I’m delighted to see that the White House has just released its report on “big data” — “Big Data: Seizing Opportunities, Preserving Values” along with an amazing collection of supporting documents. This report is the culmination of a 90-day review by the Administration, spearheaded by Counselor John Podesta. I’ve had the fortune to be a part of this process and have worked hard to share what I know with Podesta and his team.
In January, shortly after the President announced his intention to reflect on the role of big data and privacy in society, I received a phone call from Nicole Wong at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, asking if I’d help run one of the three public conferences that the Administration hoped to co-host as part of this review. Although I was about to embark on a book tour, I enthusiastically agreed, both because the goal of the project aligned brilliantly with what I was hoping to achieve with my new Data & Society Research Institute and also because one does not say no when asked to help Nicole (or the President). We hadn’t intended to publicly launch Data & Society until June nor did we have all of the infrastructure necessary to run a large-scale event, but we had passion and gumption so we teamed up with the great folks at New York University’s Information Law Institute (directed by the amazing Helen Nissenbaum) and called on all sorts of friends and collaborators to help us out. It was a bit crazy at times, but we did it.
In under six weeks, our amazing team produced six guiding documents and crafted a phenomenal event called The Social, Cultural & Ethical Dimensions of “Big Data.” On our conference page, you can find an event summary, videos of the sessions, copies of the workshop primers and discussion notes, a zip file of important references, and documents that list participants, the schedule, and production team. This amazing event was made possible through the generous gifts and institutional support of: Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Ford Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Microsoft Research, and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (These funds were not solicited or collected on behalf of the Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP), or the White House. Acknowledgment of a contributor by the Data & Society Research Institute does not constitute an endorsement by OSTP or the White House.) Outcomes from this event will help inform the National Science Foundation-supported Council on Social, Legal, and Ethical aspects of Big Data (spearheaded by the conference’s steering committee: danah boyd, Geoffrey C. Bowker, Kate Crawford, and Helen Nissenbaum). And, of course, the event we hosted help shape the report that was released today.
Words cannot express how grateful I am to see the Administration seriously reflect on the issues of discrimination and power asymmetries as they grapple with both the potential benefits and consequences of data-centric technological development. Discrimination is a tricky issue, both because of its implications on individuals and because of what it means for society as a whole. In teasing out the issues of discrimination and big data, my colleague Solon Barocas pointed me to this fantastic quote by Alistair Croll:
Perhaps the biggest threat that a data-driven world presents is an ethical one. Our social safety net is woven on uncertainty. We have welfare, insurance, and other institutions precisely because we can’t tell what’s going to happen — so we amortize that risk across shared resources. The better we are at predicting the future, the less we’ll be willing to share our fates with others.
Navigating the messiness of “big data” requires going beyond common frames of public vs. private, collection vs. usage. Much to my frustration, the conversation around the “big data” phenomenon tends to get quickly polarized – it’s good or it’s bad, plain and simple. But it’s never that simple. The same tools that streamline certain practices and benefit certain individuals can have serious repercussions for other people and for our society as a whole. As the quote above hints at, what’s at stake is the very essence of our societal fabric. Building a healthy society in a data-centric world requires keeping one eye on the opportunities and one eye on the potential risks. While it’s not perfect, the report from the White House did a darn good job of striking this balance.
Not only did the White House team tease out many core issues for both public and private sector, but they helped scaffold a framework for policy makers. The recommendations they offer aren’t silver bullets, but they are reasonable first steps. Many will inevitably argue that they don’t go far enough (or, in some cases, go too far) – and I can definitely get nitpicky here – but that’s par for the course. This doesn’t damper my appreciation. I’m still uber grateful to see the Administration take the time to tease out the complexity of the issues and offer a path forward that is not simply polarizing.
Please take a moment to read this important report. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Data & Society would love to hear your thoughts. And if you’re curious to know more about what I’ll be doing next with this Research Institute, please join our newsletter.
Psst: Academics – check out the last line of the report ends on Page 68. Science and Technology Studies for teh win!
(Flickr credit: Stuart Richards)
Rule #2: Fear-mongering causes harm.
I believe in the enterprise of journalism, even when it lets me down in practice. The fourth estate is critically important for holding systems of power accountable. But what happens when journalists do harm?
On Sunday, a salacious article flew across numerous news channels. In print, it was given titles like “Teenagers can no longer tell the real world from the internet, study claims” (Daily Mail) and “Real world v online world: teens do not distinguish” (The Telegraph). This claim can’t even pass the basic sniff test, but it was picked up by news programs and reproduced on blogs.
