Unless you were off the internet yesterday, it’s old news that WhatsApp was purchased by Facebook for a gobsmacking $16B + $3B in employee payouts. And the founder got a board seat. I’ve been mulling over this since the news came out and I can’t get past my initial reaction: WTF?
Messaging apps are *huge* and there’s little doubt that WhatsApp is the premier player in this scene. Other services – GroupMe, Kik, WeChat, Line, Viber – still have huge user numbers, but nothing like WhatsApp (although some of them have even more sophisticated use cases). 450M users and growing is no joke. And I have no doubt that WhatsApp will continue on its meteoric rise, although, as Facebook knows all too well, there are only so many people on the planet and only so many of them have technology in their pockets (even if it’s a larger number than those who have bulky sized computers).
Unlike other social media genres, messaging apps emerged in response to the pure stupidity and selfishness of another genre: carrier-driven SMS. These messaging apps solve four very real problems:
- Carriers charge a stupidly high price for text messaging (especially photo shares) and haven’t meaningfully lowered that rate in years.
- Carriers gouge customers who want to send texts across international borders.
- Carriers often require special packages for sending group messages and don’t inform their customers when they didn’t receive a group message.
- Carriers have never bothered innovating around this cash cow of theirs.
So props to companies building messaging apps for seeing an opportunity to route around carrier stupidity.
I also get why Facebook would want to buy WhatsApp. They want to be the company through which consumers send all social messages, all images, all chats, etc. They want to be the central social graph. And they’ve never managed to get people as passionate about communicating through their phone app as other apps, particularly in the US. So good on them for buying Instagram and allowing its trajectory to continue skyrocketing. That acquisition made sense to me, even if the price was high, because the investment in a photo sharing app based on a stream and a social graph and mechanism for getting feedback is huge. People don’t want to lose those comments, likes, and photos.
But I must be stupid because I just can’t add up the numbers to understand the valuation of WhatsApp. The personal investment in the app isn’t nearly as high. The photos get downloaded to your phone, the historical chats don’t necessarily need to stick around (and disappear entirely if a child accidentally hard resets your phone as I learned last week). The monitization play of $.99/year after the first year is a good thing and not too onerous for most users (although I’d be curious what kind of app switching happens then for the younger set or folks from more impoverished regions). But that doesn’t add up to $19B + a board seat. I don’t see how advertising would work without driving out users to a different service. Sure, there are some e-commerce plays that would be interesting and that other services have been experimenting with. But is that enough? Or is the plan to make a play that guarantees that no VC will invest in any competitors so that all of those companies wither and die while WhatsApp sits by patiently and then makes a move when it’s clearly the only one left standing? And if that’s the play, then what about the carriers? When will they wake up and think for 5 seconds about how their greed is eroding one of their cash cows?
What am I missing? There has to be more to this play than I’m seeing. Or is Facebook just that desperate?
(Originally posted at LinkedIn. More comments there.)
As people start to get copies of my book, I want to offer more context to the brief dedication at the front of the book.
“It’s Complicated” is dedicated to my beloved advisor, Peter Lyman, who passed away before I finished my degree at Berkeley. It was Peter who initially helped me conceive of this project and it was Peter who took my limited ethnographic training and helped me develop deep reflexive instincts. As much joy as it brings me to see this book born into the world, it also saddens me that Peter couldn’t get to see the project completed.
After I left MIT, my undergraduate mentor and friend Andy van Dam sent me to Peter, confident that we’d get along like a house on fire. I begrudgingly agreed to meet Peter but when I showed up in California, he had been sent to jury duty and was unable to make the meeting. So he invited me to his home where he was hosting a dinner for graduate students. There, I got to meet a kind, gentle soul who not only inspired me with his intellect but revealed the beauty and pleasure of nurturing junior scholars. I was sold.
Once at Berkeley, Peter and I devised all sorts of plots to collaborate and, more importantly, to play institutional good-cop, bad-cop. In my spastic, obnoxious way, I would throw a fit at some injustice, inevitably piss off someone, and then he’d intervene and negotiate a truce. When we realized how effective this could be, we started scheming.
Peter’s illness was devastating. Always a brilliant orator, his cancer ate away at his ability to communicate. Even his serene peacefulness was tried over and over again by the frustration he felt not being able to express himself. And, for all that he adored and supported his students, his love of his children – and sadness in not being able to get to know his grandchildren – were what really weighed on him.
It’s been over six years since the world lost an amazing man. Nothing that I can do can bring him back but I wrote this book in part to honor him and all that he taught me. Peter showed me that there’s more to being a scholar than producing important works. Always gracious and warm, Peter did more to cultivate others than to advance his own career. He always said that, at Berkeley, he was paid to attend meetings so that he could keep up his hobby of teaching. His brilliance emerged through those that he empowered. I can only hope to have as much impact on those around me as he did on me.
Every time I look at my book, I smile thinking about Peter’s influence on me, my work, and my sense of what it means to be a scholar and intellectual. We all build on the shoulders of giants but sometimes those giants aren’t so visible to others. Peter was a huge giant in my life and I hope that others reading this book can see his influence in it.
In less than a month, my new book – “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens” - will be published. This is the product of ten years worth of research into how social media has inflected American teen life. If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ve seen me talk about these issues over the years. Well, this book is an attempt to synthesize all of that work into one tangible artifact.
Now I have a favor…. please consider pre-ordering a copy (or two <grin>). Pre-sales and first week sales really matter in terms of getting people’s attention. And I’m really hoping to get people’s attention with this book. I’ve written it to be publicly accessible in the hopes that parents, educators, journalists, and policy makers will read it and reconsider their attitude towards technology and teen practices. The book covers everything from addiction, bullying, and online safety to privacy, inequality, and the digital natives debate.
If you have the financial wherewithal to buy a copy, I’d be super grateful. If you don’t, I *totally* understand. Either way, I’d be super super super appreciative if you could help me get the word out about the book. I’m really hoping that this book will alter the public dialogue about teen use of social media.
You can pre-order it at:
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!