This summer, with NSA scandal after NSA scandal, the public has (thankfully) started to wake up to issues of privacy, surveillance, and monitoring. We are living in a data world and there are serious questions to ask and contend with. But part of what makes this data world messy is that it’s not so easy as to say that all monitoring is always bad. Over the last week, I’ve been asked by a bunch of folks to comment on the report that a California school district hired an online monitoring firm to watch its students. This is a great example of a situation that is complicated.
The media coverage focuses on how the posts that they are monitoring are public, suggesting that this excuses their actions because “no privacy is violated.” We should all know by now that this is a terrible justification. Just because teens’ content is publicly accessible does not mean that it is intended for universal audiences nor does it mean that the onlooker understands what they see. (Alice Marwick and I discuss youth privacy dynamics in detail in “Social Privacy in Networked Publics”.) But I want to caution against jumping to the opposite conclusion because these cases aren’t as simple as they might seem.
Consider Tess’ story. In 2007, she and her friend killed her mother. The media reported it as “girl with MySpace kills mother” so I decided to investigate the case. For 1.5 years, she documented on a public MySpace her struggles with her mother’s alcoholism and abuse, her attempts to run away, her efforts to seek help. When I reached out to her friends after she was arrested, I learned that they had reported their concerns to the school but no one did anything. Later, I learned that the school didn’t investigate because MySpace was blocked on campus so they couldn’t see what she had posted. And although the school had notified social services out of concern, they didn’t have enough evidence to move forward. What became clear in this incident – and many others that I tracked – is that there are plenty of youth crying out for help online on a daily basis. Youth who could really benefit from the fact that their material is visible and someone is paying attention.
Many youth cry out for help through social media. Publicly, often very publicly. Sometimes for an intended audience. Sometimes as a call to the wind for anyone who might be paying attention. I’ve read far too many suicide notes and abuse stories to believe that privacy is the only frame viable here. One of the most heartbreaking was from a girl who was commercially sexually exploited by her middle class father. She had gone to her school who had helped her go to the police; the police refused to help. She published every detail on Twitter about exactly what he had done to her and all of the people who failed to help her. The next day she died by suicide. In my research, I’ve run across too many troubled youth to count. I’ve spent many a long night trying to help teens I encounter connect with services that can help them.
So here’s the question that underlies any discussion of monitoring: how do we leverage the visibility of online content to see and hear youth in a healthy way? How do we use the technologies that we have to protect them rather than focusing on punishing them? We shouldn’t ignore youth who are using social media to voice their pain in the hopes that someone who cares might stumble across their pleas.
Urban theorist Jane Jacobs used to argue that the safest societies are those where there are “eyes on the street.” What she meant by this was that healthy communities looked out for each other, were attentive to when others were hurting, and were generally present when things went haywire. How do we create eyes on the digital street? How do we do so in a way that’s not creepy? When is proactive monitoring valuable for making a difference in teens’ lives? How do we make sure that these same tools aren’t abused for more malicious purposes?
What matters is who is doing the looking and for what purposes. When the looking is done by police, the frame is punitive. But when the looking is done by caring, concerned, compassionate people – even authority figures like social workers – the outcome can be quite different. However well-intended, law enforcement’s role is to uphold the law and people perceive their presence as oppressive even when they’re trying to help. And, sadly, when law enforcement is involved, it’s all too likely that someone will find something wrong. And then we end up with the kinds of surveillance that punishes.
If there’s infrastructure put into place for people to look out for youth who are in deep trouble, I’m all for it. But the intention behind the looking matters the most. When you’re looking for kids who are in trouble in order to help them, you look for cries for help that are public. If you’re looking to punish, you’ll misinterpret content, take what’s intended to be private and publicly punish, and otherwise abuse youth in a new way.
Unfortunately, what worries me is that systems that are put into place to help often get used to punish. There is often a slippery slope where the designers and implementers never intended for it to be used that way. But once it’s there….
So here’s my question to you. How can we leverage technology to provide an additional safety net for youth who are struggling without causing undue harm? We need to create a society where people are willing to check in on each other without abusing the power of visibility. We need more eyes on the street in the Jacbos-ian sense, not in the surveillance state sense. Finding this balance won’t be easy but I think that it behooves us to not jump to extremes. So what’s the path forward?
(I discuss this issue in more detail in my upcoming book “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.” You can pre-order the book now!)
Ziv Lotan Boyd was born into this world shortly after midnight on Sunday, July 28 after a movie-esque labor (complete with a NYC cabbie running honking like mad and running red lights to prevent me from delivering in the cab). The little ball of cuteness entered this world at a healthy 7 pounds, 13 ounces and we’re both healthy. We’re all doing well as we recover.