The articles make reference to a “Digital Lives” study produced by Vodafone and Google, but there’s nothing in the articles themselves that even support the claims made by the headlines. No quotes from the authors, no explanation, no percentages (even though it’s supposedly a survey study). It’s not even remotely clear how the editors came up with that title because it’s 100% disconnected from the article itself.
So I decided to try to find the study. It’s not online. There’s a teaser page by the firm who appears to have run the study. Interestingly, they argue that the methodology was qualitative, not a survey. And it sounds like the study is about resilience and cyberbullying. Perhaps one of the conclusions is that teens don’t differentiate between bullying at school and cyberbullying? That would make sense.
Yesterday, I got a couple of pings about this study. Each time, I asked the journalist if they could find the study because I’d be happy to analyze it. Nada. No one had seen any evidence of the claim except for the salacious headline flying about. This morning, I went to do some TV for my book. Even though I had told the production team that this headline made no sense and there was no evidence to even support it, they continued to run with the story because the producer had decided that it was an important study. And yet, the best they could tell me is that they had reached out to the original journalist who said that he had interviewed the people who ran the study.
Why why why do journalists feel the need to spread these kinds of messages even once they know that there’s no evidence to support those claims? Is it the pressure of 24/7 news? Is it a Milgram-esque hierarchy where producers/editors push for messages and journalists/staffers conform even though they know better because they simply can’t afford to question their superiors given the state of journalism?
I’d get it if journalists really stood by their interpretations even though I disagreed with them. I can even stomach salacious headlines that are derived by the story. And as much as I hate fear-mongering in general, I can understand how it emerges from certain stories. But since when did the practice of journalism allow for uncritically making shit up? ::shaking head:: Where’s the fine line between poor journalism and fabrication?
As excited as I am to finally have my book out, it’s been painful to have to respond to some of the news coverage. I mean, it’s one thing to misunderstand cyberbullying but what reasonable person can possibly say with a straight face that today’s youth can no longer distinguish between the internet and everyday life!?!? Gaaaah.
(Image by Reuben Stanton)
When I started blogging in 1997, it was a social practice. It was something that my friend Andrew and I started doing connected to an independent study that we were taking at Brown. As a result, we read each other’s work and talked about it, online and off. My practice evolved over the years as I switched to LiveJournal and then forked my blogging into public and private practices. When blogging was “cool” in the mid-2000s, I was immersed in a blogging community where we were all reading and thinking about each other’s writing. As more and more people caught onto blogging, the practice became professionalized and my blog professionalized alongside that transformation. I still get angry and frustrated (“someone is wrong on the internet!!”) which prompts me to blog rants and essays, but blogging hasn’t really felt social in a long time. And I’ve been sad at how little I’ve written in recent years, especially as I reflect on all sorts of things happening around me.
A few weeks ago, the good folks at Medium came to me with an interesting proposal. They asked if I’d be willing to be a regular contributor to a collection they were putting together. Rather than simply offering me a platform with a large audience, they offered me something else: a small community to blog with. To my delight, that community included all sorts of old friends as well as folks who I don’t know but respect. Members of the group who are much funnier than I am concluded that the collection should be labeled: “The Message: A Pandaemonium Revolver Collection.”
This is an experiment. We’re trying to figure out what it means to incentivize each other in our writing, to spark ideas for each other, and to give feedback to each other as we blog about all sorts of things. For me, this is an opportunity to step back and think about blogging whatever’s on my mind – not just research-driven essays or angry rants, but reflections and commentary and all sorts of other good stuff. Per my agreement with Medium, I will not be reposting here what I blog there until 30 days after the post originally goes up on Medium. But hopefully this arrangement will allow me to start really engaging with the practice of blogging again.
I have just posted my first post: A Dazzling Film About Youth in the Early 20th Century, which is a review of the beautiful and brilliant new film “Teenage” which is currently making its rounds in independent theaters in the United States.
(This piece was written for the LA Times, where it was published as an op-ed on April 11, 2014.)
If you’re like most middle-class parents, you’ve probably gotten annoyed with your daughter for constantly checking her Instagram feed or with your son for his two-thumbed texting at the dinner table. But before you rage against technology and start unfavorably comparing your children’s lives to your less-wired childhood, ask yourself this: Do you let your 10-year-old roam the neighborhood on her bicycle as long as she’s back by dinner? Are you comfortable, for hours at a time, not knowing your teenager’s exact whereabouts?
What American children are allowed to do — and what they are not — has shifted significantly over the last 30 years, and the changes go far beyond new technologies.
