My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

Relevant links:

Archive

Join me at the Parker Lecture on Oct. 20 in Washington DC

Every year, the media reform community convenes to celebrate one of the founders of the movement, to reflect on the ethical questions of our day, and to honor outstanding champions of media reform. This annual event, called the Parker Lecture, is in honor of Dr. Everett C. Parker, who is often called the founder of the media reform movement, and who died last month at the age of 102. Dr. Parker made incredible contributions from his post as the Executive Director of the United Church of Christ’s Office of Communication, Inc.. This organization is part of the progressive movement’s efforts to hold media accountable and to consider how best to ensure all people, no matter their income or background, benefit from new technology.

I am delighted to be part of this year’s events as one of the honorees. My other amazing partners in this adventure are:

  • Joseph Torres, senior external affairs director of Free Press and co-author of News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media, will receive the Parker Award which recognizes an individual whose work embodies the principles and values of the public interest in telecommunications.
  • Wally Bowen, co-founder and executive director of the Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN), will receive the Donald H. McGannon Award in recognition of his dedication to bringing modern telecommunications to low-income people in rural areas.

The 33rd Annual Parker Lecture will be held Tuesday, October 20, 2015 at 8 a.m. at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 945 G St NW, Washington, DC 20001. I will be giving a talk as part of this celebration and joined by Clayton Old Elk of the Crow Tribe who will offer a praise song.

Want to join us? Tickets are available here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Which Students Get to Have Privacy?

There’s a fresh push to protect student data. But the people who need the most protection are the ones being left behind.

It seems that student privacy is trendy right now. At least among elected officials. Congressional aides are scrambling to write bills that one-up each other in showcasing how tough they are on protecting youth. We’ve got Congressmen Polis and Messer (with Senator Blumenthal expected to propose a similar bill in the Senate). Kline and Scott have a discussion draft of their bill out while Markey and Hatch have reintroduced the bill they introduced a year ago. And then there’s Senator Vitter’s proposed bill. And let’s not even talk about the myriad of state-level legislation.

Most of these bills are responding in some way or another to a 1974 piece of legislation called the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which restricted what schools could and could not do with student data.

Needless to say, lawmakers in 1974 weren’t imagining the world of technology that we live with today. On top of that, legislative and bureaucratic dynamics have made it difficult for the Department of Education to address failures at the school level without going nuclear and just defunding a school outright. And schools lack security measures (because they lack technical sophistication) and they’re entering into all sorts of contracts with vendors that give advocates heartburn.

So there’s no doubt that reform is needed, but the question — as always — is what reform? For whom? And with what kind of support?

The bills are pretty spectacularly different, pushing for a range of mechanisms to limit abuses of student data. Some are fine-driven; others take a more criminal approach. There are also differences in who can access what data under what circumstances. The bills give different priorities to parents, teachers, and schools. Of course, even though this is all about *students*, they don’t actually have a lot of power in any of these bills. It’s all a question of who can speak on their behalf and who is supposed to protect them from the evils of the world. And what kind of punishment for breaches is most appropriate. (Not surprisingly, none of the bills provide for funding to help schools come up to speed.)

As a youth advocate and privacy activist, I’m generally in favor of student privacy. But my panties also get in a bunch when I listen to how people imagine the work of student privacy. As is common in Congress as election cycles unfold, student privacy has a “save the children” narrative. And this forces me to want to know more about the threat models we’re talking about. What are we saving the children *from*?

Threat Models

There are four external threats that I think are interesting to consider. These are the dangers that students face if their data leaves the education context.

#1: The Stranger Danger Threat Model. It doesn’t matter how much data we have to challenge prominent fears, the possibly of creepy child predators lurking around school children still overwhelms any conversation about students, including their data.

#2: The Marketing Threat Model. From COPPA to the Markey/Hatch bill, there’s a lot of concern about how student data will be used by companies to advertise products to students or otherwise fuel commercial data collection that drives advertising ecosystems.

#3: The Consumer Finance Threat Model. In a post-housing bubble market, the new subprime lending schemes are all about enabling student debt, especially since students can’t declare bankruptcy when they default on their obscene loans. There is concern about how student data will be used to fuel the student debt ecosystem.

#4: The Criminal Justice Threat Model. Law enforcement has long been interested in student performance, but this data is increasingly desirable in a world of policing that is trying to assess risk. There are reasons to believe that student data will fuel the new policing architectures.