As per my maternity note, I have no idea what the days ahead may bring but please understand that I may be non-responsive for a while, especially when it comes to work-related requests. If you need my attention for something work related, please wait a while before approaching me. Thanks!
As I prepare to go on parental leave, I’ve been forced to contend with countless well-intended people telling me how to “do it right” (or tsk tsking me as though I’m already “doing it wrong”). I’m a lot better at keeping my Bad Attitude Bear self at bay these days, but I’m still stunned by the barrage of conflicting and condescending advice that my bulging tummy elicits. Even after decades of forging my own path and managing to make things work, I apparently cannot be entrusted to find a way to have a child and be a researcher. And yowsers does my “play it by ear” approach raise everyone’s hackles.
I am the first to admit that I have zero clue of how I will feel after I deliver my child. I don’t know how my body will react to childbirth. I don’t know how I will feel about spending all day with a newborn. I don’t know how easy or hard things like nursing or sleep will be. The one thing that I know for certain is that there is tremendous variation among parents and children and that nothing is predictable. Yet, this doesn’t stop people from projecting onto me how I should feel afterwards. As a researcher, I very much appreciate their diverse experiences, pleasures, and challenges and so I try not to bristle at the universalizing that unfolds from that.
Part of what makes hearing everyone’s commentary hard to stomach is that I feel super fortunate to have a level of flexibility that few people I know have. At Microsoft, I have phenomenal benefits that allow me to take many weeks – actually months – of leave. My boss at Microsoft Research is one of the most supportive people that I know. And I’ve worked hard to close out group projects and otherwise eliminate dependencies so that I could take leave without impacting others. I’ve planned for uncertainty and I feel like I have tremendous flexibility. So I feel safe and comfortable waiting to see how things unfold.
But my refusal to commit to exactly how I will do maternity leave doesn’t stop folks from being opinionated. I may be back on email within a week or two. I may not be. I may be back to working on research puzzles that tickle my brain in short order. I may not be. I happen to love my research and nothing gives me greater joy that having thought provoking conversations and thinking through ideas. But if I suggest that I may engage in any act that someone else calls “work,” I’m condemned for being a workaholic who will be a bad mother. Given my profession, I usually get some crass comment comparing me to Marissa Mayer. Or I get an eyeroll or a condescending chortle followed by a series of remarks about how childbirth will change my priorities, my values, and every aspect of my life. In other words, what I hear over and over again is that my identity as researcher will be wholly incompatible with my identity as mother and I should be prepared to give up the former because the latter is clearly better.
What’s with this incessant judgmentalness? Why does it make people feel better to project their values and anxieties onto others? And what happened to a feminism that was about “choice” rather than about “doing it right”?
I hate that the logic of assessment and evaluation has pervaded our society so extensively than people feel the need to proselytize a rubric for things like childrearing and maternity leave. There’s no single right path, no perfect decision. When we set mothers up for someone’s fantasy of an ideal, everyone loses, including the child.
I wish more new mothers out there had even a fraction of the choices that I have. I wish more companies would work with their employees to help them create a flexible schedule because so much is unknown. I wish more bosses would be so supportive and willing to juggle things to find a way to make things work regardless of what happens. In other words, I wish that we had a remotely sane work culture. I’m lucky enough to be a part of one but that’s so rare.
At the same time, I also wish that those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to make choices wouldn’t have to face such oppressive condescension and critique from those who feel as though, because our system is fundamentally flawed and unjust, anyone with freedom and flexibility should be choosing to completely walk away from work in order to be a “good” mother. I hate that it’s all black-or-white, work or don’t work, mother or employee. This sets everyone up to fail and be miserable in the process. Few people live such a polarized binary life.
Rather than going to extremes around all things parenting, I really wish that we could truly enable people to have choices. Not faux choices where they’re pressured by bosses or colleagues to continue working even though they technically have leave. Nor the kind of situation where they’re pressured by friends or family or society to behave in a prescribed way. But true choice where they can work out what’s right for them and their families and balance what matters. I realize that we’re a long way from this pipe dream, but I can’t help but think that we collectively undermine choice whenever we condemn those who have choice for making choices that differ from our own.
More selfishly, I wish people would just be supportive of me playing things by ear because who knows what the upcoming weeks and months have to offer. I, for one, am looking forward to finding out.
Image from Flickr by Joe Green
Originally posted to LinkedIn. More comments reside there.
Like many other civil liberties advocates, I’ve been annoyed by how the media has spilled more ink talking about Edward Snowden than the issues that he’s trying to raise. I’ve grumbled at the “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” reality show and the way in which TV news glosses over the complexities that investigative journalists have tried to publish as the story unfolded. But then a friend of mine – computer scientist Nadia Heninger – flipped my thinking upside down with a simple argument: Snowden is offering the public a template for how to whistleblow; leaking information is going to be the civil disobedience of our age.
