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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how youth find privacy in interstitial spaces

The NYTimes ran a piece today called Text Generation Gap: U R 2 Old (JK). (Note: the article is very American-centric – in the States, older folks tend to be texting illiterate.) The article begins with an anecdote of a parent shuttling around his daughter and her friend. They are talking and dad butts in and they roll their eyes. And then there is silence. When dad comments to his daughter that she’s being rude for texting on her phone rather than talking to her friend, the daughter replies: “But, Dad, we’re texting each other. I don’t want you to hear what I’m saying.”

First and foremost, the notion of “privacy” is about having a sense of control over how and when information flows to who. Given the structures of their lives, teens have often had very little control over their social context. In school, at home, at church… there are always adults listening in. Forever more, there have been pressures to find interstitial spaces to assert control over communications. Note passing, whispering, putting notes in lockers, arranging simultaneous bathroom visits, pig latin, neighbor to neighbor string communication… all of these have been about trying to find ways to communicate outside of the watchful eyes of adults, an attempt to assert privacy while stuck in a fundamentally public context. The mobile phone is the next in line of a long line of efforts to communicate in the spaces between.

At the same time, the mobile phone changes the rules. Texting allows people to communicate even when they aren’t at arms length or can’t arrange simultaneous interactions. Because texting happens silently, it’s far more effective as a backchannel mechanism than whispering. Codes are not necessarily about hiding from adults as much as efficiency; deleting sent/received messages is far more effective than codes.

Over the years, parenting has become more and more about surveillance. In this mindset, good parents are those who stalk their kids. Parents complain that their children ignore them when they’re in the same space, preferring their friends. When was this not the case? What’s different now is that there are fewer siblings/cousins running around to team up with. There’s less free time to just “hang out.” There’s no openness to go out after school and “be home by dark” (a practice that used to start in early childhood). With activities and scheduling and this and that, I’m always amazed that children don’t demand more time for friend time.

There’s an arms race going on: parental surveillance vs. technology to assert privacy. We aren’t seeing the radical OMG technology ruins everything stage. We’re seeing the next in line of a long progression. And it’s just the beginning. The arms race is heating up. As parents implement keyboard tracking, kids go to texting. How long until parents demand that companies send them transcripts of everything? What will come next? We are in the midst of the privacy wars and it’s not so clean as “where’s my privacy” vs. “kids these days are so public.” The very nature of publicity and privacy are getting disrupted. As kids work to be invisible to people who hold direct power over them (parents, teachers, etc.), they happily expose themselves to audiences of peers. And they expose themselves to corporations. They know that the company can see everything they send through their servers/service, but who cares? Until these companies show clear allegiance with their parents, they’re happy to assume that the companies are on their side and can do them no harm.

Generation gap and technology ruining everything stories will be forever more. These do sell and they are fun to read. Yet, for parents and teachers and other concerned folks wanting to get a clear perspective of what’s going on, it’s important to remember that at the end of the day, the intentions and desires aren’t changing… it’s just the architecture that makes the practices possible that is. The refraction of light is changing because the medium through which it is channeled is changing, but the light itself stays the same and to guide our children, we need to remember to pay attention to the light, not the refraction or the medium that’s causing the refraction.

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15 comments to how youth find privacy in interstitial spaces

  • I hadn’t considered the possibility of telecoms sending transcripts to parents. Ew, ew, ew.

    I’m not sure that problem can be resolved without a) open-source phones, or b) laws against parents invading their kids’ privacy. And I don’t see the latter happening anytime soon.

    (Typo alert: “Good parents are those who stalk their parents”)

  • Estelle

    It’s interesting as the NYT you discuss on your blog today, NYT published another interesting and very much related commentary/article by Megan Hustad entitled ,”The Office Phone Call Was Music to the Ears” http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/09/business/09pre.html?_r=1&oref=slogin, where Megan yearns for days gone by where you could hear the phone ring in offices and get a feeling of how buisness was going and even perhaps eavesdrop on what your boss was up to.

    Also to note this week Jason Calcanis in his blog posting this week on “How to save money running a startup” http://www.calacanis.com/2008/03/07/how-to-save-money-running-a-startup-17-really-good-tips/ he suggests that start-ups don’t buy phone systems, he claims everyone has a cell phone anyway and there is no real use for the phone and hence a big savings.

