I call this year my year of triplets. Over the last few months, I had my first child, finished my book, and kickstarted a research institute.
In planning this year, one of the things that I promised myself was that when Ziv was giggly and smiley, I would take a proper holiday and get to know him better. That time has come. Ziv, Gilad, and I are off to Argentina for a month of trekking and rejuvenation.
Those who know me know that I take vacations very seriously. They’re how I find center so that I can come back refreshed enough to take things to the next level. 2014 promises to be an intense year. It’ll begin with a book tour and then I’ll transition into launching Data & Society properly.
Before I jump into the awesome intensity of what’s to come, I need a break. A real break. The kind of break where I can let go of all of my worries and appreciate the present. To do this, I’m taking one of my email sabbaticals. This means that my email will be turned off. No emails will get through and none will be waiting for me when I return. I know that this seems weird to those who don’t work with me but I’ve worked hard to close down threads and create backup plans so that I can come home without needing to wade through digital hell.
If you’re hoping to reach me, here are four options:
- Resend your email after January 10. Sorry for the inconvenience.
- If you want it waiting for me, send me a snail mail: danah boyd / Microsoft Research / 641 6th Ave, 7th Floor, NY NY 10011
- For Data & Society inquiries: contact Seth Young at info [at] datasociety.net
- For “It’s Complicated” questions: contact Elizabeth Pelton at lizpelton [at] gmail
The one person that I will be in touch with while on vacation is my mom. Mom’s worry and that’s just not fair.
I’m deeply grateful for all of the amazing people who have made 2013 such a phenomenal year. With a bit of R&R, I hope to make 2014 just as magical. Have a fantastic holiday season! Lots of love and kisses!
Over the last six months, I’ve been working to create the Data & Society Research Institute to address the social, technical, ethical, legal, and policy issues that are emerging because of data-centric technological development. We’re still a few months away from launching the Institute, but we’re looking to identify the inaugural class of fellows. If you know innovative thinkers and creators who have a brilliant idea that needs a good home and are excited by the possibility of helping shape a new Institute, can you let them know about this opportunity?
The Data & Society Research Institute is a new think/do tank in New York City dedicated to addressing social, technical, ethical, legal, and policy issues that are emerging because of data-centric technological development.
Data & Society is currently looking to assemble its inaugural class of fellows. The fellowship program is intended to bring together an eclectic network of researchers, entrepreneurs, activists, policy creators, journalists, geeks, and public intellectuals who are interested in engaging one another on the key issues introduced by the increasing availability of data in society. We are looking for a diverse group of people who can see both the opportunities and challenges presented by access to data and who have a vision for a project that can inform the public or shape the future of society.
Applications for fellowships are due January 24, 2014. To learn more about this opportunity, please see our call for fellows.
On a separate, but related note, I lurve my employer; my ability to create this Institute is only possible because of a generous gift from Microsoft.
Various academic folks keep writing to me asking me if I coined “context collapse” and so I went back in my record to try to figure it out. I feel the need to offer up my understanding of how this term came to be in an artifact that is more than 140 characters since folks keep asking anew. The only thing that I know for certain is that, even if I did (help) coin the term, I didn’t mean to. I was mostly trying to help explain a phenomenon that has long existed and exists in even more complicated ways as a result of social media.
In 2002, I wrote a thesis at the MIT Media Lab called “Faceted Id/entity” that drew heavily on the works of Erving Goffman and Joshua Meyrowitz. In it, I wrote an entire section talking about “collapsed contexts” and I kept coming back to this idea (descriptively without ever properly defining it). My thesis was all about contexts and the ways of managing identity in different contexts. I was (am) absolutely in love with Meyrowitz’s book “No Sense of Place” which laid out the challenges of people navigating multiple audiences as a result of media artifacts (e.g., stories around vacation photos).
Going back through older files, I found powerpoints from various talks that I gave in 2003 and 2004 that took the concept of “collapsed contexts” to Friendster to talk about what happened when the Burners and gay men and geeks realized they were on the site together. And an early discussion of how there are physical collapsed contexts that are addressed through the consumption of alcohol. In a few of my notes in these, I swapped the term to “context collapse” when referring to the result but I mostly used “collapsed contexts.”
Articles that I was writing from 2005-2008 still referred to “collapsed contexts.” (See: Profiles as Conversation and Friends, Friendsters, and Top 8, and my dissertation.) My dissertation made “collapsed contexts” a central concept.
In 2009, Alice Marwick and I started collaborating. She was fascinated by the arguments I was making in my dissertation on collapsed contexts and imagined audiences and started challenging me on aspects of them through her work on micro-celebrity. She collected data about how Twitter users navigated audiences and we collaborated on a paper called “I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience” which was submitted in 2009 and finally published in 2011. To the best that I can tell, this is the first time that I used “context collapse” instead of “collapsed contexts” in published writing, but I have no recollection as to why we shifted from “collapsed contexts” to “context collapse.”