In recent years, increasing numbers of concerned citizens have been coming forward as whistleblowers, pointing out questionable acts by the American government agencies and corporations. The current administration has responded to this practice by prosecuting more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act than all previous presidents combined. Most of what leakers share is barely heard by the public. For example, most people don’t know who Mark Klein is even though he publicly shared information that showed that his former employer – AT&T – was working with the NSA to analyze Americans’ phone calls in violation of citizens’ privacy. The news coverage he got in 2006 was significant to advocates, but the public doesn’t know his name or even realize that Verizon wasn’t the first telecom to share extensively with the NSA.
The public is more likely to have heard of Bradley Manning, mostly because Julian Assange has managed to keep himself – and, thus, the issues at hand – in the news. Debates about WikiLeaks meant that the coverage of the diplomatic cable leaks were a story that journalists covered for more than a second. Julian Assange’s questionable morality and arrogance complicated that story, allowing anti-leakers to undermine the credibility and intentions of all who were involved. At the same time, his antics enabled an ongoing media circus which has meant that people are at least aware of the frame of leaking, even if they think poorly of Assange and, by proxy, Manning. Manning may have been silenced but his decisions continue to be discussed, for better and for worse.
Snowden has presented the public with a different case study. Although many anti-leakers have worked hard to portray him as a dropout / misfit / uneducated fool, that hasn’t stuck. At best, people have managed to tar him through his association with Wikileaks and his willingness to go to countries that are perceived as American foes (China, Russia, Venezuela, Ecuador, etc.). Not only does this narrative – as well as the American governmental response – suggest that Cold War attitudes are still ever-present, but it also puts American arrogance on display. Blocking the Bolivian president’s access to airspace and searching his plane didn’t help.
As this drama has played out, Snowden has become a walking diplomatic incident. Even though he has been disciplined and thoughtful in what he has shared, revealing little more than advocacy organizations have suspected or known for a long time and sharing vague documents that don’t fully make sense, every ounce of American political might has been operationalized to go after him as a serious threat, piquing curiosity about what else he knows and what he might do. Most likely, had he just revealed what he revealed and then disappeared, it would’ve been a news story for a week and then been quickly forgotten. But because the focus is on him, aspects of what he’s tried to argue keep dripping through the salacious coverage of his whereabouts.
More importantly though, as Nadia pointed out to me, he’s creating a template for how to share information. He’s clearly learned from previous whistleblowers and is using many of their tactics. But he’s also forged his own path which has had its own follies. Regardless of whether he succeeds or fails in getting asylum somewhere, he’s inspired others to think about how they can serve as a check to power. And this is terrifying for any government.
Ironically, the government’s efforts to deter future whistleblowers by being tough on Snowden is most likely to backfire. This kind of zero-tolerance approach assumes that those who are engaging in whistleblowing are operating under the same logic, priorities, and values as government actors. Sure, plenty of people don’t come forward because they’re too scared; that’s not new. But because of how the government responded to Snowden, those who are willing to take on the big fight now have a model for how to do it, how to iterate based on what they learned watching Snowden. The US government, far from deterring future whistleblowers, has just incentivized a new generation of them by acting like a megalomaniac.
And this is where I think that Nadia’s second point is of serious importance. People growing up with the internet understand that information is power. Those who’ve watched protests in recent years know that traditional physical civil disobedience doesn’t create the iconic narratives and images that it once did. And thus, not surprisingly, what it means to protest is changing. This is further complicated by an increased obsession with secrecy – secret courts, secret laws, secret practices – that make using the rule of law to serve as a check to power ineffective. Thus, questioning authority by leaking information that shows that power is being abused becomes a more valuable and notable form of civil disobedience. As with all forms of civil disobedience, there are significant consequences. But when secrecy is what’s being challenged, the biggest risk is not being beaten by a police officer for staging an event, but being disappeared or silenced by the institutions being challenged or embarrassed. And thus, as much as I hate to accept it, becoming a diplomatic incident is extraordinarily powerful not just for self-protection, but also as a way to make sure that the media doesn’t lose interest in the issues at play.
I want to live in a society that is willing to critically interrogate how power is operationalized and how institutions and the rule of law function as a check to power. To me, this is an essential aspect of democracy. Unchecked power is how dictatorships emerge. If the rule of law is undermined and secrecy becomes the status quo, it becomes necessary for new civil disobedience tactics to emerge. And, more than the content of the leaks, this is what I think that we’re watching unfold.
This post was originally posted on Medium.