The first threat model is artificial (see: “It’s Complicated”), but it propels people to act and create laws that will not do a darn thing to address abuse of children. The other three threat models are real, but these threats are spread differently over the population. In the world of student privacy, #2 gets far more attention than #3 and #4. In fact, almost every bill creates carve-outs for “safety” or otherwise allows access to data if there’s concern about a risk to the child, other children, or the school. In other words, if police need it. And, of course, all of these laws allow parents and guardians to get access to student data with no consideration of the consequences for students who are under state supervision. So, really, #4 isn’t even in the cultural imagination because, as with nearly everything involving our criminal justice system, we don’t believe that “those people” deserve privacy.

The reason that I get grouchy is that I hate how the risks that we’re concerned about are shaped by the fears of privileged parents, not the risks of those who are already under constant surveillance, those who are economically disadvantaged, and those who are in the school-prison pipeline. #2-#4 are all real threat models with genuine risks, but we consistently take #2 far more seriously than #3 or #4, and privileged folks are more concerned with #1.

What would it take to actually consider the privacy rights of the most marginalized students?

The threats that poor youth face? That youth of color face? And the trade-offs they make in a hypersurveilled world? What would it take to get people to care about how we keep building out infrastructure and backdoors to track low-status youth in new ways? It saddens me that the conversation is constructed as being about student privacy, but it’s really about who has the right to monitor which youth. And, as always, we allow certain actors to continue asserting power over youth.

This post was originally published to The Message at Medium on May 22, 2015. Image credit: Francisco Osorio

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

I miss not being scared.

From the perspective of an adult in this society, I’ve taken a lot of stupid risks in my life. Physical risks like outrunning cops and professional risks like knowingly ignoring academic protocol. I have some scars, but I’ve come out pretty OK in the scheme of things. And many of those risks have paid off for me even as similar risks have devastated others.

Throughout the ten years that I was doing research on youth and social media, countless people told me that my perspective on teenagers’ practices would change once I had kids. Wary of this frame, I started studying the culture of fear, watching as parents exhibited fear of their children doing the same things that they once did, convinced that everything today is so much worse than it was when they were young or that the consequences would be so much greater. I followed the research on fear and the statistics on teen risks and knew that it wasn’t about rationality. There was something about how our society socialized parents into parenting that produced the culture of fear.

Now I’m a parent. And I’m in my late 30s. And I get to experience the irrational cloud of fear. The fear of mortality. The fear of my children’s well-being. Those quiet little moments when crossing the street where my brain flips to an image of a car plowing through the stroller. The heart-wrenching panic when my partner is late and I imagine all of the things that might have happened. The reading of stories of others’ pain and shuddering with fear that my turn is next. The moments of loss and misfortune in my own life when I close my eyes and hope my children don’t have to feel that pain. I can feel the haunting desire to avoid risks and to cocoon my children.

I know the stats. I know the ridiculousness of my fears. And all I can think of is the premise of Justine Larbalestier’s Magic or Madness where the protagonist must either use her magic or go crazy if she doesn’t use it. I feel like I am at constant war with my own brain over the dynamics of fear. I refuse to succumb to the fear because I know how irrational it is but in refusing, I send myself down crazy rabbit holes on a regular basis. For my kids’ sake, I want to not let fear shape my decision-making but then I’m fearing fear. And, well, welcome to the rabbit hole.

I miss not being scared. I miss taking absurd risks and not giving them a second thought. I miss doing the things that scare the shit out of most parents. I miss the ridiculousness of not realizing that I should be afraid in the first place.

In our society, we infantalize youth for their willingness to take risks that we deem dangerous and inappropriate. We get obsessed with protecting them and regulating them. We use brain science and biography to justify restrictions because we view their decision making as flawed. We look at new technologies or media and blame them for corrupting the morality of youth, for inviting them to do things they shouldn’t. Then we about face and capitalize on their risk taking when it’s to our advantage, such as when they go off to war on our behalf.

Is our society really worse off because youth take risks and adults don’t? Why are they wrong and us old people are right? Is it simply because we have more power? As more and more adults live long, fearful lives in Western societies, I keep thinking that we should start regulating our decision-making. Our inability to be brash is costing our society in all sorts of ways. And it will only get worse as some societies get younger while others get older. Us old people aren’t imagining new ways of addressing societal ills. Meanwhile, our conservative scaredy cat ways don’t allow youth to explore and challenge the status quo or invent new futures. I keep thinking that we need to protect ourselves and our children from our own irrationality produced from our fears.

