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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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

  • Believe it or not, at 29 I do exactly what Shamika does (delete my actions/comments/likes etc. on Facebook). Clearly it’s not just teen-specific behaviour, I think it has to do with personality types. Lots of my friends have no problem with what they put on Facebook but I do…I think there’s more to it.

  • Where street-smarts lead, the masses will surely follow.

  • I do something similar to Shamika with my personal cell number – I don’t give it out to just anyone. I use Google Voice to have a ‘disposable’ number – the service can forward to whatever number I want (including SMS) and I can set ‘Do Not Disturb’ times, so anyone using that number can’t get ahold of me. It also lets me block people pretty easily, something no current cell provider lets you do on a per-number basis.

    When I meet someone new, I’ll give them my Google Voice number without hesitation – I also use this number at stores that request a phone number, when I leave my car for service, etc. In the case that you and I just met, I’ll give you my Google Voice number. Only after a little while (this varies based on the circumstances that we met under, how often you contact me, *how* you contact me, etc), I’ll ‘promote’ people to my personal cell number. I’ve had this number for over 10 years and I don’t get *any* spam or unwanted communication on it. It’s a bit of a pain, but well worth it to have a ‘clean’ number. When I talk to friends who change their mobile number nearly every 6 months, the hassle is immediately worth it.

  • Trevor Stafford

    “They’re very guarded in general; getting them to open up even a teensy bit during the interview was hard enough”

    This tell me that being teenagers has little to do with shaping their online behaviour. There is nothing odd about these girls or their ‘strategies’, They are simply conservative and careful people.

    The vast, vast majority of facebook users share indiscriminately, a small segment of naturally reticent people do not. Age has nothing to do with beyond making them slightly more technically capable.

  • Latika

    F/26, I do exactly what Shamika does. I find the first method interesting though, but I probably log in too often to activate/reactivate every time.

  • This is a very interesting article because of all the buzz around privacy on the web. It is going to be interesting to see how open people become with personal information and how we interact with social networks in the next couple years.

  • Ifanyi D. Bell

    I’d be interested in a larger survey of Facebook users and their privacy practices. This behavior could be part of mounting evidence that social-networks are going to see a major shift in user activity.

  • Brad

    Is there any sign that either of these strategies is effective?

    That is, do these girls “know” that they have more privacy as a result of these practices than their peers do?

    Well, I guess it’s somewhat obvious that they have more privacy. I should say, have they seen a positive impact of these practices in their lives as compared with their peers’ experiences online? Or are these methods just a safety blanket, with only perceived utility?

  • A fascinating look into not only the issue of these young women managing their privacy and attempting to maintain control of their various digi-selves in all their diverse and sundry incarnations. What is especially interesting to me is how Mikalah enacts “the present” in her behaviour with respect to Facebook.

    One of the challenges I’ve observed is that cyber-presence is inevitably perceived as “present,” often irrespective of when a post or content contribution is made (I experience this when people first find my stuff online – often several years after it was originally posted, of course in a completely different context than the one I currently occupy). It seems that Mikalah implicitly understands this dynamic, ensuring that her Facebook digi-self is only present concurrent with the flesh-and-blood Mikalah.

    You *do* find some interesting and very clever people in your research, danah!

  • Dan Herrup

    Danah,

    I wonder if you can address whether the actions of these girls is different than teenagers from environments where the threat of physical violence is less likely. In other words, does your research show a difference in the behavior of kids more at risk for physical violence versus those who are not?

    Thanks!

  • Those girls seem to have come up with a great way to use facebook and not be used BY facebook…

  • Those are neatly efficient ways to manipulate the FB technology to serve personal needs against / in spite of FB’s design / business goals to the contrary. I especially like how Mikalah has turned the deactivate switch’s failure to be 100% real into a beneficial feature.

    I’m currently going with Shamika’s approach, and have been deleting most everything on FB and Twitter. I never was posting things there for posterity, and I think life is better when a lot of the stuff you do and say casually remains undocumented — especially when you have so little control over the “documentary” that FB is making about you.