  • Brian O' Hanlon

    I like Clayton Christensen’s books a lot where he encourages business managers to use circumstance based theory to guide them, rather than using an attributes view of the problem, which is so much more common – and he argues, the prime reason for a lot of failed projects. Your point, about parents job of monitoring the kids sounds like a similar situation.

    The Innovator’s Solution, is the exact book by Christensen, where he compares and contrasts the two analytical approaches. Theories are better he argues, because at times, historical information about the past, and information is only available about the past – may be the worst guide for the future strategy.

    B.

  • Not sure the children are the only one trying to reveal it all to unknown peers: Second Life & WoW aren’t populated by nothing but teenagers, are they? Isn’t the need for consequence-less banter still very much present in adlt life, as revealed by their appetite for fiction?

  • My usually pithy and stern reply (via my blog.

    My vendetta on false rhetoric can’t seem to get beyond Danah Boyd’s constant “hip” yet stupid assertions. For this week’s instalment, Danah outlines a theory of privacy that states, as though it is unproblematic, “the notion of “privacy” is about having a sense of control over how and when information flows to who” (Boyd). I’ll point interested readers to some of my own writings in which I problematize privacy, especially as it relates to technology. Technology can both enhance and diminish privacy, I argue that “Personal privacy in the network society is dialectical, it can either free individuals to remain anonymous in communication and commerce or eliminate all places to hide, act, and think freely. Barlow opines that the latter will occur when “all new intellectual creations will be put in cryptographic bottles” [Kerr, 2004,quoted Barlow, 88]” (DuPont).

    Further, a substantial difficult affecting privacy and technology is accounting for “public privacy” in a theoretically cogent manner. In the Canadian context (and the US does not differ too much in this respect), such a notion is basically an oxymoron. So, Boyd’s texting teens don’t have privacy any more than their channel is secure, their physicality (of texting in public) is both revealing and revealed—privacy goes out the window. Capturing what seems to be missing here, public privacy, is notoriously difficult. In the Canadian legal context I argue that,

    My suggestion is to follow the procedure articulated Hunter v. Southam Inc. for the application to privacy. The same advantage is conferred to privacy: the effects of the restriction to freedom of expression are not counted until the restriction has already been established.

    and

    My worry with privacy cases is that the balancing of interests occurs far too soon in the analytical procedure. Public privacy is not considered part of a privacy right because the effects are counted when the categories of infringement are established. (DuPont).

    Boyd is correct to point out that these sorts of problems make good press (hence the unusual and unwarranted popularity of her research), but keeping the hard problems in mind is the academically honest approach. I certainly don’t claim to have the answers here, but I do recognize some of the subtleties at play.

  • Quinn – You’re right that my blog is about brushing over the subtleties to make a point. I don’t see my blog as academic scholarship and attempting to really flesh out the complexities of terms means that most folks won’t follow what it is that I’m actually trying to say. This is not to say that I’m not aware of the hard problems, but I’m choosing to not problematize such concepts in order to focus on the topic that I want to address in such a short form.

    The reason that I point out what definition of privacy I’m working with is to make it clear where I stand. I’m pointing to two things here. First, I’m leveraging the structure that Beate Rossler puts forward in an attempt to resolve different strains of thought around privacy. It’s not clean, but it’s workable, especially when you’re focusing on local constructions of privacy and not structural conditions of privacy. Second, from a teen POV, privacy is ALL about control. Regardless of how we want to theorize it, what matters to me is that very local perspective.

    I’m an ethnographer, not a philosopher. I believe in making sense of culture from the culture itself. And I believe in conveying that broadly through impression management, even if that requires being theoretically sloppy at times. I’m glad that you’re working to problematize these terms; it’s important. But please understand that there are also reasons to make such assertions in such public (non-academic) contexts without it being academically dishonest.

  • Thanks for the reply, I’ll admit that I am not familiar with Rossler’s framework, but I’ll check it out. I should have said that theories of privacy centered around control aren’t all bad, but they certainly have their problems. It might be relevant that Robert Scoble (not known for his theoretical precision, but still) suggests that privacy is dead for teens:

    Robert Scoble of FastCompany.com put it bluntly, “Privacy is dead,” he said. “My 14-year-old kid just doesn’t care about privacy.” Kimbal claimed he hasn’t had a single negative comment on privacy, while Rose said Digg is open about what it does with information. “If we share information with advertisers,” he said. “We’ll be up front about it… we’ll tell people and give them the means to opt out.” (Web 2.0)

  • This is hardly just a trend that applies to teens seeking privacy from their parents.

