Reflections on Fear in a Networked Society

I’ve been trying to work through some ideas on how fear operates in a networked society. At Webstock in New Zealand, I gave a talk called “Culture of Fear + Attention Economy = ?!?!” Building on this, I gave a talk at SXSW called “The Power of Fear in Networked Publics.” While my thinking in this arena is still relatively nascent, I wanted to make available what I’ve thought through so far in the hopes that you have feedback and critique.


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10 thoughts on “Reflections on Fear in a Networked Society

  1. hfm

    Such an informative talk! Thank you for sharing.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts on the ‘thinspo’ blogs on tumblr, have you spoken about this issue before?

  2. Scott Ellington

    Contagion is a (reputedly) scientifically-responsible 2011 film that incorporates several of the variables discussed in your article. The role of social media in spreading global panic at the emergence of a novel, opportunistic and lethal human virus is simultaneously appalling, sobering an fascinating. I was led to consider the irony of evolving human technology as an increasingly useful means for an inhuman (physical-contact-based) “intelligence” to turn our virtual advantages entirely against us in a Darwinian struggle of fitness between two very different species.
    The film, I think, highlights the dangers of inflexible, undynamic protocols and the absence of radical transparency in a culture accustomed to perpetual mistrust.

  3. Jim Parker

    I find you paper very timely. I have just finished teaching Gerbner’s Cultivation Theory in both my Communication Theory and Media Literacy class. Gerbner out of this theory proposes the concept of the Mean World Syndrome, which is much like the Culture of Fear. In the media literacy class in particular we discussed how the Mean World Syndrome may have contributed to Zimmerman’s perception of Trayvon Martin and ultimately Martin’s death. Gerbner’s work was prior to Social Media and related primarily to TV.

    I actually proposed in class that Social Media might well be a way out of the Mean World Syndrome because of the ability of the individual to create and share content with many people. Of course you are right on track in that Social Media can just as easily help create that Culture of Fear. I know people who have gotten involved in various survival scenarios involving Social Media and that certainly has an effect how how dangerous they see the world to be.

    Keep up the good work!!

  4. Doctor Science

    I just posted a response to your paper at Obsidian Wings. Basically, I think you’re wrong: I think online media are *less* prone to fear-mongering than TV, in particular. In online social media humor (LOLcats) is a stronger currency than fear; for TV & newspapers, fear is the currency of choice.

  5. Nriggs

    I love this talk and really appreciate that you’re addressing the issue of fear. I study end of life narratives and new media and know that when people encounter a discussion of fear, they tend to respond with fear. Usually they tune you out/change the subject. I’m wondering how Kenneth Gergen’s ideas about multiphrenia and the saturated self could factor into your ideas about radical transparency and “social norms”. Gergen highlights the difference between “knowing that” and “knowing how”. I wonder if the type of discursive fear-mongering you talk about results from non-geeks’ not “knowing how” to find comfort in a network society, where it seems that so many people/entities are scrambling for power. Be that the case, mainstream people would react hyperbolically to new systems because they re-structure the presumed hierarchies of yesterday and explode many cultural traditions; it’s hard to find comfort in a larger system, which demands that you pay attention to uncountable sources–sources of which you have access but aren’t “in on” their appropriate uses (not to mention, they’re capabilities). Sadly, social media don’t come with a manual. The two questions I want to ask based on your talk are: Can the designers of the systems recognize “that” mainstream people feel a lot of anxiety about new tools, which have become essential in the contemporary socio-economic climate? And can designers figure out new ways to leverage technology itself to help people learn “how” to respond? These two questions seem to orbit the issues you bring up in both talks. They’re also markedly reminiscent of James Paul Gee’s theory of affinity spaces, where the recursive value between internal/external grammars of content design and social orientation draw user participation and lead to new “norms” of value. I wonder how essential fear is to the system? Can people design/reorient themselves to the affinity of social media without Guilding the Lilly of utopian rhetoric? Creative Commons comes to mind as a project that has seemed to help people effectively cope with a lot of anxiety (about publishing) so that they can understand complex issues wrought by social media and learn how to use them/live with them. Thanks for all your work! Great stuff.

  6. Stefanie Panke

    Your observations on fear, youth culture and transparency through social media reminded me of Paul Watzlawick’s work on communication. Since meaning is not inherent in the objects and artefacts surrounding us, but rather actively constructed, the way we generate meaning is mediated by what Watzlawick calls “punctuation”, that is how we untangle cause and effect, or how we perceive the beginning and the ending of a situation.

    Consider the following three examples taken from Watzlawick “How real is real?”(1976).

    E1: In the late fifties, the city of Seattle was beset by the mysterious phenomenon that windshields on more and more cars were damaged by tiny scars, holes and pits. The affected citizens developed several theories including recent atomic tests by the Russians contaminating the atmosphere or erosion caused by a new local highway program. In the end, President Eisenhower sent a team of experts from the National bureau of standards to investigate the matter. These experts established the fact that there was no windshield picking at all. Instead, mass hysteria explained the apparent pattern. There was no epidemic of windshield pitting, but of windshield viewing.

    E2: People are presented with a multi-armed bandit to participate in a problem solving experiment. Their instruction states that they have to press a certain numeric pattern to successfully activate a buzzer. What the subjects do not know is that the reward buzzer works totally non-contingent; nothing they do influences the buzzer. During the first part of the experiments, subjects receive a certain percentage of random rewards. During the second part, they receive no rewards whatsoever. In the third and last stage, they are rewarded every single time. At this point, all subjects are convinced they finally found the “pattern” of successfully operating the multi-armed bandit. Even after the experimenter tells the truth about the setup, most participants find it hard to believe, claiming they found a regularity the experimenter was unaware of.

