academic article. I did add some methodological footnotes in the piece so that folks would at least know where the data was coming from. But I didn’t situate or theorize or contextualize this at all. It’s more like publicizing field observations. There’s much work to be done before this can be anything resembling an academic article. The “citation” note at the top of my pieces also confuses this. That was meant for when people picked it up and stole it whole from my page or when people got to it indirectly. I put that as a standard for my blog essays a while back because of this issue. I guess I see my blog as a space to work out half-formed ideas. I just didn’t expect 90K people to read it. Blog essays to me are thoughts in progress, blog entries that are too long to be blog entries. But I can see where there’s confusion.

I also clearly pissed off the academics by inappropriately appropriating academic terms in an attempt to demarcate groups. I intentionally picked two that have a political valence meant to hit at some of the crunchiness; I went back and forth with terms and decided to repurpose academic ones since they work as better metaphors than most everyday terms that I could think of. For example, I hate how poorer populations or marginalized populations are always framed as powerless so I appropriated an academic term (“subaltern”) that comes from post-colonial studies when work was done to give power to the voices of subaltern soldiers in India. Still, I want better terms and am hoping someone has suggestions.

I’m still wading through the responses. I’m still floored by the responses. I’ve been in the air and offline all day so I haven’t had a chance to go through everything. But in the next few days I will and I will respond. And I *really* appreciate the feedback and critique. I think some good can come out of this unbelievable feedback.

I also need to get my head around the fact that sharing something problematic has sparked more of a conversation and reflection than being precise. In some senses, this bothers me. At the same time, inciting people to think is exactly what I want. So I am feeling very bewildered. Is the way to make change to present something problematic so that people have to engage by disagreeing? Hmm..

More soon…

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65 comments to woah…. omg. reflections on mega-viewership

  • Will Warner: I’ll put my money where my mouth is. I’ll bet you $100 that any real research will show Dana to be about 99.9% wrong.

    But, given the sloppiness of her definitions (Cultural Studies much?) it’s hard to know how she would ever going about proving that “hegemons”, whatever that means, congregate more on Facebook than MySpace.

    Anyone with even a modest amount of research background could poke enough holes in her assumptions to make her post look like swiss cheese. Here are some of the missing factors that Dana is glossign over by placing everyone into two nice little groupings:

    Age, Race, Ethinicity, Religion, Gender, Gender Identity, Generation (related to age, ethinicity, location, etc. but not the same thing), Geographic Location, Education, Household Income, Personal Income, Interests, Identity (which itself is likely a collection of the rest, or includes a collection of the rest), Employment, Music & Culture Tastes, and many more that I’m sure that I’m missing.

    The basic fact is that anyone who claims to be able to break people down (and we’re talking tens-of-millions of people) is either fooling themselves or getting over on you. Or they’re just wrong, which is the case here.

    Hegemons of the world unite!

  • danah, wrt “I also need to get my head around the fact that sharing something problematic has sparked more of a conversation and reflection than being precise.” And it’s sparked more vitriol. In fact, your piece – which I found thoughtful, provocative, self-aware, and helpful – is over-determined as a vitriol magnet: addressing race and class, admittedly uncertain, publicly unpolished, thrown into the tenured den…In short, I think Amy Leblanc’s comment put it well.

    Keep it up.

  • George

    Can’t
    Understand
    Nothing
    Though

  • Hey, submitted a criticism on the original, and now reacting to some of the negative comments posted since.

    I was a bit negative, but I hoped I was constructive. That was my goal, anyway. At any rate, I was hoping to inspire a better paper, not chastise you for writing at all. So I’ll be watching for paper 2.0.

    It’s interesting how *final* people take a paper explicitly marked as a draft, submitted for comment, etc. I don’t know how you could have made it more clear. It’s a bit depressing; does “public” always have to mean “final”? Is large-scale collaboration doomed to this kind of drive-by vitriol?

    Funny how the very next topic comes from the Britannica vs. Wikipedia dust-up. It’s almost the same problem, but from a different point of view: the subtlety of a cyanide-laced Chardonnay as opposed to the directness of a shotgun blast. How dare one call it an encyclopedia if it’s not *done*! How dare one publish a half-baked paper! As if the riffraff of the world could possibly improve such things!

  • Will Warner

    Jacob Lefton: Good question about LiveJournal. In my experience it’s been widely ranging across class, but almost uniformly a more thoughtful community than facebook or myspace.

    Alex Urevick-Ackelsberg: These are “two nice little groupings,” and correspondingly error-prone; the only utterly error-free classifications are considering everyone as one group or each one as an individual. But she was comparing and contrasting myspace and facebook, so two is a pretty natural number to choose! Loose, general classifications of people can be very useful, although everyone does have to remember that they’re not perfect and will include exceptions. Marketers, policians, and individuals use them constantly, so why should academics in the humanities be forced to pretend politely that humanity is one undifferentiable mass?

