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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I do not speak for my employer.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when people imply that when I make arguments, I’m speaking on behalf of Microsoft. Anyone who knows me knows that my opinions are my own. (This blog sez so too but no one ever seems to reads that.) What I most appreciate about my employer is that they allow me to speak my mind, even when we disagree. This is what it means to have freedom as a researcher and it’s one of the reasons that I love love love Microsoft Research. I never ever speak on behalf of Microsoft but I have zero clue of why people desperately want to perpetuate this myth. This is what makes me want to cry.

What makes me want to laugh is the irony of folks thinking I speak on behalf of Microsoft when I am critiquing an industry-wide practice that is most prominent because of Google’s recent implementation. Yes, I work for Microsoft. But I used to work for Google on social products. Many of my friends – and my brother – work for Google. I also used to work for Bradley Horowitz (one of the folks in charge of Google Plus) when we were both at Yahoo! and I adore him to pieces. I have nothing but respect for the challenges involved in building products, but I also have no qualms about highlighting problematic corporate logic. My arguments are not coming from a point of hatred towards any company or individual, but stemming from a determination to speak up for those who are voiceless in many of these discussions and to provide a different perspective with which to understand the issues.

I write and critique decisions in the tech industry when I feel as though those decisions have unintended consequences for those being affected. I’m particularly passionate when what’s at stake has implications for equality. I recognize and respect the libertarian ethos that persists in the Valley, but I think that it’s critical that privileged folks understand the cultural logic of those who are not that privileged. And, as someone who has an obscene amount of privilege at this stage in the game, I’m committed to using my stature to draw attention to issues that affect people who are marginalized. And when I get pissed off about something, I rant. And that can be both good and bad. But I’ve found that my rants often make people think. That’s what motivates me to keep ranting.

Sometimes, what I say pisses people off. Sometimes, it sounds like I’m dissing particular products or people. Usually, though, I’m critiquing assumptions that persist in the tech industry and the policies that unfold because of those assumptions. And I recognize that those who don’t know me have a bad tendency to misinterpret what I’m saying. I struggle every time I write to do my darndest to be understandable to as many people as I can. And when I’m most visible, folks often think I’m saying the darndest things. But even though I don’t correct everyone, that doesn’t mean that it’s not frustrating to be taken out of context so frequently.

And so it goes… and so it goes..

“Oh, how I miss substituting the conclusion to confrontation with a kiss.”

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15 comments to I do not speak for my employer.

  • I’m just adding a +1 here because even though I sometimes see your stuff on Google+ before it shows up in Google Reader, I still think of them as blog posts. Yes, some of us do read your blog.

    Now I’ll go like and share you in Reader and +1 you on G+!

  • Andrew Fake 42

    I only wish that the unprivileged late-adopter folks who are scared off by techie-looking handles/names had someone as skilled and influential speaking out for them.

  • Unfortunately, you needed to write this reminder. I’m glad you did; you argue better on your own behalf than I can do for you. Anyhow, if it cheers you up, remember you have a slightly more silent army of advocates, too, along with the vocal critics.

  • Arseni Markoff

    OK, OK. what did i spark here … with all due respect, did not mean to imply that your opinion only and necessarily covers the policy of your employer. in fact i agree thoroughly with most of your arguments. i was just trying to explain why Google’s policy is so explicit in demanding ‘real names’, what is in fact much better discussed in the relevant Wired mag column. i do not defend or justify this policy, was only pointing out that Microsoft has ‘personal issues’ with Google, regarding web search algorithms.

  • Phil T

    This post right here is why I post anything remotely inflammatory under a pseudonym. I don’t trust my employer enough to allow me freedom of speech, though it has nothing to do with my job. I’ve worked for too many companies where bad things have happened to good people because they made too much, didn’t kiss enough arse or weren’t attractive enough. This is also why I’ve resigned myself to working towards being my own boss so that I will be in a position where I can foster an environment where others won’t ever have to worry about the things I do. Keep the faith, I enjoy your posts and hope someday my daughter has still has role models like you to look up to.

  • I don’t work in tech, but I read your blog because I am interested in the issues of voice & marginalization that you write about. Saying you speak for Microsoft would be like saying a professor speaks for her university – lazy reporting.

    Keep doing what you’re doing – there aren’t enough people willing to amply the voices of the marginalized in the corridors of decision making.

  • mindctrl

    Kudos to you. I really appreciate a lot of your work. With that said, I find myself in a similar position that you describe for yourself. I often critique assumptions that persist in society and the resulting policies.

    In the first paragraph you wrote, “What I most appreciate about my employer is that they allow me to speak my mind, even when we disagree.”. That sounds all fuzzy to the person who gives it no thought, but there’s something there. People think they’re owned by their employers. It’s a slave mentality. Why would anyone think they derive the right to speak their mind from their employer? Or even their right to speak from anyone else at all? The notion is the opposite of freedom. Drug testing, speaking your mind… it’s all the same. People submit to the tyranny of the corporate employer, propagating the myth that the employer is the master and the employee is some sort of slave without a choice. Don’t let that mindset taint your view of self-derived freedom. To derive your rights from anyone other than yourself is anti-freedom.

    Thanks for all you do.

  • Sadly, as a Microsoft employee I’ve had a similar experience.

    There is differing levels of maturity when it comes to “work vs. personal” in social media.

