danah boyd: Privacy = Context + Control

September 11th, 2010 | Category: Interviews

danah boyd is one of the very few people worthy of the oft-bandied title “social media expert” and the only one who studies social technology use with as much combined academic rigor and popular appeal. She holds a Ph.D. from UC-Berkeley’s iSchool and is currently a Senior Social Media Researcher at Microsoft Research New England and a Fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. As the debates over sharing, privacy, and the online control of both smolder in posts and articles web-wide, boyd remains one of a handful of trustworthy, sober voices.

boyd’s thoughts on technology and society are widely available online, as well as in the extensive essay collection, Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out (MIT Press, 2009). In what follows, we discuss several emerging issues in social media studies, mostly online privacy, which has always been a concern as youth and digital media become ever more intertwined.

Roy Christopher: Facebook is catching a lot of flack lately regarding their wishy-washy Terms of Service and their treatment of their members’ privacy. Is there something happening that’s specific to Facebook, or is it a coincidental critical mass of awareness of online privacy issues?

danah boyd: Facebook plays a central role in the lives of many people. People care about privacy in that they care about understanding a social situation and wisely determining what to share in that context and how much control they have over what they share. This is not to say that they don’t also want to be public; they do. It’s just that they also want control. Many flocked to Facebook because it allowed them to gather with friends and family and have a semi-private social space. Over time, things changed. Facebook’s recent changes have left people confused and frustrating, lacking trust in the company and wanting a space where they can really connect with the people they care about without risking social exposure. Meanwhile, many have been declaring privacy dead. Yet, that’s not the reality for everyday folks.

RC: Coincidentally, I just saw yours and Samantha Biegler’s report on risky online behavior and young people. The news loves a juicy online scandal, but their worries are always seem so overblown to those in-the-know. What should we do about it?

db: Find a different business model for news so that journalists don’t resort to sensationalism? More seriously, I don’t know how to combat a lot of fear mongering. It’s not just journalists. It’s parents and policy makers and educators. People are afraid and they fear what they don’t know. It’s really hard to grapple with that. But what really bothers me about the fear mongering is that it obscures the real risks that youth face while also failing to actually help the youth who are most at-risk.

RC: NYU’s Jay Rosen maintains that his online presence is “always personal, never private.” Is that just fancy semantics or is there something more to that?

db: The word “private” means many things. There are things that Jay keeps private. For example, I’ve never seen a sex tape produced by Jay. I’ve never read all of his emails. I’m not saying that I want to, but just that living in public is not a binary. Intimacy with others is about protecting a space for privacy between you and that other person. And I don’t just mean sexual intimacy. My best friend and I have conversations to which no one else is privy, not because they’re highly secretive, but because we expose raw emotional issues to one another that we’re not comfortable sharing with everyone. Hell, we’re often not sure that we’re comfortable admitting our own feelings to ourselves. That’s privacy. And when I post something online that’s an in-joke to some people but perfectly visible to anyone, that’s privacy. And when I write something behind a technical lock like email or a friends-only account because I want to minimize how far it spreads, that’s privacy. But in that case, I’m relying more on the individuals with whom I’m sharing than the technology itself. Privacy isn’t a binary that can be turned on or off. It’s about context, social situations, and control.

RC: Hannah Arendt defines the private and public realms respectively as “the distinction between things that should be hidden and things that should be shown.” How do you define the distinction?

db: I would say the public is where we go to see and be seen while minimizing our vulnerabilities while the private is where we expose ourselves in a trusted space with trusted individuals.


Ed. Note: It has come to my attention that what Jay Rosen actually said was, “In my Twitter feed I try to be 100 percent personal and zero percent private.” Apologies to everyone, especially Jay, for the misquote.

Further Posting:


  • Dave Allen said:

    Roy, good questions and great answers by danah.

    I wonder what danah would think of Jonathan Frantzen’s idea of his privacy being invaded whenever he turned on the TV or read a newspaper, only to find the lurid details of Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky? To me, his approach is more like my experience living in England; less corporate and state intrusion but more media exposure of people’s private lives that I didn’t really want to know about..

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  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Hey, Dave:

    The intrusion you bring up is an integral part of celebrity studies curricula (i.e., the management of star systems and public images, etc.).

    danah’s colleague Nancy Baym also brings up (as Bill Maher once did) the public/private collusion that occurs when someone talks on their cellphone in public.

    These examples illustrate that there are clearly many more facets to this issue than just “Liking” things on Facebook or checking in on Four Square.

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