If you grew up middle-class in America prior to the 1980s, you were probably allowed to walk out your front door alone and — provided it was still light out and you had done your homework — hop on your bike and have adventures your parents knew nothing about. Most kids had some kind of curfew, but a lot of them also snuck out on occasion. And even those who weren’t given an allowance had ways to earn spending money — by delivering newspapers, say, or baby-sitting neighborhood children.
All that began to change in the 1980s. In response to anxiety about “latchkey” kids, middle- and upper-class parents started placing their kids in after-school programs and other activities that filled up their lives from morning to night. Working during high school became far less common. Not only did newspaper routes become a thing of the past but parents quit entrusting their children to teenage baby-sitters, and fast-food restaurants shifted to hiring older workers.
Parents are now the primary mode of transportation for teenagers, who are far less likely to walk to school or take the bus than any previous generation. And because most parents work, teens’ mobility and ability to get together casually with friends has been severely limited. Even sneaking out is futile, because there’s nowhere to go. Curfew, trespassing and loitering laws have restricted teens’ presence in public spaces. And even if one teen has been allowed out independently and has the means to do something fun, it’s unlikely her friends will be able to join her.
Given the array of restrictions teens face, it’s not surprising that they have embraced technology with such enthusiasm. The need to hang out, socialize, gossip and flirt hasn’t diminished, even if kids’ ability to get together has.
After studying teenagers for a decade, I’ve come to respect how their creativity, ingenuity and resilience have not been dampened even as they have been misunderstood, underappreciated and reviled. I’ve watched teenage couples co-create images to produce a portrait of intimacy when they lack the time and place to actually kiss. At a more political level, I’ve witnessed undocumented youth use social media to rally their peers and personal networks to speak out in favor of the Dream Act, even going so far as to orchestrate school walkouts and local marches.
This does not mean that teens always use the tools around them for productive purposes. Plenty of youth lash out at others, emulating a pervasive culture of meanness and cruelty. Others engage in risky behaviors, seeking attention in deeply problematic ways. Yet, even as those who are hurting others often make visible their own personal struggles, I’ve met alienated LGBT youth for whom the Internet has been a lifeline, letting them see that they aren’t alone as they struggle to figure out whom to trust.
And I’m on the board of Crisis Text Line, a service that connects thousands of struggling youth with counselors who can help them. Technology can be a lifesaver, but only if we recognize that the Internet makes visible the complex realities of people’s lives.
As a society, we both fear teenagers and fear for them. They bear the burden of our cultural obsession with safety, and they’re constantly used as justification for increased restrictions. Yet, at the end of the day, their emotional lives aren’t all that different from those of their parents as teenagers. All they’re trying to do is find a comfortable space of their own as they work out how they fit into the world and grapple with the enormous pressures they face.
Viewed through that prism, it becomes clear how the widespread embrace of technology and the adoption of social media by kids have more to do with non-technical changes in youth culture than with anything particularly compelling about those tools. Snapchat, Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook may be fun, but they’re also offering today’s teens a relief valve for coping with the increased stress and restrictions they encounter, as well as a way of being with their friends even when their more restrictive lives keep them apart.
The irony of our increasing cultural desire to protect kids is that our efforts may be harming them. In an effort to limit the dangers they encounter, we’re not allowing them to develop skills to navigate risk. In our attempts to protect them from harmful people, we’re not allowing them to learn to understand, let alone negotiate, public life. It is not possible to produce an informed citizenry if we do not first let people engage in public.
Treating technology as something to block, limit or demonize will not help youth come of age more successfully. If that’s the goal, we need to collectively work to undo the culture of fear and support our youth in exploring public life, online and off.
(More comments can be found over at the LA Times.)
Last week, I wrote a provocative opinion piece for Quartz called “Is the Oculus Rift sexist?” I’m reposting it on my blog for posterity, but also because I want to address some of the critiques that I received. First, the piece itself:
Is the Oculus Rift sexist?
In the fall of 1997, my university built a CAVE (Cave Automatic Virtual Environment) to help scientists, artists, and archeologists embrace 3D immersion to advance the state of those fields. Ecstatic at seeing a real-life instantiation of the Metaverse, the virtual world imagined in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, I donned a set of goggles and jumped inside. And then I promptly vomited.
I never managed to overcome my nausea. I couldn’t last more than a minute in that CAVE and I still can’t watch an IMAX movie. Looking around me, I started to notice something. By and large, my male friends and colleagues had no problem with these systems. My female peers, on the other hand, turned green.
What made this peculiar was that we were all computer graphics programmers. We could all render a 3D scene with ease. But when asked to do basic tasks like jump from Point A to Point B in a Nintendo 64 game, I watched my female friends fall short. What could explain this?