I have to say that fear sucks. I respect its power, just like I respect the power of a hurricane, but it doesn’t make me like fear any more. So I keep dreaming of ways to eradicate fear. And what I know for certain is that statistical information won’t cut it. And so I dream of a sci-fi world in which I can manipulate my synapses to prevent those ideas from triggering. In the meanwhile, I clench my jaw and try desperately to not let the crazy visions of terrible things that could happen work their way into my cognitive perspective. And I wonder what it will take for others to recognize the impact that our culture of fear is having on all of us.

This post was originally published to The Message at Medium on May 4, 2015

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The Cost of Fame

We were in Juarez Mexico. We had gone there as a group of activists to stage a protest over the government’s refusal to investigate the disappearance and brutal murders of hundreds of women. It was a V-Day initiative and so there were celebrities among us.

I was assigned as one of the faux fans and my responsibility was to hover around the celebrities during the protest in order to minimize who could actually access the celebrities. The actual bodyguards kept a distance so that the celebrities could be seen and heard. And photographed. It was a weird role, a moment in which it was made clear how difficult it was for celebrities to be in public. Their accessibility was always mediated, planned for, negotiated. And I was to be invisible so that they could be visible.

Over the years, I’ve worked with a lot of celebrities through my activist work. I’ve had to create artificial distractions, distribute fake information about celebrities’ locations, and help celebrities hide. I’ve had to help architect a process for celebrities to use the bathroom or get a glass of water and I’ve watched the cost of that overhead. Every move has to be managed because of paparazzi and fans. There’s nothing elegant about being famous when you just need to take a shit.

There’s a cost to fame, a cost that is largely invisible to most people. Many of the teens that I interviewed wanted to be famous. They saw fame as freedom — freedom from parents, poverty, and insecurity.

What I learned in working with celebrities is that fame is a trap, a burden, a manacle.

It seems so appealing and, for some, it can be an amazing tool. But for many who aren’t prepared for it, fame is a restricting force, limiting your freedom and mobility, and forcing you to put process around every act you take. Forcing you to live with constant critique, with every move and action constantly judged by others who feel as though they have the right because the famous are seen as privileged. There’s a reason that substance abuse runs rampant among celebrities. There’s a reason so many celebrities crack under pressure. Fame is the opposite of freedom.

Social media has created new platforms for people to achieve fame. Instagram fame. YouTube fame. But most people who become Internet famous aren’t Justin Bieber. They’re people with millions of followers and no support structure. They don’t have a personal assistant and bodyguard. They don’t have someone who manages the millions of messages they receive or turns away the creepy fans who show up in person. They are on their own to handle all of the shit that comes their way.

In her brilliant book, “Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age,” Alice Marwick highlights how attracting attention and achieving fame is a central part of being successful in the new economy. Welcome to our neoliberal society. Yet, as Marwick quickly uncovers in her analysis, these practices are experienced differently depending on race and gender. What it means to be famous online looks different if you’re a woman and/or a person of color. The quantity and quality of remarks you receive as you attract attention changes dramatically. The rape threats increase. The remarks on your body increase. And the interactions get creepier. And the costs skyrocket.

I’m relatively well-known on the internet. And each time that I’ve written or done something that’s attracted a lot of attention, I’ve felt a hint of the cost of fame, so much so that I purposefully go out of my way to disappear for a while and decrease my visibility. Throughout my career, there have been times in which I could’ve done things that would’ve taken my micro-celebrity to the next level, and yet I’ve chosen to back away because I don’t like the costs that I face. I don’t like the death threats. I also don’t like when people won’t be honest with me. I don’t like when people get nervous around me. And I don’t like being objectified, as though I have no feelings. These are all part of the cost of fame. We don’t see celebrities as people; we see them as cultural artifacts.

We’ve made fame a desirable commodity, produced and fetishized. From reality TV and Jerry Springer to YouTube and Instagram, we’ve created structures for everyday people to achieve mass attention. But we’ve never created the structures to help them cope. Or for those who help propel others into fame to think about the consequences of their actions. And we’ve never stopped to think about how these platforms that fuel fame culture help reinforce misogyny and racism.