Every April, I try to wade through mounds of paperwork to file my taxes. Like most Americans, I’m trying to follow the law and pay all of the taxes that I owe without getting screwed in the process. I try and make sure that every donation I made is backed by proof, every deduction is backed by logic and documentation that I’ll be able to make sense of three to seven years later. Because, like many Americans, I completely and utterly dread the idea of being audited. Not because I’ve done anything wrong, but the exact opposite. I know that I’m filing my taxes to the best of my ability and yet, I also know that if I became a target of interest from the IRS, they’d inevitably find some checkbox I forgot to check or some subtle miscalculation that I didn’t see. And so what makes an audit intimidating and scary is not because I have something to hide but because proving oneself to be innocent takes time, money, effort, and emotional grit.
Sadly, I’m getting to experience this right now as Massachusetts refuses to believe that I moved to New York mid-last-year. It’s mindblowing how hard it is to summon up the paperwork that “proves” to them that I’m telling the truth. When it was discovered that Verizon (and presumably other carriers) was giving metadata to government officials, my first thought was: wouldn’t it be nice if the government would use that metadata to actually confirm that I was in NYC not Massachusetts. But that’s the funny thing about how data is used by our current government. It’s used to create suspicion, not to confirm innocence.
The frameworks of “innocent until proven guilty” and “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” are really really important to civil liberties, even if they mean that some criminals get away. These frameworks put the burden on the powerful entity to prove that someone has done something wrong. Because it’s actually pretty easy to generate suspicion, even when someone is wholly innocent. And still, even with this protection, innocent people are sentenced to jail and even given the death penalty. Because if someone has a vested interest in you being guilty, it’s often viable to paint that portrait, especially if you have enough data. Just watch as the media pulls up random quotes from social media sites whenever someone hits the news to frame them in a particular light.
It’s disturbing to me how often I watch as someone’s likeness is constructed in ways that contorts the image of who they are. This doesn’t require a high-stakes political issue. This is playground stuff. In the world of bullying, I’m astonished at how often schools misinterpret situations and activities to construct narratives of perpetrators and victims. Teens get really frustrated when they’re positioned as perpetrators, especially when they feel as though they’ve done nothing wrong. Once the stakes get higher, all hell breaks loose. In “Sticks and Stones”, Emily Bazelon details how media and legal involvement in bullying cases means that they often spin out of control, such as they did in South Hadley. I’m still bothered by the conviction of Dharun Ravi in the highly publicized death of Tyler Clementi. What happens when people are tarred and feathered as symbols for being imperfect?
Of course, it’s not just one’s own actions that can be used against one’s likeness. Guilt-through-association is a popular American pastime. Remember how the media used Billy Carter to embarrass Jimmy Carter? Of course, it doesn’t take the media or require an election cycle for these connections to be made. Throughout school, my little brother had to bear the brunt of teachers who despised me because I was a rather rebellious students. So when the Boston marathon bombing occurred, it didn’t surprise me that the media went hogwild looking for any connection to the suspects. Over and over again, I watched as the media took friendships and song lyrics out of context to try to cast the suspects as devils. By all accounts, it looks as though the brothers are guilty of what they are accused of, but that doesn’t make their friends and other siblings evil or justify the media’s decision to portray the whole lot in such a negative light.
So where does this get us? People often feel immune from state surveillance because they’ve done nothing wrong. This rhetoric is perpetuated on American TV. And yet the same media who tells them they have nothing to fear will turn on them if they happen to be in close contact with someone who is of interest to – or if they themselves are the subject of – state interest. And it’s not just about now, but it’s about always.
And here’s where the implications are particularly devastating when we think about how inequality, racism, and religious intolerance play out. As a society, we generate suspicion of others who aren’t like us, particularly when we believe that we’re always under threat from some outside force. And so the more that we live in doubt of other people’s innocence, the more that we will self-segregate. And if we’re likely to believe that people who aren’t like us are inherently suspect, we won’t try to bridge those gaps. This creates societal ruptures and undermines any ability to create a meaningful republic. And it reinforces any desire to spy on the “other” in the hopes of finding something that justifies such an approach. But, like I said, it doesn’t take much to make someone appear suspect.
In many ways, the NSA situation that’s unfolding in front of our eyes is raising a question that is critical to the construction of our society. These issues cannot be washed away by declaring personal innocence. A surveillance state will produce more suspect individuals. What’s at stake has to do with how power is employed, by whom, and in what circumstances. It’s about questioning whether or not we still believe in checks and balances to power. And it’s about questioning whether or not we’re OK with continue to move towards a system that presumes entire classes and networks of people as suspect. Regardless of whether or not you’re in one of those classes or networks, are you OK with that being standard fare? Because what is implied in that question is a much uglier one: Is your perception of your safety worth the marginalization of other people who don’t have your privilege?