At the time any notion that there might be biological differences underpinning computing systems was deemed heretical. Discussions of gender and computing centered around services like Purple Moon, a software company trying to entice girls into gaming and computing. And yet, what I was seeing gnawed at me.
That’s when a friend of mine stumbled over a footnote in an esoteric army report about simulator sickness in virtual environments. Sure enough, military researchers had noticed that women seemed to get sick at higher rates in simulators than men. While they seemed to be able to eventually adjust to the simulator, they would then get sick again when switching back into reality.
Being an activist and a troublemaker, I walked straight into the office of the head CAVE researcher and declared the CAVE sexist. He turned to me and said: “Prove it.”
The gender mystery
Over the next few years, I embarked on one of the strangest cross-disciplinary projects I’ve ever worked on. I ended up in a gender clinic in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, interviewing both male-to-female and female-to-male transsexuals as they began hormone therapy. Many reported experiencing strange visual side effects. Like adolescents going through puberty, they’d reach for doors—only to miss the door knob. But unlike adolescents, the length of their arms wasn’t changing—only their hormonal composition.
Scholars in the gender clinic were doing fascinating research on tasks like spatial rotation skills. They found that people taking androgens (a steroid hormone similar to testosterone) improved at tasks that required them to rotate Tetris-like shapes in their mind to determine if one shape was simply a rotation of another shape. Meanwhile, male-to-female transsexuals saw a decline in performance during their hormone replacement therapy.
Along the way, I also learned that there are more sex hormones on the retina than in anywhere else in the body except for the gonads. Studies on macular degeneration showed that hormone levels mattered for the retina. But why? And why would people undergoing hormonal transitions struggle with basic depth-based tasks?
Two kinds of depth perception
Back in the US, I started running visual psychology experiments. I created artificial situations where different basic depth cues—the kinds of information we pick up that tell us how far away an object is—could be put into conflict. As the work proceeded, I narrowed in on two key depth cues – “motion parallax” and “shape-from-shading.”
Motion parallax has to do with the apparent size of an object. If you put a soda can in front of you and then move it closer, it will get bigger in your visual field. Your brain assumes that the can didn’t suddenly grow and concludes that it’s just got closer to you.
Shape-from-shading is a bit trickier. If you stare at a point on an object in front of you and then move your head around, you’ll notice that the shading of that point changes ever so slightly depending on the lighting around you. The funny thing is that your eyes actually flicker constantly, recalculating the tiny differences in shading, and your brain uses that information to judge how far away the object is.
In the real world, both these cues work together to give you a sense of depth. But in virtual reality systems, they’re not treated equally.
The virtual-reality shortcut
When you enter a 3D immersive environment, the computer tries to calculate where your eyes are at in order to show you how the scene should look from that position. Binocular systems calculate slightly different images for your right and left eyes. And really good systems, like good glasses, will assess not just where your eye is, but where your retina is, and make the computation more precise.
It’s super easy—if you determine the focal point and do your linear matrix transformations accurately, which for a computer is a piece of cake—to render motion parallax properly. Shape-from-shading is a different beast. Although techniques for shading 3D models have greatly improved over the last two decades—a computer can now render an object as if it were lit by a complex collection of light sources of all shapes and colors—what they they can’t do is simulate how that tiny, constant flickering of your eyes affects the shading you perceive. As a result, 3D graphics does a terrible job of truly emulating shape-from-shading.
Tricks of the light
In my experiment, I tried to trick people’s brains. I created scenarios in which motion parallax suggested an object was at one distance, and shape-from-shading suggested it was further away or closer. The idea was to see which of these conflicting depth cues the brain would prioritize. (The brain prioritizes between conflicting cues all the time; for example, if you hold out your finger and stare at it through one eye and then the other, it will appear to be in different positions, but if you look at it through both eyes, it will be on the side of your “dominant” eye.)
What I found was startling (pdf). Although there was variability across the board, biological men were significantly more likely to prioritize motion parallax. Biological women relied more heavily on shape-from-shading. In other words, men are more likely to use the cues that 3D virtual reality systems relied on.
This, if broadly true, would explain why I, being a woman, vomited in the CAVE: My brain simply wasn’t picking up on signals the system was trying to send me about where objects were, and this made me disoriented.
My guess is that this has to do with the level of hormones in my system. If that’s true, someone undergoing hormone replacement therapy, like the people in the Utrecht gender clinic, would start to prioritize a different cue as their therapy progressed. 1
We need more research
However, I never did go back to the clinic to find out. The problem with this type of research is that you’re never really sure of your findings until they can be reproduced. A lot more work is needed to understand what I saw in those experiments. It’s quite possible that I wasn’t accounting for other variables that could explain the differences I was seeing. And there are certainly limitations to doing vision experiments with college-aged students in a field whose foundational studies are based almost exclusively on doing studies solely with college-age males. But what I saw among my friends, what I heard from transsexual individuals, and what I observed in my simple experiment led me to believe that we need to know more about this.