There’s a cost to fame, a cost that is unevenly borne. And I have no idea how to make that cost visible to the teens who desire fame, the media producers who create the platforms for fame, or the fans who generate the ugliness behind fame. It’s far too easy to see the gloss, far too difficult to see what it means to be trapped.

trapped in my glasshouse
crowd has been gathering since dawn
i make a pot of coffee
while catastrophe awaits me out on the lawn
i think i’m going to stay in today
pretend like i don’t know what’s going on
Ani Difranco, Glass House

In Juarez, we got attacked. In the mayhem, Jane Fonda’s jewelry was taken from her. I still remember the elegance with which she handled that situation. I also remember her response when someone asked if the jewerly was valuable. “Do you think I’m an idiot? This isn’t my first protest.” As we spent the night camped out under the flickering blue lights in the roach motel, I listened to her tell stories of previous political actions and the attacks she’d faced. She was acutely aware of the costs of fame, but she was also aware of how she could use it to make a difference. I couldn’t help but think of a comment Angelina Jolie once made when she noted that people would always follow her around with a camera so she might as well go to places that needed to be photographed. Neither women made me want to be famous, but both made me deeply appreciate those who have learned to negotiate fame.

This post was originally published to The Message at Medium on April 21, 2015 as part of Fame Week.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Are We Training Our Students to be Robots?

Excited about the possibility that he would project his creativity onto paper, I handed my 1-year-old son a crayon. He tried to eat it. I held his hand to show him how to draw, and he broke the crayon in half. I went to open the door and when I came back, he had figured out how to scribble… all over the wooden floor.

Crayons are pretty magical and versatile technologies. They can be used as educational tools — or alternatively, as projectiles. And in the process of exploring their properties, children learn to make sense of both their physical affordances and the social norms that surround them. “No, you can’t poke your brother’s eye with that crayon!” is a common refrain in my house. Learning to draw — on paper and with some sense of meaning — has a lot to do with the context, a context in which I help create, a context that is learned outside of the crayon itself.

From crayons to compasses, we’ve learned to incorporate all sorts of different tools into our lives and educational practices. Why, then, do computing and networked devices consistently stump us? Why do we imagine technology to be our educational savior, but also the demon undermining learning through distraction? Why are we so unable to see it as a tool whose value is most notably discovered situated in its context?

The arguments that Peg Tyre makes in “iPads < Teachers” are dead on. Personalized learning technologies won’t magically on their own solve our education crisis. The issues we are facing in education are social and political, reflective of our conflicting societal values. Our societal attitudes toward teachers are deeply destructive, a contemporary manifestation of historical attitudes towards women’s labor.

But rather than seeing learning as a process and valuing educators as an important part of a healthy society, we keep looking for easy ways out of our current predicament, solutions that don’t involve respecting the hard work that goes into educating our young.
In doing so, we glom onto technologies that will only exacerbate many existing issues of inequity and mistrust. What’s at stake isn’t the technology itself, but the future of learning.

An empty classroom at the Carpe Diem school in Indianapolis.
Education shouldn’t be just about reading, writing, and arithmetic. Students need to learn how to be a part of our society. And increasingly, that society is technologically mediated. As a result, excluding technology from the classroom makes little sense; it produces an unnecessary disconnect between school and contemporary life.

This forces us to consider two interwoven — and deeply political — societal goals of education: to create an informed citizenry and to develop the skills for a workforce.

With this in mind, there are different ways of interpreting the personalized learning agenda, which makes me feel simultaneously optimistic and outright terrified. If you take personalized learning to its logical positive extreme, technology will educate every student as efficiently as possible. This individual-centric agenda is very much rooted in American neoliberalism.

But what if there’s a darker story? What if we’re really training our students to be robots?

Let me go cynical for a moment. In the late 1800s, the goal of education in America was not particularly altruistic. Sure, there were reformers who imagined that a more educated populace would create an informed citizenry. But what made widespread education possible was that American business needed workers. Industrialization required a populace socialized into very particular frames of interaction and behavior. In other words, factories needed workers who could sit still.

Many of tomorrow’s workers aren’t going to be empowered creatives subscribed to the mantra of, “Do what you love!” Many will be slotted into systems of automation that are hybrid human and computer. Not in the sexy cyborg way, but in the ugly call center way.
Like today’s retail laborers who have to greet every potential customer with a smile, many humans in tomorrow’s economy will do the unrewarding tasks that are too expensive for robots to replace. We’re automating so many parts of our society that, to be employable, the majority of the workforce needs to be trained to be engaged with automated systems.

All of this begs one important question: who benefits, and who loses, from a technologically mediated world?