As an activist, a geek, and a privacy scholar, I’ve been watching the NSA scandal unfold with a mixture of curiosity, outrage, and skepticism. I don’t feel as though I have enough information yet to make an informed opinion about exactly what the State is doing or how tech companies are involved, let alone the implications of these procedures. But one thing I do know is that most Americans are going to shrug their shoulders and move on while most of my friends are going to rally for increased transparency, governmental oversight, corporate commitments to resist governmental abuse, and efforts to better inform the public. And although I share all of their values and desires, I also feel the need to reflect on why I think that our activism as it is currently constructed is not going to rally the mainstream.
Whenever I asked my British grandfather any ethical question about his military service, I received one consistent reply: “for God and country.” He was a bomber pilot. And as a young activist, I couldn’t understand how he could table any ethics questions that way. So many innocent people died as a byproduct of his efforts to kill off Nazis. I never doubted the value of his service, but didn’t he every wonder about the random people who were killed in the process? No. “For God and country.”
I’m consistently amazed by how many Americans, who distrust the State’s “socialist” agenda, are fully supportive of any effort by the State to protect citizens from “terrorists” and other perceived miscreants. All too often, this is often cloaked in prejudicial language, focused on a narrative of “them” that is marked as other because of race, ethnicity, or religion. Ironically, even though it’s discussed as being about citizens vs. the other, naturalized citizens and children of naturalized citizens often get categorized as the other when their race, ethnicity, or religion is part of the broader feared other.
Embedded in this desire to be protected from the other is people’s belief that the State will never use sweeping power to surveil them or their friends, only the other. Some people recognize that they may end up in the large databases, but they assume they’ll be thrown away because they’re irrelevant. And besides, they’ve done nothing wrong. They have nothing to hide. Christianity often plays a role here, as people feel as though they’re already being watched and judged for their actions. And this is how we get back to “for God and country.”
When people view the State – or its military – as being a source of good to protect the populace from evil, they’re often willing to accept that actions will be taken to enhance security that may result in surveillance. They don’t necessarily see this as a trade-off between civil liberties and security because they don’t think that they’ll feel any restriction on *their* civil liberties. Rather, only people who’ve done something wrong will. And thus anyone who does feel a restriction on civil liberties must be doing something wrong.
On the flipside, I’m always astonished by how normative surveillance is in poverty-stricken communities. Surveillance is common place and many poor people are used to having to fork over tremendous amounts of personal information to get social services. And, in communities defined by practices like “stop and frisk,” the idea of not being watched and targeted is completely alien. So when these groups find out that the State is monitoring mediated interactions, why should they be surprised? Why should they react? From their perspective, it’s just another tool for the State to do what they’ve always been doing, only perhaps without the direct costs to dignity that many of these people face on a regular basis.
So who will be outraged? Who will be shocked? Who will be surprised? Mostly, I expect, my friends. All told, my friends are a highly educated, highly connected, highly privileged lot who are passionate about changing the world through making, educating, research, and activism. By and large, my friends’ only negative interactions with law enforcement are through protesting or other efforts to stand up to The Man. They expect civil liberties to protect them as they push for causes that they believe are just. They know (at least in theory) that the legal process is broken for less privileged people, but they still expect that it’ll work for them. Or they at least believe that they can call on their networks to bail them out, publicize their case, and generally support them to right any wrong. They have a widespread faith in fairness and justice, even when they’re fighting to combat inequality and injustice.
No activist wants to hear about secret abuses of power because it tilts the playing field, rendering challenges to the status quo even more difficult. Even when those very same activists have a healthy paranoia and believe that their foes are secretly abusing power. But “proof” is different. “Proof” is a rallying call, a justification for long-standing and difficult efforts to speak truth to power. “Proof” reinforces one’s beliefs, while also serving as fuel for being angry that more people don’t get angry. But it also blinds people from seeing why others don’t necessarily jump on their bandwagon because of their own values, beliefs, and assumptions.
I’m glad that my friends are energized and determined to fight harder to make a more just world. And I understand why they’re scared and angry by the potential of what’s being revealed. We’re all easy targets to watch because we’re loudspoken and we extensively use technology to coordinate our change-making efforts. And our networks are full of people who are politically suspect. Particularly activists, hackers, and foreign nationals from problematic nations. In many ways, we’re more the targets of the panopticon than so-called terrorists. Because destabilizing our privilege and belief in justice means that we can be controlled by fear. And so while I suspect that my friends will continue to speak of civil liberties and marginalized peoples, I can’t help but wonder if these kinds of revelations have more implications for activists than for anyone else. And if that’s the case, then what?
