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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“Privacy and Publicity in the Context of Big Data”

I gave today’s opening keynote at the WWW Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina.  My talk was about methodological and ethical issues involved in the study of Big Data, focusing heavily on privacy issues in light of public data.  The first third focuses on four important arguments: 1) Bigger Data are Not Always Better Data; 2) Not All Data are Created Equal; 3) What and Why are Different Questions; 4) Be Careful of Your Interpretations. I then move into argue “Just because data is accessible doesn’t mean that using it is ethical,” providing a series of different ways of looking at how people think about privacy and publicity.  I conclude by critiquing Facebook’s approach to privacy, from News Feed to Social Plugins/Instant Personalizer.

Privacy and Publicity in the Context of Big Data

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3 comments to “Privacy and Publicity in the Context of Big Data”

  • Shii

    A pretty prescient talk– four days after you gave it, the Web was flooded with stories about Facebook!

  • bob

    I’ve often wondered how public statements made by users on sites such as facebook can be used as evidence of wrong doing, the ‘classic’ example I think of is a person taking a sick day off work, their boss reading it, via some form of data gathering, and them using it as evidence to dismiss a person from their job for ‘lying’.

    There are so many reasons why this seems wrong, people are more complicated than a flippant remark on a stastus update, yet facebook is being used my government, insurance agenies etc. as fact – do they not realize that people can create an alternative version of themselves on-line ? it’s easy to leave out the rotten bits and add your ideal self to a profile – for example I get bouts of depression and anxiety, yet I also have an optimistic streak, I choose to share that on-line 75% of the time as it cheers others up, which cheers me up.

    What with everyone doing all this happy talk it could be interpreted that everyone is having a great time – but it isn’t the whole story – bosses are looking at surface data, taking it as fact and using it in court as evidence – this will be seen as bizarre in the future.

  • Great talk, danah. I second your concern. In order to change the status quo, I feel that we inevitably have to fight with the politics of conferences, funding, etc. My colleagues and I submitted an exploratory qualitative/ethnographic study paper to WWW a couple of years ago. All reviewers said it didn’t fit with WWW and we should instead submit it to a social science venue. One reviewer said “We suggest that the authors should define the problem clearly and formally, and then design corresponding models/algorithms under the definitions. Finally, theoretical or empirical studies should be conducted to demonstrate the authors’ claim…”

    The fact that they invited you for a keynote is a very good sign. The next step is for well-known qualitative researchers like yourself to publish papers and serve in program committee in these top-tier, but predominately positivistic communities.

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