    But FB and Twitter can be good mechanisms for getting messages to people with whom I have a more non-committal acquaintance. They are real communication channels — and, in many cases, they are the only way I have to connect with certain people.

  • I love how Mikalah’s approach helps her control the ‘always on’ demand of super-public life. We all know that if you miss a day, or sometimes an hour online, people will have your side of the conversation for you, and in high school and beyond, that is a dangerous dynamic. We often think of protecting our space online, but protecting time is a crazy smart way to negotiate around Facebook.

  • Seriously? Unless you rarely use Facebook, you have to be pretty much glued to the computer to constantly delete all your updated and comments. What this girl really should be doing is simply not saying anything that is going to cause drama–and know that if someone tries to start something, it’s on them and not hurt. But that’s true for everyone who uses Facebook, teenagers or not. Be conscious of what you’re posting at all times, period. (And that’s true for life. Be conscious of what you’re doing and saying at all times).

  • Er, and not her. That comment lacked consciousness.

  • I just stumbled across this blog post and found it interesting, but also complexing. The strategies that you mention seem to defeat the entire purpose of social networking. For example, the first strategy where the user deactivates the account and then reactivates it when she logs back in seems pointless. Why have a facebook page if you really don’t use it? If you are concerned that others are viewing your details, perhaps more concern should be put into what details you provide (in the form of posts) rather than trying to delete or hide posts and details after the event. This applies equally to the user who deletes everything after it is posted. If you are that concerned that friends will post things that are inappropriate or offensive or will get you in trouble, perhaps thought should be given to the friends you keep, and whether you want to grant them access to your facebook page. I have my facebook page set to Friends Only, and know the people on my friends list. Everyones concerns over facebook and other social networking sites and programs like MSN, and the privacy issues associated with it come down to a simple fact – If you don’t want someone to know something, don’t put it out there on the internet. If you do, and then it comes back to bite you, take some responsibility and don’t go blaming the program that you signed up for to socialise online.

  • I regularly delete old photos and pictures though not to the extent Shamika does. I was fascinated to read this because I am the only person I know of who does this and I’m in my 30’s.

  • Kate

    Those are approaches I hadn’t heard of and I like that these two young women are really in control of what’s happening in their name. (Now that I think carefully about it I think my son might delete when content has reached the end of it’s usefulness) I have a friend who posts a lot of funny and provocative statuses and always gets lots of comments. Her policy is to never delete anything but she does have two alters she uses to tone things down when it gets out of hand.

  • Deleting “Likes”, “Comments”, “Wall Posts” etc doesn’t mean that Facebook actually deletes the information.
    They just don’t show it!
    They… “de-activate” the information!
    😉

  • Wayne

    If going to some of those extremes just save yourself some time and effort and don’t use Facebook.

  • nickels

    I just deleted my facebook account. Same (even better) level of security and a heck of a lot less maintainence, by the sound of it.

  • It would never have occurred to me that people would do this. Fascinating.

  • Tim

    Maybe they need to get new friends.

  • Matt

    Risk?
    What risk? This whole “super-logoff” thing reeks of being a new hipster trend.

  • ron

    Great article. Well written and informative. Thank you.

  • carulo

    This girl is crazy

  • Charles

    1200 txt messages a day! Seriously?

  • Renee

    Very interesting read on how younger FB users – a group that is usually accused of being reckless and naive when it comes to posting online content – are using the system to control their “digital self” offline. Clearly they understand that your online photos and data can continue to shape and morph without you being behind a computer screen, and that’s a scary thought. As one of the commenters mentioned above, I would be curious to know whether kids in environments where threats of school violence are not so prevalent, are using the same or similar strategies.

  • Adam

    Are gay people more efficient at using Facebook or something? What’s the point of that little tidbit?