Education has long been held up as the solution to economic disparity (though some reports suggest that education doesn’t remedy inequity). While the rhetoric around personalized learning emphasizes the potential for addressing inequity, Tyre suggests that good teachers are key for personalized learning to work.

Not only are privileged students more likely to have great teachers, they are also more likely to have teachers who have been trained to use technology — and how to integrate it into the classroom’s pedagogy. If these technologies do indeed “enhance the teacher’s effect,” this does not bode well for low-status students, who are far less likely to have great teachers.

Technology also costs money. Increasingly, low-income schools are pouring large sums of money into new technologies in the hopes that those tools can fix the various problems that low-status students face. As a result, there’s less money for good teachers and other resources that schools need.

I wish I had a solution to our education woes, but I’ve been stumped time and again, mostly by the politics surrounding any possible intervention. Historically, education was the province of local schools making local decisions. Over the last 30 years, the federal government and corporations alike have worked to centralize education.

From textbooks to grading systems, large companies have standardized educational offerings, while making schools beholden to their design logic. This is how Texas values get baked into Minnesota classrooms. Simultaneously, over legitimate concern about the variation in students’ experiences, federal efforts have attempted to implement learning standards. They use funding as the stick for conformity, even as local politics and limited on-the-ground resources get in the way.

Personalized learning has the potential to introduce an entirely new factor into the education landscape: network effects. Even as ranking systems have compared schools to one another, we’ve never really had a system where one students’ learning opportunities truly depend on another’s. And yet, that’s core to how personalized learning works. These systems don’t evolve based on the individual, but based on what’s learned about students writ large.

Personalized learning is, somewhat ironically, far more socialist than it may first appear. You can’t “personalize” technology without building models that are deeply dependent on others. In other words, it is all about creating networks of people in a hyper-individualized world. It’s a strange hybrid of neoliberal and socialist ideologies.

An instructor works with a student in the learning center at the Carpe Diem school in Indianapolis.
Just as recommendation systems result in differentiated experiences online, creating dynamics where one person’s view of the internet radically differs from another’s, so too will personalized learning platforms.

More than anything, what personalized learning brings to the table for me is the stark reality that our society must start grappling with the ways we are both interconnected and differentiated. We are individuals and we are part of networks.

In the realm of education, we cannot and should not separate these two. By recognizing our interconnected nature, we might begin to fulfill the promises that technology can offer our students.

This post was originally published to Bright at Medium on April 7, 2015. Bright is made possible by funding from the New Venture Fund, and is supported by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Why I Joined Dove & Twitter to #SpeakBeautiful

I’ve been online long enough to see a lot of negativity. I wear a bracelet that reads “Don’t. Read. The. Comments.” (a gift from Molly Steenson) to remind myself that going down the path of negativity is not helpful to my soul or sanity. I grew up in a geeky environment, determined to prove that I could handle anything, to stomach the notion that “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” My battle scars are part of who I am. But why does it have to be this way?

Over the last few years, as the internet went from being a geeky subculture to something that is truly mainstream, I started watching as young women used technology to demean themselves and each other. It has broken my heart over and over again. Women are hurting themselves in the process of hurting each other with their words. The answer isn’t to just ask everyone out there to develop a thick skin. A world of meanness and cruelty is destructive to all involved and we all need to push back at it, especially those of us who have the strength to stomach the heat.

I’m delighted and honored to partner with Dove and Twitter to change the conversation. In an effort to better understand what’s happening, Dove surveyed women and Twitter analyzed tweets. Even though only 9% of women surveyed admit to posting negative comments on social media, over 5 million negative tweets about beauty and body image were posted in 2014 alone and 4 out of 5 of those tweets appeared to come from women. Women know that negative comments are destructive to their self-esteem and to those around them and, yet, the women surveyed reported they are 50% more likely to say something negative than positive. What is happening here?

This weekend, we will watch celebrities parade down the red carpet wearing gorgeous gowns as they enter a theater to celebrate the pinnacle of film accomplishments. Yet, if history serves, the social media conversation around the Oscar’s will be filled with harsh commentary regarding celebrities’ beauty and self-loathing.

We live in a world in which self-critique and ugliness is not only accepted, but the norm. Especially for women. Yet, so many women are unable to see how what they say not only erodes their own self-worth, but harms others. Every time we tear someone down for what they’re wearing or how they’re acting – and every time that we talk badly about ourselves – we contribute to a culture of cruelty in which women are systemically disempowered. This has to change.