Meanwhile, in 2009, Michael Wesch published an article called “YouTube and You: Experiences of Self-awareness in the Context Collapse of the Recording Webcam” that goes back to Goffman. While we ran in the same circles, I’m not sure that either one of us was directly building off of the other but we were clearly building off of common roots. (Guiltily, I must admit that I didn’t know about or read this article of his until much later and long after Alice and I wrote our paper. And I have no idea whether or not he read my papers where I discussed “collapsed contexts.”)
When I refer to context collapse now, I often point back to Joshua Meyrowitz because he’s the one that helped that concept really click in my head, even if he didn’t call it “collapsed contexts” or “context collapse.” As with many academic concepts, I see the notion of “context collapse” as being produced iteratively through intellectual interaction as opposed to some isolated insight that just appeared out of nowhere. I certainly appreciate the recognition that I’ve received for helping others think about these issues, but I’m very much hand-in-hand with and standing on the shoulders of giants.
If others have more insights into how this came into being, please let me know and I will update accordingly!
It’s about that time of the year for me. The time when I escape from the digital world into the wilderness in order to refresh. As many of you know, I am a firm believer in the power of vacations. Not to escape work, but to enable my brain to reboot. I purposefully seek boredom so that my brain starts itching. This, for me, is the root of my creativity and ability to be productive.
2014 is going to be an intense year. I’m ecstatic that my book – “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens” – will be published in February. I can’t wait to share this with y’all and I’m in the process of setting up a whirlwind tour to accompany the launch (more will be posted on my book website shortly). Additionally, I’m starting an exciting new project that I can’t wait to tell you about. But before throwing myself head first into these activities, I’m going to take some time to get my head in the game.
This post is intended to be a pre-warning that I will be offline and taking an email sabbatical from December 13-January 10. What this means is that during this period, I will not be reachable and my INBOX will be set to not receive emails. If you need anything from me during this period, now is the time to ask.
For those who aren’t familiar with my email sabbaticals, check out this post. The reason that I do sabbaticals is because I’ve found that closing down everything and starting fresh is key. Coming home to thousands of emails that require sorting through has proven to be impossible, overwhelming, and disappointing for everyone who expects a response. So I shut it all down and start fresh. During this period, you can still send me snail mail if you’d like to get it off your plate. And if it’s uber uber urgent, you can track down my mom; I’ll touch base with her every few days. But my goal will be to refresh. And that way, we can have a magically exciting 2014!
(Originally written for TIME Magazine)
We’re afraid of and afraid for teenagers. And nothing brings out this dualism more than discussions of how and when teens should be allowed to participate in public life.
Last week, Facebook made changes to teens’ content-sharing options. They introduced the opportunity for those ages 13 to 17 to share their updates and images with everyone and not just with their friends. Until this change, teens could not post their content publicly even though adults could. When minors select to make their content public, they are given a notice and a reminder in order to make it very clear to them that this material will be shared publicly. “Public” is never the default for teens; they must choose to make their content public, and they must affirm that this is what they intended at the point in which they choose to publish.
Representatives of parenting organizations have responded to this change negatively, arguing that this puts children more at risk. And even though the Pew Internet & American Life Project has found that teens are quite attentive to their privacy, and many other popular sites allow teens to post publicly (e.g. Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr), privacy advocates are arguing that Facebook’s decision to give teens choices suggests that the company is undermining teens’ privacy.
But why should youth not be allowed to participate in public life? Do paternalistic, age-specific technology barriers really protect or benefit teens?
One of the most crucial aspects of coming of age is learning how to navigate public life. The teenage years are precisely when people transition from being a child to being an adult. There is no magic serum that teens can drink on their 18th birthday to immediately mature and understand the world around them. Instead, adolescents must be exposed to — and allowed to participate in — public life while surrounded by adults who can help them navigate complex situations with grace. They must learn to be a part of society, and to do so, they must be allowed to participate.
Most teens no longer see Facebook as a private place. They befriend anyone they’ve ever met, from summer-camp pals to coaches at universities they wish to attend. Yet because Facebook doesn’t allow youth to contribute to public discourse through the site, there’s an assumption that the site is more private than it is. Facebook’s decision to allow teens to participate in public isn’t about suddenly exposing youth; it’s about giving them an option to treat the site as being as public as it often is in practice.
Rather than trying to protect teens from all fears and risks that we can imagine, let’s instead imagine ways of integrating them constructively into public life. The key to doing so is not to create technologies that reinforce limitations but to provide teens and parents with the mechanisms and information needed to make healthy decisions. Some young people may be ready to start navigating broad audiences at 13; others are not ready until they are much older. But it should not be up to technology companies to determine when teens are old enough to have their voices heard publicly. Parents should be allowed to work with their children to help them navigate public spaces as they see fit. And all of us should be working hard to inform our younger citizens about the responsibilities and challenges of being a part of public life. I commend Facebook for giving teens the option and working hard to inform them of the significance of their choices.
(Originally written for TIME Magazine)
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?