Update 9 June 2013 @ 5:53PM: Today, Edward Snowden revealed that he is a patriotic American and the NSA whistleblower. This is most likely going to change every aspect of what unfolds, how the American public reacts, and what the long term implications of this story are. But, at this point, it’s hard to tell exactly where the chips will fall. I am hopeful that this means more people will engage. At the same time, I’m even more afraid for my activist friends. But I don’t yet have the foggiest clue of what the implications of all of this will mean.
This post was originally written for LinkedIn; see comments there.
Have you ever returned from vacation more stressed out than when you left? Is the reason because you came home to 10,000 email messages that managed to convey high pitched anxiety even in text (with a few exclamation points to add pressure)? Vacations should be a break from the insanity, not a procrastination of it.
Years ago, I realized that when I went on vacation, I needed a real break. I didn’t want to be tethered via email or social media. I wanted to go offline. But I also wanted to come back without the onslaught of messages that would take me weeks to unbury myself from. So I started instituting email sabbaticals. The idea is simple: turn off your email. Set up a filter and Send all messages to /dev/null (a.k.a. the Trash). Send a bounce message telling people their message wasn’t received and that they should resend it after X date or send you the contents via snail mail.
Of course, if you just turn off your email with no warning, you’re bound to piss off your friends, family, colleagues, and clients. So here are some tips to successfully taking an email sabbatical:
- Step 1: Schedule a vacation. A vacation is not a long weekend. You need time to decompress. Schedule it ahead of time. I recommend at least two weeks so that you can really relax. You’ll spend the first week of it still shell-shocked from stepping away from the computer anyhow.
- Step 2: Communicate with colleagues. Long before you’re headed out on vacation, tell people that you intend to be gone from X to Y dates. I tell collaborators months in advance so that I can make sure that we’re on the same page and that they have everything they need.
- Step 3: Manage expectations. Talk to everyone who relies on you. Schedule a meeting before you leave and schedule one for when you return. Agree on the to-dos and create a contingency plan for issues that might arise while you’re unreachable.
- Step 4: Create a backdoor for emergencies. Identify someone that is willing to serve as a buffer for you that you can check in with every 3 or so days who people will be afraid to contact unless it’s an emergency. I use my mother for this one. Colleagues feel weird about calling your mother, but they’ll do it if it’s an emergency. This is a good safety net if you don’t feel like you can be out-of-reach for that long.
- Step 5: Send a final warning note. A week or two before you depart, send a note out to everyone reminding them that you’re about to leave in case they need anything from you. And then turn on your out-of-office notice to warn people that you’re about to disappear into the void. That way, you catch any notable issues.
- Step 6: Make your email go poof! I’m a geek. My procmail file is absurd, but you don’t need to be a geek to make your email go into a blackhole. Add an away message / auto-responder that will catch people’s attention and inform them that you’re gone and that their message will never be received. Then filter ALL of your email like you would if it were spam. Use your favorite mail program to send everything straight to the Trash. Bye-bye!
- Step 7: Disappear. For realz. Seriously, take a vacation. You need it. There’s nothing like a vacation to rejuvenate and make you better at your job. If you come back refreshed, you’ll have better ideas and be more on top of your game. This isn’t a gimmick to sell you a self-help manual. This is basic logic. We’re all overworked and maxed out and when we’re stressed, we don’t function well. Use your vacation days. Use them well. Cherish them. And don’t work while you’re on vacation. That. Defeats. The. Point.
- Step 8: Re-entry. When you’re back, quietly turn everything off. Reach out to the people who depend on you the most for a check-in. Make sure to schedule time to give them what they need. Be attentive, be supportive, be vacation-refreshed calm.
Communication is the key to an email sabbatical. Disappearing without properly making certain that everyone has what they need is irresponsible and disrespectful and people will get pissed off. They’ll be offended. They’ll think you’re all high and mighty. But when you go through steps to make sure everyone’s covered, it’s amazing at how well people respond. And, often, they too start taking email sabbaticals, guaranteeing everyone gets the reset they need.
People often ask me if I’m frantic about the thousands of emails I must’ve missed. Again, because I’m a geek and use procmail, I have log data. What’s funny is that, aside from the first 48 hours where people like to test my bounce message, people stop sending me email. With all of these steps in place, people actually leave me alone.
Are there things I miss? Sure. But I don’t fear missing out because I know how important it is to truly, genuinely, actually take a break. Being burnt out sucks. When I’m burnt out, I’m a crappy employee, a dreadful friend, and a terrible person to be around. It’s well worth missing out on a few things in order to make sure that I’m who I want to be.