I’m excited to see Facebook invest in Oculus, the maker of the Rift headset. No one is better poised to implement Stephenson’s vision. But if we’re going to see serious investments in building the Metaverse, there are questions to be asked. I’d posit that the problems of nausea and simulator sickness that many people report when using VR headsets go deeper than pixel persistence and latency rates.
What I want to know, and what I hope someone will help me discover, is whether or not biology plays a fundamental role in shaping people’s experience with immersive virtual reality. In other words, are systems like Oculus fundamentally (if inadvertently) sexist in their design?
Response to Criticism
1. “Things aren’t sexist!”
Not surprisingly, most people who responded negatively to my piece were up in arms about the title. Some people directed that at Quartz which was somewhat unfair. Although they originally altered the title, they reverted to my title within a few hours. My title was intentionally, “Is the Oculus Rift sexist?” This is both a genuine question and a provocation. I’m not naive enough to not think that people would react strongly to the question, just as my advisor did when I declared VR sexist almost two decades ago. But I want people to take that question seriously precisely because more research needs to be done.
Sexism is prejudice or discrimination on the basis of sex (typically against women). For sexism to exist, there does not need to be an actor intending to discriminate. People, systems, and organizations can operate in sexist manners without realizing it. This is the basis of implicit or hidden biases. Addressing sexism starts by recognizing bias within systems and discrimination as a product of systems in society.
What was interesting about what I found and what I want people to investigate further is that the discrimination that I identified is not intentional by scientists or engineers or simply the product of cultural values. It is a byproduct of a research and innovation cycle that has significant consequences as society deploys the resultant products. The discriminatory potential of deployment will be magnified if people don’t actively seek to address it, which is precisely why I drudged up this ancient work in this moment in time.
I don’t think that the creators of Oculus Rift have any intentions to discriminate against women (let alone the wide range of people who currently get nauseous in their system which is actually quite broad), but I think that if they don’t pay attention to the depth cue prioritization issues that I’m highlighting or if they fail to actively seek technological redress, they’re going to have a problem. More importantly, many of us are going to have a problem. All too often, systems get shipped with discriminatory byproducts and people throw their hands in the air and say, “oops, we didn’t intend that.”
I think that we have a responsibility to identify and call attention to discrimination in all of its forms. Perhaps I should’ve titled the piece “Is Oculus Rift unintentionally discriminating on the basis of sex?” but, frankly, that’s nothing more than an attempt to ask the question I asked in a more politically correct manner. And the irony of this is that the people who most frequently complained to me about my titling are those who loathe political correctness in other situations.
I think it’s important to grapple with the ways in which sexism is not always intentional but at the vary basis of our organizations and infrastructure, as well as our cultural practices.
2. The language of gender
I ruffled a few queer feathers by using the terms “transsexual” and “biological male.” I completely understand why contemporary transgender activists (especially in the American context) would react strongly to that language, but I also think it’s important to remember that I’m referring to a study from 1997 in a Dutch gender clinic. The term “cisgender” didn’t even exist. And at that time, in that setting, the women and men that I met adamantly deplored the “transgender” label. They wanted to make it crystal clear that they were transsexual, not transgender. To them, the latter signaled a choice.
I made a choice in this essay to use the language of my informants. When referring to men and women who had not undergone any hormonal treatment (whether they be cisgender or not), I added the label of “biological.” This was the language of my transsexually-identified informants (who, admittedly, often shortened it to “bio boys” and “bio girls”). I chose this route because the informants for my experiment identified as female and male without any awareness of the contested dynamics of these identifiers.
Finally, for those who are not enmeshed in the linguistic contestations over gender and sex, I want to clarify that I am purposefully using the language of “sex” and not “gender” because what’s at stake has to do with the biological dynamics surrounding sex, not the social construction of gender.
Get angry, but reflect and engage
Critique me, challenge me, tell me that I’m a bad human for even asking these questions. That’s fine. I want people to be provoked, to question their assumptions, and to reflect on the unintentional instantiation of discrimination. More than anything, I want those with the capacity to take what I started forward. There’s no doubt that my pilot studies are the beginning, not the end of this research. If folks really want to build the Metaverse, make sure that it’s not going to unintentionally discriminate on the basis of sex because no one thought to ask if the damn thing was sexist.