  • Lo

    I get the sense that many commenters failed to grasp the gravity of the girls’ situations. When they go to school and are surrounded by violence and artificial peer pressure, they have to learn to reduce harm and still be able to “fit in,” because ironically, fitting in is a good harm reduction strategy. I’m certain they don’t just quit facebook outright because the tool is still useful to them, even though I’m not sure how (and they might not be able to articulate it, either).

    @Tim: “Maybe they need to get new friends.” Most likely, their situation means they can’t choose their friends. High schools are great like that.

    @Matt: “Risk? What risk?” I think perhaps they don’t always get the chance to explain themselves before they get cut with a knife. Not that psychological violence is any easier to deal with, but exposure to physical violence makes one much more guarded because the outcomes can be really quite awful. Or in a less extreme situation: if a fight breaks out and she is suspended from school, she is likely to get into trouble with her parents. Controlling her facebook wall (which probably takes her very little effort) would seem much easier than dealing with all that.

    @Adam: “What’s the point of that little tidbit [about gay males]?” Probably that they are more likely the targets of verbal or physical violence, so controlling one’s identity becomes a strategy to reduce harm.

  • Erick

    Wayne is definitely right. Save yourself a lot of time and don’t use any of these websites if you’re going to bother that much. Only the “Super-logoff” thing appeared useful to me, but deleting every single post, like and comment would require the whole day. That’s just crazy

  • Really interesting post. Thanks Danah!

  • Jeff

    My assessment is 1) an attention span that is so short these people cannot clearly express thoughts well enough to have them be unambiguous to other readers 2) coupled with simply not understanding the class of content that is fit for the medium.

    Don’t post anything you wouldn’t openly say to any person in the world, and there’s nothing to delete.

    My nephew and niece seem to have no trouble using the site appropriately with their friends.

  • @jeff, please don’t forget that thankfully, your nephew and niece obviously have role models and parents that can communicate with on these matters. Sadly for a lot of kids their social networks are their only channels of expression/communication and with no role models, they have to survive online as they do IRL, by themselves.

  • Interesting commentary on privacy and FB management. When I present to adult business groups this is question is constantly asked. I learned something about the deactivation, and will research the comment that deleting the comments likes etc only deactivates them doesn’t delete them. This is important for organizations such as Financial Service industries who are trying to take careful steps into social media. Software such as http://www.socialware.com claims to be able to track comments, record, manage social networking policies etc. for companies like these. Management of social media and relationships – personal or business – will need some closer looks for risk managements. We need the social capital that social media can deliver to create strong business or even high school relationships. The key is connections to the right people in the right space. Look for tools that help us evaluate the relationship before we connect, hopefully so we don’t have to deactivate ourselves to protect our reputations.

    Wendy

    http://xeesm.com/wendysoucie

  • Jim

    I have had my foray into this total loss of privacy and boundaries that is life in 2010 … plan to very soon delete my facebook page as there is way too much connectivity between family & friends & co-workers – pockets are wide open – walls are taken down … these areas of separation serve (served) a real purpose … now, once i have left this cyberworld how to (1) stay in touch w/ previously disconnected relatives and (2) manage my kids’ sharing of the same data on their wide-open (generational they-don’t-care) facebook profiles?

  • Luis

    not to be a buzz kill… but im pretty sure all this stuff is cached somewhere… in facebook, outside of facebook, and in between facebook.

  • Sarah

    Great strategy. If I’m in a high-risk situation I’ll remember it.

    However, I do have a question about setting up an online presence on purpose. So many people are so afraid, but if you think of it in the reverse and try to use it for opening doors, you actually want a persistent profile. You just want as clean a persistent profile as possible.

    I suppose if I were going to be off Facebook for more than a week or a month for one reason or the other, I would consider deactivation. At this point, I check it enough to keep it reasonably clear. And my relationships with people tend to be based on mutual respect – i.e. any bombing we can discuss in person and establish rules of the road. In other words, if you want to be my friend, you treat me this way and I’ll do the same with you. At this point, that’s unspoken but trust me, people who post photos without permission are immediately noticed and sometimes shunned. I don’t know how many times I’ve taught the untagging feature over the years.