It’s high time that we all stop and reflect on what we’re saying and posting when we use our fingers to talk in public. It’s time to #Speak Beautiful. Negative commentary has a domino effect. But so does positive commentary.

In an effort to change the norm, Dove and Twitter have come together to try to combat negativity with positive thoughts. Beyond this video, they are working together to identify negative tweets and reach out to women who might not realize the ramifications of what they say. Social media and self-esteem experts will offer advice in an effort to empower women to speak with more confidence, optimism, and kindness.

Will this solve the problem? No. But the modest goal of this campaign is to get more women to step back and reflect about what they’re saying. At the end of the day, it’s us who need to solve the problem. We need to all collectively make a conscious decision to stop the ugliness. We need to #SpeakBeautiful.

I am honored to be able to contribute to this effort and I invite you to do the same. Spend some time today and over the weekend thinking about the negativity you see around you on social media and push back against it. If your instinct is to critique, take a moment to say something positive. An effort to #SpeakBeautiful is both selfish and altruistic. You help others while helping yourself.

I know that I will spend the weekend thinking about my grandmother, a beautiful woman in her 90s who grew up being told that negative thoughts were thoughts against God. As a teenager, I couldn’t understand how she could stay positive no matter what happened around her but as I grow older, I’m in awe of her ability to find the beauty in everything. I’ve watched this sustain her into her old age. I only wish more people could find the nourishment of such positivity. So let’s all take a moment to #SpeakBeautiful, for ourselves and for those around us.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

An Old Fogey’s Analysis of a Teenager’s View on Social Media

In the days that followed Andrew Watts’ “A Teenager’s View on Social Media written by an actual teen” post, dozens of people sent me a link. I found myself getting uncomfortable and angry by the folks who are pointing me to this. I feel the need to offer my perspective as someone who is not a teenager but who has thought about these issues extensively for years.

Almost all of them work in the tech industry and many of them are tech executives or venture capitalists. The general sentiment has been: “Look! Here’s an interesting kid who’s captured what kids these days are doing with social media!” Most don’t even ask for my interpretation, sending it to me as though it is gospel.

We’ve been down this path before. Andrew is not the first teen to speak as an “actual” teen and have his story picked up. Every few years, a (typically white male) teen with an interest in technology writes about technology among his peers on a popular tech platform and gets traction. Tons of conferences host teen panels, usually drawing on privileged teens in the community or related to the organizers. I’m not bothered by these teens’ comments; I’m bothered by the way they are interpreted and treated by the tech press and the digerati.

I’m a researcher. I’ve been studying American teens’ engagement with social media for over a decade. I wrote a book on the topic. I don’t speak on behalf of teens, but I do amplify their voices and try to make sense of the diversity of experiences teens have. I work hard to account for the biases in whose voices I have access to because I’m painfully aware that it’s hard to generalize about a population that’s roughly 16 million people strong. They are very diverse and, yet, journalists and entrepreneurs want to label them under one category and describe them as one thing.

Andrew is a very lucid writer and I completely trust his depiction of his peer group’s use of social media. He wrote a brilliant post about his life, his experiences, and his interpretations. His voice should be heard. And his candor is delightful to read. But his analysis cannot and should not be used to make claims about all teenagers. I don’t blame Andrew for this; I blame the readers — and especially tech elites and journalists — for their interpretation of Andrew’s post because they should know better by now. What he’s sharing is not indicative of all teens. More significantly, what he’s sharing reinforces existing biases in the tech industry and journalism that worry me tremendously.

His coverage of Twitter should raise a big red flag to anyone who has spent an iota of time paying attention to the news. Over the last six months, we’ve seen a phenomenal uptick in serious US-based activism by many youth in light of what took place in Ferguson. It’s hard to ignore Twitter’s role in this phenomenon, with hashtags like #blacklivesmatter and #IfTheyGunnedMeDown not only flowing from Twitter onto other social media platforms, but also getting serious coverage from major media. Andrew’s statement that “a lot of us simply do not understand the point of Twitter” should raise eyebrows, but it’s the rest of his description of Twitter that should serve as a stark reminder of Andrew’s position within the social media landscape.

Let me put this bluntly: teens’ use of social media is significantly shaped by race and class, geography and cultural background. Let me repeat that for emphasis.

Teens’ use of social media is significantly shaped by race and class, geography and cultural background.