    Texting works as way of back channeling communication all the time, to hide it from anyone, no matter the age group.

    People sitting next to each other IM and text each other quite commonly. And then everyone else laughs at them. The laughing will probably go away eventually though.

  • Quinn – lots of folks love to scream that privacy is dead, but I’ve been talking to teens all over the U.S. and it’s clear to me that it’s not dead, but it does mean something different than what it means to adults. For example, teens do not see home as a private space (while adults do) because they have little control of what takes place there. They think of many only spaces as private, not because companies can’t stalk them, but because it’s out of the purview of parents, teachers, and others who hold power over them. This is what I mean by teens’ notion of privacy being about control.

  • Mark

    Privacy isn’t dead–it’s layered. When Scoble and others point to Facebook, MySpace, texting, etc as evidence that teens have somehow evolved past any quaint notions of privacy and live 24/7 on the grid, they somehow ignore that all of us–teens included–have forever used various instances of ourselves to navigate the public/private continuum. What teens share on their Walls or in school bathrooms will forever be a gummy mix of truth, fiction, and gossip.

    So, to Danah’s point, while privacy appears to be shifting, it’s simply the landscape and toolsets that shift. The desire to to control what we say–and when, why, how, and to whom–is timeless and immutable.

    Acknowledging that is easy. The hard part for parents is recognizing the new patterns that distinguish what SHOULD or CAN stay hidden vs interactions that are damaging, dangerous, or illegal.

  • When I was about 12, my best friend and I always sat together. We talked constantly and they separated us. We passed notes and they confiscated them. Then we read a Helen Keller biography in class and taught ourselves the deaf hand alphabet. From that point forward we chattered as much as we wanted, across the room, during tests… I sucked at math and she didn’t. “What’s the answer to number 4?” I’d ask, pretending to fiddle with my hair… Hah!

  • I mostly agree with Mark – privacy is layered but very much alive and kicking. And that’s very much an issue of control – parental control of (if you think about middle class ‘helicopter parents’ at their worst) their investment. Thinking about it, the property angle does go back a long way with children being very much treated by the law as chattels – the idea of the ‘best interest of the child’ in custody cases is a comparatively recent one. Perhaps as a relatively new parent, Scoble has a vested interest in the ‘zero privacy’ narrative ;)

  • Steve

    To me the analysis of how the nature privacy is evolving under the impact of new communications technology is less interesting than the question of whether children having privacy from the adults responsible for their care is a good thing or a bad thing.

    Obviously some degree of privacy is essential or children will never have the opportunity to evolve personalities distinct from their parents. That being said, I think a strong case can be made for severe limitations on this privacy. Eric Harris and Dylan Kleibold became stone psycho killers while living under their parents’ roofs and those parents never had a clue. That’s too much privacy. Young kids go out and become sexually active without a clue of the profounder implications of such activity – and all too often with no input from those who have been there before them and lived long enough subsequently to have a broader perspective on the issue. That’s too much privacy. Kids go out and do a huge variety of drugs – with little knowledge as to what those drugs will do to them in the longer term – or even the history of such once well known drugs as PCP (which made a comeback a few years ago as an additive to marijuana under names such as “sherm” or “embalming fluid”. Or people who will do “Special K” as a club drug but have no knowledge of such an historical figure in the story of ketamine as John Lilly. Or just straight up old school heroin. Since the US took over Afganistan in the wake of 9-11 opium poppy production increased 10-fold. The implications of this are not rocket science. There’s a lot more “dog food” on the streets today then has been seen for years. Are we really so naive to think this will not find it’s way into at least fringe elements of youth culture? Not knowing whether such choices are part of your child’s life is WAY too much privacy.

    My point is that it’s very dangerous today to be a child – and, admittedly, all too often the very people that are supposed to have your back – i.e. parents and other adult authorities – are the ones you have to watch your back against! But, that being said, there are millions of parents out there who actually love their kids and are trying to be responsible and do the right thing. And the notion that children should have an arena in which they can court danger without adult oversight is an open invitation to the destruction of the next generation. And no, I don’t attribute such a radical advocacy of child privacy to anyone here – but I’m certain that many kids will take it exactly that far if they are given available means to do so.

