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Posted by on Mar 14, 2010 in Science & Technology, Society | 0 comments

Making Sense of Privacy and Publicity

The title is from danah boyd‘s SXSW Keynote yesterday. “One of the the world’s foremost authorities on social networks,” Boyd is a social media researcher at Microsoft Research New England and a Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Known for her academic work and commentary on teens and social networking sites, she posted today:

danahboyd.jpgMy talk was about privacy and publicity and I spent a lot of time pushing back against the notion that “privacy is dead.” In some ways, the talk is a call to arms, an invitation for people to rethink their models of privacy so that we can collectively build a society we want to live in… My hope is that this talk will also get you to think about these issues.

There’s discussion percolating around the talk via Techmeme; Liz Gannes’ summary is a good one. The entire rough unedited crib of the talk is well worth reading. The excerpts below in no way capture all of what she had to say…

On the importance of social niceties:

As technologists, it’s easy to assume that optimizing a situation is always best. Yet, this tends to break necessary social rituals that help acquaint people with a particular social setting. We don’t go through the niceties of “Hi, How are you?” because it’s optimal for communication; we do it because to do otherwise is rude. In digital worlds, people need to be eased into a situation, to understand how to make sense of the setting.

The distinction between behavioral social networks and articulated social networks:

Articulated social networks are the lists of people that you indicate that you know, either privately (like in your addressbook) or publicly (like on Facebook). Behavioral social networks are the networks of people that you regularly communicate with or share space with, the kinds of networks that you can discern from email exchanges or mobile phone records. All of our theories about social networks – weak and strong ties, homophily, etc. – stem from studies of personal networks. While there’s a lot we don’t know about behavioral and articulated networks, we do know that they are NOT the same as personal networks. Google [Buzz] collapsed behavioral and articulated social networks and presented them in a way that indicated that they might be one’s personal network. And for many users, this wasn’t quite right. You may talk to your ex-husband frequently via email, but that doesn’t mean that you want to follow him on Buzz.

On Twitter & Facebook:

Many people mistakenly assume that tweets and status updates are the same thing. They are not and the difference has to do with publicity. While many started using Twitter to communicate with friends, the site has evolved to be primarily about those seeking an audience and those seeking to follow or contribute to a public in some way. Facebook, on the other hand, is still fundamentally about communicating with a specific set of people who are, by and large, your friends. Facebook is clearly looking to change this but, as it stands, these two services are primarily used very differently by their core users.

On public by default, private through effort:

we’re seeing an inversion of defaults when it comes to what’s public and what’s private. Historically, a conversation that you might have in the hallway is private by default, public through effort. It’s private because no one bothers to share what’s being said. The conversation may be made public if something worth spreading is said. Even though the conversation took place in a public setting, the conversation is private by default, public through effort. Conversely, when you engage online in equally public settings such as on someone’s Facebook Wall, the conversation is public by default, private through effort. You actually have to think about making something private because, by default, it is going to be accessible to a much broader audience. Now, in both settings – the hallway and the Wall – you may have stayed in public because you invited the possibility that other people would join the conversation. But because of persistence in particular, the conversation on Facebook is accessible at an entirely different level. This requires a different set of calculations, a different set of choices. You have to choose to limit access rather than assuming that it won’t spread very far. And, needless to say, people make a lot of mistakes learning this. … The “public by default” environment that we are so proudly creating isn’t always the great democratizer; for many, it’s exactly the opposite. Just because technology allows us to speak up in public doesn’t mean that everyone is comfortable doing so or, for that matter, will be heard. Keep in mind: the technologies of publicity don’t guarantee others’ attention.

Boyd touched on some of these themes last month in a CBC Spark interview with William Deresiewicz about the nature of friendship online — whether social networking has changed what we mean when we say ‘friend,’ and how digital tools like Facebook and MySpace ask us to define, categorize, and list our friends. Well worth a listen.