The world of Twitter is many things and what journalists and tech elites see from Twitter is not even remotely similar to what many of the teens that I study see, especially black and brown urban youth. For starters, their Twitter feed doesn’t have links; this is often shocking to journalists and digerati whose entire stream is filled with URLs. But I’m also bothered by Andrew’s depiction of Twitter users as first and foremost doing so to “complain/express themselves.” While he offers other professional categorizations, it’s hard not to read this depiction in light of what I see in low-status communities and the ways that privileged folks interpret the types of expression that exists in these communities. When black and brown teens offer their perspective on the world using the language of their community, it is often derided as a complaint or dismissed as self-expression. I doubt that Andrew is trying to make an explicitly racist comment here, but I want to caution every reader out there that critiques of youth use of Twitter are often seen in a negative light because of the heavy use by low-status black and brown youth.

Andrew’s depiction of his peers’ use of social media is a depiction of a segment of the population, notably the segment most like those in the tech industry. In other words, what the tech elite are seeing and sharing is what people like them would’ve been doing with social media X years ago. It resonates. But it is not a full portrait of today’s youth. And its uptake and interpretation by journalists and the tech elite whitewashes teens practices in deeply problematic ways.

I’m not saying he’s wrong; I’m saying his story is incomplete and the incompleteness is important. His commentary on Facebook is probably the most generalizable, if we’re talking about urban and suburban American youth. Of course, his comments shouldn’t be shocking to anyone at this point (as Andrew himself points out). Somehow, though, declarations of Facebook’s lack of emotional weight with teens continues to be front page news. All that said, this does render invisible the cultural work of Facebook in rural areas and outside of the US.

Andrew is very visible about where he stands. He’s very clear about his passion for technology (and his love of blogging on Medium should be a big ole hint to anyone who missed his byline). He’s also a college student and talks about his peers as being obviously on path to college. But as readers, let’s not forget that only about half of US 19-year-olds are in college. He talks about WhatsApp being interesting when you go abroad, the practice of “going abroad” is itself privileged, with less than 1/3 of US citizens even holding passports. Furthermore, this renders invisible the ways in which many US-based youth use WhatsApp to communicate with family and friends who live outside of the US. Immigration isn’t part of his narrative.

I don’t for a second fault Andrew for not having a perspective beyond his peer group. But I do fault both the tech elite and journalists for not thinking critically through what he posted and presuming that a single person’s experience can speak on behalf of an entire generation. There’s a reason why researchers and organizations like Pew Research are doing the work that they do — they do so to make sure that we don’t forget about the populations that aren’t already in our networks. The fact that professionals prefer anecdotes from people like us over concerted efforts to understand a demographic as a whole is shameful. More importantly, it’s downright dangerous. It shapes what the tech industry builds and invests in, what gets promoted by journalists, and what gets legitimized by institutions of power. This is precisely why and how the tech industry is complicit in the increasing structural inequality that is plaguing our society.

This post was originally published to The Message at Medium on January 12, 2015

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Baby Boaz

Boaz Lotan Boyd saw the blizzard coming and knew it was time for him to enter this world. At 4PM on Monday, January 26, a little ball of fuzzy cuteness let out a yelp and announced his presence at a healthy 6 pounds 14 ounces. We are now snuggling in the hospital as the world outside gets blanketed with snow.

I’ll be on parental leave for a bit, but I don’t know exactly what that means. What I do know is that I will prioritize existing collaborations and my amazing team at Data & Society. Please be patient as my family bonds and we get our bearings. Time is the hardest resource to manufacture so please understand that I will probably not be particularly responsive for a while.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Data & Civil Rights: What do we know? What don’t we know?

From algorithmic sentencing to workplace analytics, data is increasingly being used in areas of society that have had longstanding civil rights issues.  This prompts a very real and challenging set of questions: What does the intersection of data and civil rights look like? When can technology be used to enable civil rights? And when are technologies being used in ways that undermine them? For the last 50 years, civil rights has been a legal battle.  But with new technologies shaping society in new ways, perhaps we need to start wondering what the technological battle over civil rights will look like.

To get our heads around what is emerging and where the hard questions lie, the Data & Society Research Institute, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and New America’s Open Technology Institute teamed up to host the first “Data & Civil Rights” conference.  For this event, we brought together diverse constituencies (civil rights leaders, corporate allies, government agencies, philanthropists, and technology researchers) to explore how data and civil rights are increasingly colliding in complicated ways.