As a researcher and parent, I quickly learned that I have no patience for parenting books. When I got pregnant, I started trying to read parenting books and I threw more than my fair share of them across the room. I either get angry at the presentation of the science or annoyed at the dryness of the writing. Worse, the prescriptions make me furious because anyone who tells you that there’s a formula to parenting is lying. My hatred of parenting books was really disappointing because I didn’t want to have to do a literature review whenever I wanted to know what research said about XYZ. I actually want to understand what the science says about key issues of child development, childrearing, and parenting. But I can’t stomach the tone of what I normally encounter.
So when I learned that Dalton Conley was writing a book on parenting, my eyebrows went up. I’ve always been a huge fan of his self-deprecating autobiographical book Honky because it does such a fantastic job of showcasing research on race and class. This made me wonder what he was going to do with a book on parenting.
Conley did not disappoint. His new book Parentology is the first parenting book that I’ve read that I actually enjoyed and am actively recommending to others. Conley’s willingness to detail his own failings, neuroses, and foolish logic (and to smack himself upside the head with research data in the process) showcases the trials and tribulations of parenting. Even experts make a mess of everything, but watching them do so so spectacularly lets us all off the hook. If you read this book, you will learn a lot about parenting, even if it doesn’t present the material in a how-to fashion. Instead, this book highlights the chaos that ensues when you try to implement science on the ground. Needless to say, hilarity ensues.
If you need some comedy relief, pick up this book. It’s a fantastic traversal of contemporary research presented in a fashion that will have you rolling on the floor laughing. Lesson #1: If you buy your children pet guinea pigs to increase their exposure to allergens, make sure that they’re unable to mate.
Most people who encounter a link to this post will never read beyond this paragraph. Heck, most people who encountered a link to this post didn’t click on the link to begin with. They simply saw the headline, took note that someone over 30 thinks that maybe Snapchat is important, and moved onto the next item in their Facebook/Twitter/RSS/you-name-it stream of media. And even if they did read it, I’ll never know it because they won’t comment or retweet or favorite this in any way.
We’ve all gotten used to wading in streams of social media content. Open up Instagram or Secret on your phone and you’ll flick on through the posts in your stream, looking for a piece of content that’ll catch your eye. Maybe you don’t even bother looking at the raw stream on Twitter. You don’t have to because countless curatorial services like digg are available to tell you what was most important in your network. Facebook doesn’t even bother letting you see your raw stream; their algorithms determine what you get access to in the first place (unless, of course, someone pays to make sure their friends see their content).
Snapchat offers a different proposition. Everyone gets hung up on how the disappearance of images may (or may not) afford a new kind of privacy. Adults fret about how teens might be using this affordance to share inappropriate (read: sexy) pictures, projecting their own bad habits onto youth. But this is isn’t what makes Snapchat utterly intriguing. What makes Snapchat matter has to do with how it treats attention.
When someone sends you an image/video via Snapchat, they choose how long you get to view the image/video. The underlying message is simple: You’ve got 7 seconds. PAY ATTENTION. And when people do choose to open a Snap, they actually stop what they’re doing and look.
In a digital world where everyone’s flicking through headshots, images, and text without processing any of it, Snapchat asks you to stand still and pay attention to the gift that someone in your network just gave you. As a result, I watch teens choose not to open a Snap the moment they get it because they want to wait for the moment when they can appreciate whatever is behind that closed door. And when they do, I watch them tune out everything else and just concentrate on what’s in front of them. Rather than serving as yet-another distraction, Snapchat invites focus.
Furthermore, in an ecosystem where people “favorite” or “like” content that is inherently unlikeable just to acknowledge that they’ve consumed it, Snapchat simply notifies the creator when the receiver opens it up. This is such a subtle but beautiful way of embedding recognition into the system. Sometimes, a direct response is necessary. Sometimes, we need nothing more than a simple nod, a way of signaling acknowledgement. And that’s precisely why the small little “opened” note will bring a smile to someone’s face even if the recipient never said a word.
Snapchat is a reminder that constraints have a social purpose, that there is beauty in simplicity, and that the ephemeral is valuable. There aren’t many services out there that fundamentally question the default logic of social media and, for that, I think that we all need to pay attention to and acknowledge Snapchat’s moves in this ecosystem.
(This post was originally published on LinkedIn. More comments can be found there.)
I wrote the following op-ed for TIME Magazine. This was published in the March 13, 2014 issue under the title “Let Kids Run Wild Online.” To my surprise and delight, the op-ed was featured on the cover of the magazine.
Trapped by helicopter parents and desperate to carve out a space of their own, teens need a place to make mistakes.
