Saturday, July 31, 2010

Context Deficit Disorder

Worried that there might be too much information about you online? Microsoft researcher and social media expert danah boyd says it's better to worry that there may not be enough. "The material that is being put up online is searchable by anyone, and it is being constantly accessed -- out of context and without any level of nuance," boyd told attendees of the Supernova conference in Philadelphia on Friday. "That kind of spotlight on people can be deeply devastating, and a type of exposure that may not be beneficial to society."

Put simply, boyd said, "we can't divorce information from interpretation ... or we risk grave inaccuracy." Example: the online record of a woman that lists her arrest on charges of sodomy against a minor. "I think everybody would think, just by seeing this bit of information, that this person is not somebody we would want anywhere near us," boyd said. "But when I tell the story about a 17-year-old in Georgia who was arrested because she was forced into having sex with a 15-year-old classmate in the school and now has a permanent record of sodomy against a minor, we then have a very different image of what's going on."

Okay, so who gets to decide whether the information we see about ourselves and others online is (or isn't) complete? That's where it gets really uncomfortable, boyd says. We don't have complete control. [According to algorithmic data, boyd said, some data profiles of her list her as a truck driver, presumably "because of all the Motel 8s I stay at" as she travels across country doing field research, she says.] "(Anyone) can put together massive amounts of dossiers on people, but where are the ethics and responsibilities around doing this? Journalists have had an interesting and long-standing discussion about ethics and privacy but that same concern doesn't necessary pervade the blogging culture. People who don't see themselves as journalists now have the same rights and the technology to speak really loudly."

A big part of the problem, boyd says, is that people can't agree on a definition of privacy. [Author Jeff Jarvis (What Would Google Do?), who joined boyd on stage to talk about privacy, agreed.] "We don't know what we're talking about (when we use the term privacy)," boyd said. "Companies don't know and the media don't know." But boyd took a stab at it:

"What I have found from talking to a lot of people is that privacy is about understanding a social situation and how information will flow -- and then making decisions that will recognize this. ... People scream 'privacy fail' when they feel they've lost control of the context of what is being said; when they feel as though the system has told them the information will flow one way but then they find out it will flow differently ... and it's also important to realize that people see privacy as something related to the different actors they care about -- or don't (such as parents or other local authority figures like teachers, college admissions officers, employers and social influencers.) I promise you that come fall, we will be debating what notions of privacy we care about as we think about regulation."

Jarvis agreed. "What forces our fears about privacy are very important to deal with," he said. "...but the social Web is (triggering) Gutenberg-like changes here, so we don't know where this is all headed."

For more on the evolving privacy debate, see Radical Shock on this blog, along with Machine Rule and Google Oogled.

-- Marcia Stepanek

(Illustration by Joaquin Croxatto for

Labels: , , , , ,


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home