So go ahead, don’t be afraid, don’t make excuses. Take a vacation. And take an email sabbatical!
Flickr Credit: Ahmed Amir
In February, I had the great fortune to visit the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation as part of their “What’s Next Health” series. I gave a talk raising a series of critical questions for those working on health issues. The folks at RWJF have posted my talk, along with an infographic of some of the challenges I see coming down the pipeline.
They also asked me to write a brief blog post introducing some of my ideas, based on one of the questions that I asked in the lecture. I’ve reposted it here, but if this interests you, you should really go check out the talk over at RWJF’s page.
RWJF’s What’s Next Health: Who Do We Trust?
We live in a society that is more networked than our grandparents could ever have imagined. More people have information at their fingertips than ever before. It’s easy to see all of this potential and celebrate the awe-some power of the internet. But as we think about the intersection of technology and society, there are so many open questions and challenging conundrums without clear answers. One of the most pressing issues has to do with trust, particularly as people turn to the internet and social media as a source of health information. We are watching shifts in how people acquire information. But who do they trust? And is trust shifting?
Consider the recent American presidential election, which is snarkily referred to as “post-factual.” The presidential candidates spoke past one another, refusing to be pinned down. News agencies went into overdrive to fact-check each statement made by each candidate, but the process became so absurd that folks mostly just gave up trying to get clarity. Instead, they focused on more fleeting issues like whether or not they trusted the candidates.
In a world where information is flowing fast and furious, many experience aspects of this dynamic all the time. People turn to their friends for information because they do not trust what’s available online. I’ve interviewed teenagers who, thanks to conversations with their peers and abstinence-only education, genuinely believe that if they didn’t get pregnant the last time they had sex, they won’t get pregnant this time. There’s so much reproductive health information available online, but youth turn to their friends for advice because they trust those “facts” more.
The internet introduces the challenges of credibility but it also highlights the consequences of living in a world of information overload, where the issue isn’t whether or not the fact is out there and available, but how much effort a person must go through to manage making sense of so much information. Why should someone trust a source on the internet if they don’t have the tools to assess the content’s credibility? It’s often easier to turn to friends or ask acquaintances on Facebook for suggestions. People use the “lazy web” because friends are more likely to respond quickly and make sense than trying to sort out what’s available through Google.
As we look to the future, organizations that focus on the big issues — like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation — need to think about what it means to create informed people in a digital era. How do we spread accurate information through networks? How do we get people to trust abstract entities that have no personal role in their lives?”
Questions around internet and trust are important: What people know and believe will drive what they do and this will shape their health.
The beauty of this moment, with so many open questions and challenges, is that we are in a position to help shape the future by delicately navigating these complex issues. Thus, we must be asking ourselves: How can we collectively account for different stakeholders and empower people to make the world a better place?
Yesterday, Pew Internet and American Life Project (in collaboration with Berkman) unveiled a brilliant report about “Teens, Social Media, and Privacy.” As a researcher who’s been in the trenches on these topics for a long time now, none of their finding surprised me but it still gives me absolute delight when our data is so beautifully in synch. I want to quickly discuss two important issues that this report raise.
Race is a factor in explaining differences in teen social media use.
Pew provides important measures on shifts in social media, including the continued saturation of Facebook, the decline of MySpace, and the rise of other social media sites (e.g., Twitter, Instagram). When they drill down on race, they find notable differences in adoption. For example, they highlight data that is the source of “black Twitter” narratives: 39% of African-American teens use Twitter compared to 23% of white teens.
Most of the report is dedicated to the increase in teen sharing, but once again, we start to see some race differences. For example, 95% of white social media-using teens share their “real name” on at least one service while 77% of African-American teens do. And while 39% of African-American teens on social media say that they post fake information, only 21% of white teens say they do this.
Teens’ practices on social media also differ by race. For example, on Facebook, 48% of African-American teens befriend celebrities, athletes, or musicians while one 25% of white teen users do.
While media and policy discussions of teens tend to narrate them as an homogenous group, there are serious and significant differences in practices and attitudes among teens. Race is not the only factor, but it is a factor. And Pew’s data on the differences across race highlight this.
Of course, race isn’t actually what’s driving what we see as race differences. The world in which teens live is segregated and shaped by race. Teens are more likely to interact with people of the same race and their norms, practices, and values are shaped by the people around them. So what we’re actually seeing is a manifestation of network effects. And the differences in the Pew report point to black youth’s increased interest in being a part of public life, their heightened distrust of those who hold power over them, and their notable appreciation for pop culture. These differences are by no means new, but what we’re seeing is that social media is reflecting back at us cultural differences shaped by race that are pervasive across America.
Teens are sharing a lot of content, but they’re also quite savvy.