  • vickivanv

    I just found out that my 13yo uses FB like this–she said she likes “to keep her wall clean.” I was surprised, as I use Facebook in almost the opposite way–as a record of what I like, who my friends are, what I’m thinking or interested in over time. When I told her how I look at my FB wall so differently, she just said “Oh, Mom, you’re so weird.” Hehehehe! It really is so different from the old days, when teens were flocking to myspace and using it as a means of wide-open self-expression, often with a completely public profile.

  • Me

    Yep, can;t be too careful with what you leave on FB. That funny comment will seem very different 8 years from now.

    Great article Danah Boyd

  • Unfacebook

    I have full control over FB. I used to use it for marketing then figured out FB kiddies have no money and their attention span is too short. Now I’m completely FB free, have plenty of time and zero interest. The future of FB is no more meaningful or important than people who discuss what’s in People magazine at the hair salon. Many people are messing around on it but no one I’m close to has an account nor plans to. Who cares?

  • I’m a bit like vickivanv – I like that my Facebook page is a weirdly detailed and revealing bricolage of my interests. And I work in gay men’s health, so the web is already full of links between my name and esoteric sex and drug-taking practices. That’s why I’m interested in what miradu had to say about the super-logoff; you and CNN have used young people to explain it, but in my work we constantly see gay men innovating in the use of technology to meet and manage their social and sexual lives, so I’d love to hear more about this example.

  • Geezus

    Umm..This is kinda ridiculous..If you don’t want someone to see something, don’t post it. This “super-logoff” thing is ridiculous..What if someone wants to send me a message when I’m not logged in, so that he doesn’t forget it..he waits all day for me to show up? 1200 txt messages a day, huh? That means she would send a message every 72 seconds..Umm..Does this girl even sleep/go to the toilet/eat/study?? Even if it was a narrowed down number, it’s still ridiculously impossible.. Delete every post? And just like someone said in comments, FB has links to everything, you can’t delete anything u already posted..U can just make it invisible..But this seems like a really paranoid and ridiculous strategy.. If ALL your friends are jerks, that would post shit on your wall during the time you’re not there, then you should probably either choose new friends or maybe quit facebook… Seriously, a little logic and less paranoia here

  • baz

    Very interesting article.

    Shame the comments are split between appreciative, enquiring commenters and some who seem to have no empathy whatsoever. Accusing these girls of being “kinda ridiculous” is, well, kinda ridiculous. People will use technology in whatever way seems appropriate to them, if you don’t relate then maybe you should consider that your life is very different, and most likely far more comfortable and sheltered, if you can’t relate.

  • shafayet

    Serene wrote: “It would never have occurred to me that people would do this. Fascinating.”

    — It never occurred to you because you are a sane, healthy and NORMAL person.

  • Luanne

    “That means she would send a message every 72 seconds”

    I guess that ignorant comment means you are not aware that you can send more than one text message every 72 seconds? Here’s a mind blowing fact for you: you can send more than one text message in a minute! Here’s another fun fact: a text message can be as short as 1 character and can be as long as 160 characters! WOW! Amazing huh?

  • kamacho

    There is a very simple app on Facebook that lets you post links to your wall that hide secret messages. The links are regular links to articles, videos, etc. which still function as normal – but if your friends have your secret password they can use the link to un-lock a secret. Messages can expire based on time, number of times read, etc…

    http://www.mysecretlinks.com

  • I’ve been called anti-social for not having facebook. That’s a bit ironic. When I feel those that HAVE facebook are anti-social 🙂

  • HeresTomWithTheWeather

    danah says: “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.”

    of course! and the same effect can be achieved without the violence of advertising facebook’s business model depends on by keeping your identity on your laptop. maybe some good folks can design a p2p identity system instead of a a system designed by advertisers.