    I have purposely kept Microsoftees out of my personal Facebook & Twitter accounts, which is (I think) counter to the vision of these mediums.

  • maelorin

    i am hoping, that once i get this phd done and dusted, i’ll be able to go on to do more research. and that through that research and associated public engagement, i can also make a difference by asking questions of prevailing assumptions.

    i’m an ‘old school’ netizen, with a mess of academic and other credentials. i really enjoy asking questions and exploring assumptions. it part of why i became a scientist, a lawyer, an educator.

    google’s people are wrestling with an assumption that has been burrowing it’s way deeper into the way our lives are being (re)constructed through technologies. i am not the collection of facts that some like to call my ‘identity’, nor is that even a representation of any identity i might have from time to time. it’s the wrong language, and it distorts so much of the way people and organisations think about problems and solutions, and the technologies they employ along the way.

    we talk about people’s identities, and then talk about ‘authenticating’ an ‘identity’ as if the two uses of the word are the same. on a fundamental level, who i am at work is not the same as when i’m out getting pizza, or here typing this post: they are different personas, different expressions of my personality (in both senses of ‘personality’). google has confused and confounded name with person. i am every bit as real as ‘maelorin’ as i am with any other persona i adopt online or off. it is through my relationships that i manifest myself, not a collection of facts that anyone can dig up or collect or buy if they so choose.

    ‘real’ or ‘legal’ names are conveniences for certain official purposes. but to have to have all (or even some) of my online personas connected together because of a ‘community’ ‘policy’ … one that i had no hand in formulating, and no choice but to ‘accept’ to even be able to enter the community … that is at least as alienating as the enforced collision of some of my many selves. every one of us, in some way, falls into a minority group or potentially open to censure from others. freedom is meaningless unless we can be who we are, and choose where and when we are those personas.

    some people cannot or will not accept that it is normal for people to have more than one persona: to be the same person, yet not *be* exactly the same in every circumstance. but that view should not be a ‘community’ policy: especially when the ‘community’ has not been consulted about that policy. that’s more like a condition of entry or a monarch’s fiat than a statement of a community’s values.

  • Danah,

    An unrelated question, but something I wished to pose, given that you were an attendee at so many Burning Man festivals, Davos conferences, tech seminars etc, down through the years. My question is, do you think, you were part of some kind of out reach program to improve the audience diversity profile at things like Davos?

    I’m half kidding. Don’t take this question too seriously. If it gives you a smirk maybe, that’s all I intended to do. B.

    Helen Walters, Business Week wrote:

    “Twenty-six years in, TED is showing signs of age. One of the most conspicuous is the makeup of attendees, diverse only in that TED appears to attract a white man from every street in Silicon Valley. Other big-time conferences—the annual World Economic Forum in Davos among them—have struggled with similar issues, like: how to get more inclusive without sacrificing intimacy. How to keep loyalists happy while attracting a younger crowd closer to the headwaters of innovation. And how to get that younger crowd to pay six grand.”

    http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/10_09/b4168068827012.htm

  • Danah,

    One of my Linked In groups, featured this article by Helen Walters about who takes responsibility and spear heads the design thinking initiative inside of companies. Basically, it is asking whether designers have to become more like the corporate management. Or if management have to become more like designers. Or something like that. It isn’t a million miles away from your original blog entry above, in terms of the issues it looks into. I thought you might like a link to the fastcodedesign article anyhow. B.

    http://www.fastcodesign.com/1664511/can-innovation-really-be-reduced-to-a-process

  • I love that you quoted Ani Difranco at the end of this post. But then again, I know you’re a big Ani fan because, well…I read your bio(s).

  • does not make sense

    indeed your opinion is your own, but you are paid by microsoft to have that opinion. we do not see you have similar opinions on microsoft’s product. it could be a reflection that you think microsoft is irrelevant or it could be a reflection that you are paid by microsoft or it could be a reflection that microsoft does everything right. the last implication is hard to swallow.

    one can say they are not conflicted but conflict of interest always remain there. if you truly want to have your own opinion then why not stop taking a salary from a corporation and bash its competitor’s at every available opportunity. it is like ballmer is saying his comments are his when he bash about iphone or android. true. but he is paid to have that opinion just like you.

  • Danah,

    A young scientist you should investigate at some stage is Victoria Stodden. She is asking a lot of the same questions as yourself. Perhaps on a different level. But basically, about the same thing. About the kind of discussion that is possible in science today, in the age where computation is a part of many articles published in traditional journals. I was just reading this blog entry by Stodden this morning for instance.

    http://blog.stodden.net/2011/02/21/science-and-video-a-roadmap/

    Her talk to the Berkeley iSchool is extremely good. You should check it out some time. All the best. By the way, I think that during the credit bubble years, a trend developed whereby folk were ‘not allowed’ to hold basic day jobs, if they were to claim to be independent voices, or thinkers. This is a shallow philosophy in my opinion. Because, I know some of these people for a while (some are moderately famous and influential), and I don’t find them to be very independent in voice or thinking. Mainly, due to their stubborn need to conform to non-conformity.

    Non-conformity worn like a uniform, is worse than a hundred black suit wearing IBM sales reps, in my humble opinion. If someone’s precious independence is to be compromised by the mere action of accepting gainful employment, then I would ask, to what extent was that independent robust to begin with?