In preparation for the conversation, we dove into the literature and see what is known and unknown about the intersection of data and civil rights in six domains: criminal justice, education, employment, finance, health, and housing.  We produced a series of primers that contextualize where we’re at and what questions we need to consider.  And, for the conference, we used these materials to spark a series of small-group moderated conversations.

The conference itself was an invite-only event, with small groups brought together to dive into hard issues around these domains in a workshop-style format.  We felt it was important that we make available our findings and questions.  Today, we’re releasing all of the write-ups from the workshops and breakouts we held, the videos from the level-setting opening, and an executive summary of what we learned.  This event was designed to elicit tensions and push deeper into hard questions. Much is needed for us to move forward in these domains, including empirical evidence, innovation, community organizing, and strategic thinking.  We learned a lot during this process, but we don’t have clear answers about what the future of data and civil rights will or should look like.  Instead, what we learned in this process is how important it is for diverse constituencies to come together to address the challenges and opportunities that face us.

Moving forward, we need your help.  We need to go beyond hype and fear, hope and anxiety, and deepen our collective understanding of technology, civil rights, and social justice. We need to work across sectors to imagine how we can create a more robust society, free of the cancerous nature of inequity. We need to imagine how technology can be used to empower all of us as a society, not just the most privileged individuals.  This means that computer scientists, software engineers, and entrepreneurs must take seriously the costs and consequences of inequity in our society. It means that those working to create a more fair and just society need to understand how technology works.  And it means that all of us need to come together and get creative about building the society that we want to live in.

The material we are releasing today is a baby step, an attempt to scope out the landscape as best we know it so that we can all work together to go further and deeper.  Please help us imagine how we should move forward.  If you have any ideas or feedback, don’t hesitate to contact us at nextsteps at datacivilrights.org

(Image by Mark K.)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Heads Up: Upcoming Parental Leave

If you’ve seen me waddle onto stage lately, you’ve probably guessed that I’m either growing a baby or an alien. I’m hoping for the former, although contemporary imaging technologies still do make me wonder. If all goes well, I will give birth in late January or early February. Although I don’t publicly talk much about my son, this will be #2 for me and so I have both a vague sense of what I’m in for and no clue at all. I avoid parenting advice like the plague so I’m mostly plugging my ears and singing “la-la-la-la” whenever anyone tells me what I’m in for. I don’t know, no one knows, and I’m not going to pretend like anything I imagine now will determine how I will feel come this baby’s arrival.

What I do know is that I don’t want to leave any collaborator or partner in the lurch since there’s a pretty good chance that I’ll be relatively out of commission (a.k.a. loopy as all getup) for a bit. I will most likely turn off my email firehose and give collaborators alternate channels for contacting me. I do know that I’m not taking on additional speaking gigs, writing responsibilities, scholarly commitments, or other non-critical tasks. I also know that I’m going to do everything possible to make sure that Data & Society is in good hands and will continue to grow while I wade through the insane mysteries of biology. If you want to stay in touch with everything happening at D&S, please make sure to sign up for our newsletter! (You may even catch me sneaking into our events with a baby.)

As an employee of Microsoft Research who is running an independent research institute, I have a ridiculous amount of flexibility in how I navigate my parental leave. I thank my lucky stars for this privilege on a regular basis, especially in a society where we force parents (and especially mothers) into impossible trade-offs. What this means in practice for me is that I refuse to commit to exactly how I’m going to navigate parental leave once #2 arrives. Last time, I penned an essay “Choosing the ‘Right’ Maternity Leave Plan” to express my uncertainty. What I learned last time is that the flexibility to be able to work when it made sense and not work when I’d been up all night made me more happy and sane than creating rigid leave plans. I’m fully aware of just how fortunate I am to be able to make these determinations and how utterly unfair it is that others can’t. I’m also aware of just how much I love what I do for work and, in spite of folks telling me that work wouldn’t matter as much after having a child, I’ve found that having and loving a child has made me love what I do professionally all the more. I will continue to be passionately engaged in my work, even as I spend time welcoming a new member of my family to this earth.

I don’t know what the new year has in store for me, but I do know that I don’t want anyone who needs something from me to feel blindsided. If you need something from me, now is the time to holler and I will do my best. I’m excited that my family is growing and I’m also ecstatic that I’ve been able to build a non-profit startup this year. It’s been a crazy year and I expect that 2015 will be no different.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email