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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Risk Reduction Strategies on Facebook

Sometimes, when I’m in the field, I find teens who have strategies for managing their online presence that are odd at first blush but make complete sense when you understand the context in which they operate. These teens use innovative approaches to leverage the technology to meet personal goals. Let me explain two that caught my attention this week.

Mikalah uses Facebook but when she goes to log out, she deactivates her Facebook account. She knows that this doesn’t delete the account – that’s the point. She knows that when she logs back in, she’ll be able to reactivate the account and have all of her friend connections back. But when she’s not logged in, no one can post messages on her wall or send her messages privately or browse her content. But when she’s logged in, they can do all of that. And she can delete anything that she doesn’t like. Michael Ducker calls this practice “super-logoff” when he noticed a group of gay male adults doing the exact same thing.

Mikalah is not trying to get rid of her data or piss of her friends. And she’s not. What she’s trying to do is minimize risk when she’s not present to actually address it. For the longest time, scholars have talked about online profiles as digital bodies that are left behind to do work while the agent themselves is absent. In many ways, deactivation is a way of not letting the digital body stick around when the person is not present. This is a great risk reduction strategy if you’re worried about people who might look and misinterpret. Or people who might post something that would get you into trouble. Mikalah’s been there and isn’t looking to get into any more trouble. But she wants to be a part of Facebook when it makes sense and not risk the possibility that people will be snooping when she’s not around. It’s a lot easier to deactivate every day than it is to change your privacy settings every day. More importantly, through deactivation, you’re not searchable when you’re not around. You really are invisible except when you’re there. And when you’re there, your friends know it, which is great. What Mikalah does gives her the ability to let Facebook be useful to her when she’s present but not live on when she’s not.

Shamika doesn’t deactivate her Facebook profile but she does delete every wall message, status update, and Like shortly after it’s posted. She’ll post a status update and leave it there until she’s ready to post the next one or until she’s done with it. Then she’ll delete it from her profile. When she’s done reading a friend’s comment on her page, she’ll delete it. She’ll leave a Like up for a few days for her friends to see and then delete it. When I asked her why she was deleting this content, she looked at me incredulously and told me “too much drama.” Pushing further, she talked about how people were nosy and it was too easy to get into trouble for the things you wrote a while back that you couldn’t even remember posting let alone remember what it was all about. It was better to keep everything clean and in the moment. If it’s relevant now, it belongs on Facebook, but the old stuff is no longer relevant so it doesn’t belong on Facebook. Her narrative has nothing to do with adults or with Facebook as a data retention agent. She’s concerned about how her postings will get her into unexpected trouble with her peers in an environment where saying the wrong thing always results in a fight. She’s trying to stay out of fights because fights mean suspensions and she’s had enough of those. So for her, it’s one of many avoidance strategies. The less she has out there for a jealous peer to misinterpret, the better.

I asked Shamika why she bothered with Facebook in the first place, given that she sent over 1200 text messages a day. Once again, she looked at me incredulously, pointing out that there’s no way that she’d give just anyone her cell phone number. Texting was for close friends that respected her while Facebook was necessary to be a part of her school social life. And besides, she liked being able to touch base with people from her former schools or reach out to someone from school that she didn’t know well. Facebook is a lighter touch communication structure and that’s really important to her. But it doesn’t need to be persistent to be useful.

Both of these girls live in high-risk situations. Their lives aren’t easy and they’re just trying to have fun. But they want to have fun with as little trouble as possible. They don’t want people in their business but they’re fully aware that people are nosy. They’re very guarded in general; getting them to open up even a teensy bit during the interview was hard enough. Given the schools that they’re at, they’ve probably seen far more trouble than they’re letting on. Some of it was obvious in their stories. Accounts of fights breaking out in classes, stories of classes where teachers simply have no control over what goes on in the room and have given up teaching, discussions of moving from school to school to school. These girls have limited literacy but their street smarts are strong. And Facebook is another street where you’ve got to always be watching your back.

Related tweets:

  • @tremblebot: My students talk abt this call it “whitewashing” or “whitewalling.” Takes forever for initial scrub then easy to stay on top of.

      @techsoc: College students too! Altho their issue is more peers & partners. One spent 1 hr a day deleting everything BF might be jealous of

        @futurescape: I know someone who deactivated account all festivals, important occasions for her so that people cannot leave comments etc
      Print Friendly

56 comments to Risk Reduction Strategies on Facebook

  • rhi

    I’ve simply never chosen to reveal anything too personal on my profile. Whilst I think nothing of leaving my email, hometown or mobile number on my page, I would never comment on arguments or relationship changes that happen in real life, and I never say anything nasty about anyone else. I think that’s an easier way to keep some privacy than all the clever yet drastic measures people are taking. If you don’t tell, they don’t know!

  • Eggman

    Most people use Facebook as a journal. The first girl is trying to transform Facebook into an extension of chat, where material is available when she’s online interacting with her friends. All that really does is to close, somewhat, the window where people are able to “snoop”, but it doesn’t eliminate the possibility that people will be able to do so. She should just learn how to lock down her wall. The second girl is trying to make Facebook behave more like her preferred communications channel – SMS. That’s… atypical, but whatever floats her boat. They’re not really “reducing risk” so much as they’re trying to get a different Facebook.

  • Andrew

    Cleaning the wall is the equivalent of treating your facebook wall like email.

    You delete it when you’re done reading it, and you are much happier when there’s nothing in the inbox.

    It seems a pretty reasonable strategy to me.

  • Dana,

    As a geek, after reading this blog post I found myself thinking “Hey, I could write a script to do that.” So I did!

    I would like to introduce you to the site I wrote: https://media-maid.appspot.com/

    It is still in its infancy (not much documentation, only open to Twitter), and I hope to make it a bit more user-friendly over the next several days, but I wanted to get it to you before your sabbatical.

    Thank you for your inspiring post!

    - Nelz

  • si

    Personally I find it a little sad these girls have to resort to this kind of tactic, and really, the only way to be safe is to to assume that once something is posted, it’s irrelevant whether you delete it or not, the whole world knows about it, so think before you click.

  • I adopted a different strategy: I deleted my profile (completely, not just disable) and then I just started a new one.

    A lot of people asked me why I did that. Information on Facebook lingers. Ironically, it makes our life whole, but the truth is that we don’t need our lives to whole, we need to lead separate lives, and leave somethings behind.

    It was the “photo memory” function that freaked me out. I got pictures even from 2 years ago that I simply don’t want to publish to anyone. I have comments and behaviour which was fine when I was experimenting with Facebook for the first time, and I don’t want those around anymore. Most importantly, I had went up to a disturbingly large group of 575 people. I know people have even more, but 575 is enough for me – there is no way I remember them all. I don’t really know who I am casting to.

    There you go. I started a new profile, and I am pretty sure that I will delete that one as well at some point in the coming years.

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