Pew’s report shows an increase in teens’ willingness to share all sorts of demographic, contact, and location data. This is precisely the data that makes privacy advocates anxious. At the same time, their data show that teens are well-aware of privacy settings and have changed the defaults even if they don’t choose to manage the accessibility of each content piece they share. They’re also deleting friends (74%), deleting previous posts (59%), blocking people (58%), deleting comments (53%), detagging themselves (45%), and providing fake info (26%).
My favorite finding of Pew’s is that 58% of teens cloak their messages either through inside jokes or other obscure references, with more older teens (62%) engaging in this practice than younger teens (46%). This is the practice that I’ve seen significantly rise since I first started doing work on teens’ engagement with social media. It’s the source of what Alice Marwick and I describe as “social steganography” in our paper on teen privacy practices.
While adults are often anxious about shared data that might be used by government agencies, advertisers, or evil older men, teens are much more attentive to those who hold immediate power over them – parents, teachers, college admissions officers, army recruiters, etc. To adults, services like Facebook that may seem “private” because you can use privacy tools, but they don’t feel that way to youth who feel like their privacy is invaded on a daily basis. (This, btw, is part of why teens feel like Twitter is more intimate than Facebook. And why you see data like Pew’s that show that teens on Facebook have, on average 300 friends while, on Twitter, they have 79 friends.) Most teens aren’t worried about strangers; they’re worried about getting in trouble.
Over the last few years, I’ve watched as teens have given up on controlling access to content. It’s too hard, too frustrating, and technology simply can’t fix the power issues. Instead, what they’ve been doing is focusing on controlling access to meaning. A comment might look like it means one thing, when in fact it means something quite different. By cloaking their accessible content, teens reclaim power over those who they know who are surveilling them. This practice is still only really emerging en masse, so I was delighted that Pew could put numbers to it. I should note that, as Instagram grows, I’m seeing more and more of this. A picture of a donut may not be about a donut. While adults worry about how teens’ demographic data might be used, teens are becoming much more savvy at finding ways to encode their content and achieve privacy in public.
Anyhow, I have much more to say about Pew’s awesome report, but I wanted to provide a few thoughts and invite y’all to read it. If there is data that you’re curious about or would love me to analyze more explicitly, leave a comment or drop me a note. I’m happy to dive in more deeply on their findings.
I’m a big believer in taking breaks from work, research, and my mediated life to travel, trek, and explore. Years ago, I implemented email sabbaticals to give myself space to take time off without being overwhelmed by the ongoing flow of emails and expectations. I documented the process because too many people assumed that I just disappeared, unannounced, leaving my colleagues and friends in a lurch. Actually, email sabbaticals are a process because they have stages where I make sure that everyone who depends on me is taken care of before I disappear into the void. I typically announce them to colleagues 3-6 months ahead of time and give a public warning 6 weeks ahead of time. And then I have a process upon return where I check in with folks. When I disappear, my goal is to never leave people that depend on me faltering. This isn’t a perfect process, but I’ve found that letting people know well ahead of time guarantees that I finish out projects and account for commitments before taking time off without the lingering stress of unfinished business.
Normally, when I plan on taking a massive break, I know the dates well ahead of time and can help everyone plan and prepare. I’m now facing a different dilemma. I know that sometime in the next n weeks, I’m going to take some serious time off. The problem is that I’m not quite sure exactly when that will occur nor am I exactly sure how long I will be gone or how much I will want to be off email. Y’see, rather than taking a vacation this summer, I’m planning on having a baby.
As folks who have seen me in recent months know, I’m pregnant, due August 3. I look pretty silly, particularly given that I’m a klutz and managed to obtain a lisfranc injury on top of my bulging belly which means that I look like a whale on a scooter. But I’m still chugging along, finishing out writing projects (the book is in copyediting right now!) and starting new ones (nom nom trouble). I’m planning on taking parental leave when the kiddo arrives, but I’m not yet sure how long I’ll want to be focused solely on being a parent. Given my love of research, I expect that I’ll ease back in to email and projects throughout the fall. And I plan to start traveling again with a spectacular book tour when the book launches in early 2014. But I also know that I’m entering a world of uncertainty.
I don’t intend to detail my life as a mother on this blog because, frankly, I don’t want to. But I do want to give y’all a heads up that I intend to disappear for a bit when the time comes. So if there are things you need from me this summer or early fall, perhaps ping me sooner rather than later. And please understand that when I do get to finally meet the kiddo, I will probably be pretty inattentive to email and the internets for a while. I suspect that this will look and feel differently than my email sabbaticals, but I still don’t want to leave people in a lurch. So I wanted to give y’all a heads up.
A new adventure awaits! Thanks for your patience!