    E3:A husband believes that his wife dislikes to be seen with him in public. As ‘proof’ he describes an occasion when they were late for an engagement, and as they were walking briskly from their car, she kept staying behind him. ‘Not matter how much I slowed down,’ he explains, ‘she always stayed several steps behind me.’ ‘That is not true,’ she retorts indignantly. ‘No matter how fast I walked, he always kept several steps ahead of me.’

  7. Aimé Vareille

    Thank You for these interesting talks about the fear of the fear. I like very much every meta level considerations.
    With such fears, I am worrying about the sustainable developement of knowledge : I received education in chemistry, physics and finally I am involved in computer science and internet, but I remain fascinated by all these knowledge but frighten by their dangers and induced responsabilities. Do You think that the youth is motivated for studying these specialities ? The fact is that the vocation for scientific activities are dramatically decreasing : You have, in fact, a growing strange culture of ignorance. If You are really geek You can understand more than the Creative Commons benefits for sharing knowledge : Use,Study, Share and Improve Free Software are essential to cure fear. When children are doing something wrong, educators are trying to catch attention to a better direction : the best ways I have chance to be able to understand are chemistry, physics, computer science and internet, and You know what ? Telepresence and distance working are the biggest goals for boosting digital economy. You fear what : the new possibilities in building projects through social media, that will change the economy of attention ?

  8. Brian O' Hanlon


    It is not physical distance which can separate two people the most. What separates people the most, and is the stuff which causes the bitterness of civil wars, is new thoughts and ideas. Going back over the centuries, this is what caused instability, if nothing else did. But we have to consider in the modern era, the fact that people are travelling more and more through cyberspace into different spaces and places – but staying in the same physical location. That is the crucial point. It is possible to have more mental separation, without the companionship of physical separation. We have to ask ourselves, what impact that might have personal relationships. I wrote something here.

  9. Bonnie Bracey Sutton

    I love this talk for many reasons. You put the thing about fear out there. Many people have not grown up in a culture of fear based on identity, race, creed or color. Some of us have known fear as a constant based on the geographical region we live in, the schooling we received, the stories that portray us in the media. But we flourish anyway. I have relatives who have never slipped the racial bubble. They have lived in fear
    that is racial in origin, in many ways because of the evidence of what has gone on in their life.

    I think about a sword and how it gets stronger with the
    metallurgy and so in teaching there was the fear of dying of boredom or actually teaching, learning who the kids were and what they were all about and yes what their fears were and using that fear to have them hurdle the gap. Most of the time it worked.

    Fear can be grown like a plant and nurtured until it is all that one owns and a compromise is made .. of actions.

    Sometimes you can take fear as a tonic to make you stronger and more confident when all the things that people said would happen don’t happen. You breathe a sigh of relief and
    go on.

    Teachers can help kids to analyze and dissect fear. But then we do have to be realistic. Some of the racing to the top and the constant competition in areas of policy immediately separate out a population that will never , ever race to the top, no way to gain membership with the economics, lack of tools, knowledgenetworks and mentors.

    But one can at least not make fear some kind of defining
    description. This morning I went to George Mason and saw , participated in a seminar that talked about social media as a way to solve some of the problems of society, with tranparency, with monitoring, with other ways of dissecting fear into action, it made me think a lot.

    The participants in the forum were open to discussion of things we generally do not talk about corruption, trafficking and what I call problematic governmental BS that makes things hard to understand. The participant from abroad was a very brave person who talked about corruption internationally, and one of the members of the panel was from the World Bank. I found that refreshing and interesting.

    One should not be defined by fear, but for those of us who are always running to catch up the fear is that catching up will never happen because of the factors of the digital divide, the economic divide, cultural misunderstandings, technological backwardness, and not being ahead of the curve.

    It is discouraging for people to dismiss fear outright.
    I loved the way that the panel at George Mason sought to use the fear of social media , and talked about ways of using it as a tool to make change.


  10. robert poulk

    danah —

    I apologize in advance for the unsolicited message, but I just finished reading Katie Roiphe’s “Parent Traps” on Slate and was moved to write. Ms. Roiphe deserves to be thanked for bravely NOT writing about her kid’s fragile little psyche and instead entertaining the idea that protecting him may actually be a disservice. But the voice of reason driving her article wasn’t hers but yours, so First Thanks rightfully go to you, for finally beginning to quantify what many of us have known intuitively, and for whatever it is you’ve done to get anyone who has the ear of the popular media to actually listen to you.

    Here’s the deal. Having survived my own childhood, which was full to the brim with 1950s rural American kid things, riding bikes, broken arms, drinking out of the garden hose, kissing the dog, falling off of the shed roof, falling out of trees, falling down the stairs, black eyes, stitches (the GOOD stuff ) and having raised 2 kids of my own doing who both turned out to be the most marvelous, capable and decent of people in spite of their parents’ earnest intentions, I know from experience that your conclusion that “the kids are alright” is spot on, and today’s young families are in for a really bad surprise when they release their soft, defenseless offspring into the real world.

    But alas, as is the way of the Lathe of Heaven, as I listened not to my grandparents, so the young listen not to me. So please accept my support, my thanks and my request that you try not to get distracted — it is a much needed and very good thing you are doing (and we both know you’re right, which puts the icing on the cake)


    (shameless self-promotion — I occasionally play Poke the Troll at

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