  • Lindsay

    I thought your piece was very thoughtful as well, and most people I talk about it to find it interesting. I’m sure I wasn’t offended because I know you, your work and your tone of voice (which is often lost on the internet). I think people get offended when they’re forced to look at their actions and behaviors from a third-party vantage point, or from an aggregate view. The aggregate view being class or race, or economic status.

  • Steve Price

    You should be congratulated on actually going out and talking with people. Most researchers (in all fields) are too scared or lazy to actually do that. Of course, statistically and methodologically it is problematic, but the amount of depth and information available in a well conducted interview can’t be gotten by any other means.

    Your post on class and FB/MS reminded me of the better insights (ideology aside) in Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working-Class Family by Lillian B. Rubin, which consists of interviews with Oakland working class families.

    Steve

  • Javier Sanchez

    Well, yes. Without our critical thinking and communication skills, we’re just hairless apes. :)

  • Great paper, revealing discussion. Whether it is academic or not is just academic. An argument has to stand on its own. And this one does — until, of course, there’s new data.

    Very interesting how talk about class collapses immediately into talk, not so much about race as about status. And depressing that for a lot of people being (accused of) working class affiliation can only be connected to stigma. For a lot of people there’s no positive way of marking it.

    Only one thing i would take issue with. Strictly speaking the college student working in the coffee shop for 14K and the immigrant janitor are both working class. The basis of class is the wage relation. Yes, of course, the college kid has a shot at escaping form *this kind* of labor, but mostly just into other kinds of labor. Its about intra-class distinctions, for the most part.

    Are the ruling class on Facebook? I doubt it. Or if so very discreetly. Uniquely, this one rules by not being visible.

  • Here from Henry’s post about your work–I am fascinated by the short bits I’ve read so far and look forward to reading more!

  • I read the original essay…understand that its draft and so on, but I do think the structure of the essay and the way the MySpace demographic was expressed facilitated the misunderstanding / misinterpretation etc etc….I’m hoping to be constructive, I assume that was not deliberate.

    Anyway, was at a very interesting talk yesterday where a (semi) alternate view was put, that the insane risk culture is forcing youth to socialise online – hence the rise of social nets – and that MySpace is popular with kids as abn out there self expresion tool, Facebook is popular with parents and preppies because its…safe and square.

    Article is here on http://www.broadstuff.com

    ps noli illegitimi carborundorum etc etc

  • Jon

    danah, the essay’s unfinished state (and the vulnerability you showed by posting it in that state and the obvious care you took with caveats) contributes a lot to its approachability; so that that level it probably contributes to the activity level to some extent … This kind of storm often happens whenever there are insightful observations of hegemony and other forms of privilege: some people immediately deny it and try to find all kinds of ways (including distortion) to attack and discredit the message, and at the same time others for whom the message resonates get really excited and jump into the discussion in more positive and proactive ways. Well done!

    McKenzie, if you look around Facebook you’ll find quite a few members of the ruling class, very often with accounts using their corporate e-mail addresses. Especially with the level of indirection and control over information visibility a profile gives you, an environment that feels “safe”, the advantages of being glimpsable often outweigh the disadvantages.

    jon

  • Andreah

    Wow. “DARA” is a bitch. Bitch. Bitch. Bitch. And what a great range of comparison…Lindsay Lohan. Hah. Oh and it’s just great when people have to bring someone’s APPEARANCE INTO ACCOUNT — because that REALLY helps us gauge judgment !!!! HOWEVER — in the end it helps judge those who do compare someone’s lOoKs to their actions/demeanor/thoughts …idiot. At least danah acts like a college graduate.

  • Steve

    I just have one observation about all this: Danah, I hope you’re celebrating.

    Any durable system (electronic, social or otherwise) responds when it perceives a vital error(s). Danah will always get a traffic spike on articles like this one for exactly the same reason why rank beginners can’t get published in peer-reviewed journals and new bloggers can’t get a press pass. She’s famous for being an expert on youth culture. If she says something that isn’t precise — if she writes in public and without citations — she’s gonna get whooped. Just look up negative feedback in your favorite encyclopedia.

    So Danah: this kind of brouhaha may be one of the bigger compliments your peers and your subjects ever pay you. And as long as you mostly write with precision and support from your academic diaphragm, you’ll be able to call up this kind of debate almost at whim. Huh. Innaresting.

    And almost cool.

  • Steve

    I just have one observation about all this: Danah, I hope you’re celebrating.

    Any durable system (electronic, social or otherwise) responds when it perceives a vital error(s). Danah will always get a traffic spike on articles like this one for exactly the same reason why rank beginners can’t get published in peer-reviewed journals and new bloggers can’t get a press pass. She’s famous for being an expert on youth culture. If she says something that isn’t precise — if she writes in public and without citations — she’s gonna get whooped. Just look up negative feedback in your favorite encyclopedia.

    So Danah: this kind of brouhaha may be one of the bigger compliments your peers and your subjects ever pay you. And as long as you mostly write with precision and support from your academic diaphragm, you may be able to call up this kind of debate again. Huh. Innaresting. And almost… tactical.

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