Bicycles, roller skates and skateboards are dangerous. I still have scars on my knees from my childhood run-ins with various wheeled contraptions. Jungle gyms are also dangerous; I broke my left arm falling off one. And don’t get me started on walking. Admittedly, I was a klutzy kid, but I’m glad I didn’t spend my childhood trapped in a padded room to protect me from every bump and bruise.
“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” But parents can’t handle it when teenagers put this philosophy into practice. And now technology has become the new field for the age-old battle between adults and their freedom-craving kids.
Locked indoors, unable to get on their bicycles and hang out with their friends, teens have turned to social media and their mobile phones to gossip, flirt and socialize with their peers. What they do online often mirrors what they might otherwise do if their mobility weren’t so heavily constrained in the age of helicopter parenting. Social media and smartphone apps have become so popular in recent years because teens need a place to call their own. They want the freedom to explore their identity and the world around them. Instead of sneaking out (should we discuss the risks of climbing out of windows?), they jump online.
As teens have moved online, parents have projected their fears onto the Internet, imagining all the potential dangers that youth might face–from violent strangers to cruel peers to pictures or words that could haunt them on Google for the rest of their lives.
Rather than helping teens develop strategies for negotiating public life and the potential risks of interacting with others, fearful parents have focused on tracking, monitoring and blocking. These tactics don’t help teens develop the skills they need to manage complex social situations, assess risks and get help when they’re in trouble. Banning cell phones won’t stop a teen who’s in love cope with the messy dynamics of sexting. “Protecting” kids may feel like the right thing to do, but it undermines the learning that teens need to do as they come of age in a technology-soaked world.
The key to helping youth navigate contemporary digital life isn’t more restrictions. It’s freedom–plus communication. Famed urban theorist Jane Jacobs used to argue that the safest neighborhoods were those where communities collectively took interest in and paid attention to what happened on the streets. Safety didn’t come from surveillance cameras or keeping everyone indoors but from a collective willingness to watch out for one another and be present as people struggled. The same is true online.
What makes the digital street safe is when teens and adults collectively agree to open their eyes and pay attention, communicate and collaboratively negotiate difficult situations. Teens need the freedom to wander the digital street, but they also need to know that caring adults are behind them and supporting them wherever they go. The first step is to turn off the tracking software. Then ask your kids what they’re doing when they’re online–and why it’s so important to them.
As promised, I put a free PDF copy of “It’s Complicated” on my website the day the book officially launched. But as some folks noticed, I didn’t publicize this when I did so. For those who are curious as to why, I want to explain. And I want you to understand the various issues at play for me as an author and a youth advocate.
I didn’t write this book to make money. I wrote this book to reach as wide of an audience as I possibly could. This desire to get as many people as engaged as possible drove every decision I made throughout this process. One of the things that drew me to Yale was their willingness to let me put a freely downloadable CC-licensed copy of the book online on the day the book came out. I knew that trade presses wouldn’t let a first time author pull that one off. Heck, they still get mad at Paulo Coelho for releasing his books online and he’s sold more books worldwide than anyone else!
As I prepared for publication, it became clear that I really needed other people’s help in getting the word out. I needed journalistic enterprises to cover the book. I needed booksellers to engage with the book. I needed people to collectively signal that this book was important. I needed people to be willing to take a bet on me. When one of those allies asked me to wait a week before publicizing the free book, I agreed.
If you haven’t published a book before, it’s pretty unbelievable to see all of the machinery that goes into getting the book out once the book exists in physical form. News organizations want to promote books that will be influential or spark a conversation, but they are also anxious about having their stories usurped by others. Booksellers make risky decisions about how many copies they think they can sell ahead of time and order accordingly. (And then there’s the world of paying for placement which I simply didn’t do.) Booksellers’ orders – as well as actual presales – are influential in shaping the future of a book, just like first weekend movie sales matter. For example, these sales influence bestseller and recommendation lists. These lists are key to getting broader audiences’ attention (and for getting the attention of certain highly influential journalistic enterprises). And, as an author trying to get a message out, I realized that I needed to engage with this ecosystem and I needed all of these actors to believe in my book.
The bestseller aspect of this is the part that I struggle with the most. I don’t actually care whether or not my book _sells_ a lot; I care whether or not it’s _read_ a lot. But there’s no bestread-ed list (except maybe Goodreads). And while many books that are widely sold aren’t widely read, most books that are widely read are widely sold. My desire to be widely read is why I wanted to make the book freely available from the getgo. I get that not everyone can afford to buy the book. I get that it’s not available in certain countries. I get that people want to check it out first. I get that we haven’t figured out how to implement ‘grep’ in physical books. So I really truly get the importance of making the book accessible.