    Research widely popularized in the last few years suggests that the portions of the brain responsible for strong emotional impulses become active during the teenage years, while the brain functions responsible for making judgments and “looking before you leap” (aka the cortico-thalamic pause) does not mature until sometime in the early twenties (although my personal view is that the rate of maturation of this function can almost certainly be assisted by exercise – just like developing a muscle).

    And I loaned an article on this to one of my young friends – and when I explained what the research supposedly showed she got this really thoughtful look and said “that explains a lot”. Wise beyond her years, that one.

    But the bottom line is that children need adult supervision. That’s why there are traditional and long-standing social cultural and legal distinctions between children and adults.

    I’ll close with a piece of poetry/lyrics inspired by Columbine that approaches the question from the other direction – that of parental irresponsibility – but that’s really just the other side of the same coin.

    RED ALERT (MEDICAL EMERGENCY)

    (Chorus)
    Red Alert! 9-1-1!
    Better get there on the run!
    Life is dying while you wait!
    Might already be too late!

    Shots are fired in the school
    Bodies on the floor
    Better call emergency
    Don’t delay no more

    (chorus)

    See the children lying dead
    Heaped in disarray
    Who’s a victim, who’s a killer
    Really hard to say

    (chorus)

    Why’d it happen – Now they ask
    They all want to hear
    Fingers pointing every way
    Except into the mirror

    (chorus)

    Those who knew the young men best
    Say parents weren’t to blame
    The kids themselves said no one could
    Have guessed their deadly game

    And no one thinks it’s strange at all
    That from the very start
    Nobody noticed the child’s soul
    Hid a killer’s heart

    (bridge)
    If I would tell a story of a time so long ago
    When parents used to know their children’s heart
    Would anyone believe I ever lived in such a world?
    Before the ties of love were torn apart

    Eighteen years a stranger, living in a stranger’s house
    Is this the life that we call normal now?
    If you can still remember how to show a child your love
    You’d best begin to show the world how

    Children’s blood’s a mighty river
    Flowing through this land
    Why won’t anybody notice
    Try to understand

    (chorus)

    My Profile

    (My Commentary on the poem)

    Like most of my poems, there’s a story about how this one came to be. The one thing I always wondered about was how Eric and Dylan could have been going in that direction mentally and their parents never noticed.

    In my world, your parents are supposed to be the closest people in your life – they should know you inside and out – if anything strange is happening to you mentally – they should notice right away.

    But some people would say I’m trying to live in a world that’s not there any more. First, I got in a conversation online with somebody who said she had known Eric & Dylan – she didn’t say if she meant online or in real life. She thought I was wrong to hold the parents responsible. She said one of the boys had even said that his dad was a good dad to him, and that there was no way he could have known about it or stopped it.

    Then, a few years later, I was taking a young friend and some of her other friends out for ice cream. One of them I didn’t know before and we got talking, and I found out she was a huge fan of Eric and Dylan. She thought they were very misunderstood and lied about. And she also thought that the parents weren’t responsible. She seemed to think that it was just normal for parents not to be close to their kids.

    Well, I know a lot of things have changed since I was a young kid. Today, if there are two parents, they usually both work. Less time for the kid. When I was growing up, almost everybody had two parents in the home, and usually one worked (and could make enough to support the family) while the other – usually the mom – stayed home and looked after the kids. But even in today’s hard times there are still parents who are close to their kids – often in poorer families. Maybe it’s about where priorities are. I’ve seen the pics of Dylan’s and Eric’s homes. Rich and beautiful. And some of my friends who were close to their parents grew up with single moms in a situation where they were struggling financially. But those moms put their kids first. Maybe other parents put money and success first.

    Anyway, I guess this poem should be dedicated to Chelsea – because she was the one that bothered me so much by what she said that a week or two later this popped out as the answer.

    Just a thought,
    -Steve

  • Steve

    Steve –

    You’ve made a scapegoat out of privacy, when it’s really a red herring.

    The issue of sexually irresponsible, or psychologically unhealthy behavior in young adults is not an issue of privacy. That’s much too late in the game.

    A parent’s job is to create independent, healthy adults. To raise unhealthy children, and then deprive them of privacy as teenagers, in order to catch them being unhealthy, is a wrongheaded approach.

    Instead, a parent should be prepping to make the teen years a period of transition to adulthood. The time prior to this should be spent on helping children develop judgment and learning the sources of good information. Then the teenage years should be spent in slowly trying to give the teenager progressively more control over their own lives.

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