But what I started to realize is that when people purchase the book, they signal to outside folks that the book is important. This is one of the reasons that I asked people who value this book to buy it. For them or for others. I love it when people buy the book and give it away to a poor grad student, struggling parent, or library. I don’t know if I’ll make any bestseller list, but the reason I decided to try is because sales rankings – especially in the first few weeks of a book’s life – really do help attract more attention which is key to getting the word out. And so I’ve begged and groveled, asking people to buy my book even though it makes me feel squeamish, solely because I know that the message that I want to offer is important. So, to be honest, if you are going to buy the book at some point, I’d really really appreciate it if you’d buy a copy. And sooner rather than later. Your purchasing decisions help me signal to the powers that be that this book is important, that the message in the book is valuable.
That said, if you don’t have the resources or simply don’t want to, don’t buy it. I’m cool with that. I’m beyond delighted to give the book away for free to anyone who wants to read it, assign it in their classes, or otherwise engage with it. If you choose to download it, thank you! I’m glad you find it valuable!
If you feel like giving back, I have a request. Please help support all of the invisible people and organizations that helped get word of my book out there. I realize that there are folks out there who want to “support the author,” but my ask of you is to help me support the whole ecosystem that made this possible.
Go buy a different book from Yale University Press to thank them for being willing to publish me. Buy a random book from an independent bookseller to say thank you (especially if you live near Harvard Book Store, Politics & Prose, or Book People). Visit The Guardian and click on their ads to thank them for running a first serial. Donate to NPR for their unbelievable support in getting the word out. Buy a copy or click on the ads of BoingBoing, Cnet, Fast Company, Financial Times, The Globe & Mail, LA Times, Salon, Slate, Technology Review, The Telegraph, USA Today, Wired, and the other journalistic venues whose articles aren’t yet out to thank them for being so willing to cover this book. Watch the ads on Bloomberg and MSNBC to send them a message of thanks. And take the time to retweet the tweets or write a comment on the blogs of the hundreds of folks who have been so kind to write about this book in order to get the word out. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to all of the amazing people and organizations who have helped me share what I’ve learned. Please shower them in love.
If you want to help me, spread the message of my book as wide as you possibly can. I wrote this book so that more people will step back, listen, and appreciate the lives of today’s teenagers. I want to start a conversation so that we can think about the society that we’re creating. I will be forever grateful for anything that you can do to get that message out, especially if you can help me encourage people to calm down and let teenagers have some semblance of freedom.
More than anything, thank *you* soooo much for your support over the years!!! I am putting this book up online as a gift to all of the amazing people who have been so great to me for so long, including you. Thank you thank you thank you.
PS: Some folks have noticed that Amazon seems to not have any books in stock. There was a hiccup but more are coming imminently. You could wait or you could support IndieBound, Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, or your local bookstore.
Today is the official publication date of “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens”. While many folks have received their pre-orders already, this is the date in which all U.S. book stores that promised to carry the book at launch should have a copy. It’s also the day in which I officially start my book tour in Cambridge.
In many ways, I’m thinking of my book tour as a thank-you tour. I’m trying to visit as many cities as I can that have been really good to me over the years. Some are cities where I was educated. Some are field site cities. Some are places where there are people who have been angels in my life. But I sadly won’t get everywhere. Although the list of events is not complete, I have discussions underway to be in the following cities this spring: Cambridge, DC, Seattle, Austin, Nashville, Berkeley/SF, Providence, Charlottesville, and Chicago. After that, I’m going to need to take a break. But I’m really hoping to see lots of friends and allies in the cities I visit. And I want to offer a huge apology to those outside of the US who have been so amazing to me. Given my goal of seeing my young son every week amidst this crazy, I simply can’t do an international tour right now.
I know that I won’t be able to get everywhere and I know folks have been asking me for signed copies, so I want to make an offer. Buy a book this week and send it to me and I will sign it and send it back to you signed. You can either buy it from your favorite bookseller and then mail it to me or have it shipped directly from your favorite online retailer.
641 6th Ave, 7th Floor
New York, NY 10011
When you send me the book, include a note (“gift note” for online retailers) that includes your name, email (in case something goes wrong), snail mail address for shipment, and anything I should know when signing the book.
If you have a local bookseller that’s selling it, start there. If you’d prefer to use an online retailer, my book is now available at:
Thank you soooo much for all of your amazing support over the years! I wrote this book to share all that I’ve learned over the years, in the hopes that it will prompt people to step back and appreciate teens’ lives from their perspective. My goal is to share this book as widely as possible precisely because so many teens are struggling to get their voices heard. Fingers crossed that we can get this book into the hands of many people this week and that this, in turn, will prompt folks to spread the message further!