An interview with danah boyd, author of ‘It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens’ (and drag queens)

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If you’ve read danah boyd’s new book, “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens” you’ll understand just how complicated online privacy, identity, and the use of real names on Facebook can be. Boyd is a Research Assistant Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU, a Fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and also a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research.

Boyd is in Boston this week to deliver a keynote address at the Marketing Profs B2B Conference in Copley Square. I caught up with her and asked her a few questions about her new book and other issues surrounding online privacy.

In your book, you wrote about how many teens and adults use an alias or other identity on social media. Were there particularly creative or intriguing ways that some used pseudonyms online that you uncovered as you did your research for the book?

From the early days of IRC to AIM, MySpace to Instagram, youth have long used the opportunity to create a handle or a nickname or a username to express their interests and identity.  Because of this, you see shifts.  A young girl who starts out as carebear05 might become dharmabum42 as she ages and switches services.  Youth usually have a reason for why they choose what they choose.  Sometimes, teens are just juvenile, using numbers like 69 or labels like ladykilla to look cool to their friends.  Sometimes, it’s meant to start a connection, like when they refer to their favorite band in their name in the hopes of finding other fans.  But I don’t think any of it is that surprising once you sit down and understand the person creating the name.

What did you think of Facebook’s attempt to enforce a name change policy?

From the beginning, Facebook has argued that real names are necessary to create a civilized world on the Internet. Researchers have consistently argued that real names won’t necessarily create healthy outcomes and, indeed, we’ve seen a tremendous amount of meanness and cruelty on Facebook by people whose names identify their corporeal selves. Facebook has also had to deal with plenty of other byproducts of deception, including impersonation.  So they implemented a policy that they’ve varyingly enforced over the years. The problem is that that policy, when taken to an extreme, is harmful to a variety of marginalized individuals and, furthermore, doesn’t even make sense in other cultural contexts (which is why Facebook’s policy varies around the world).

I personally err on the side of giving people the ability to control their own self-presentation, to represent themselves as they see fit.  Facebook has historically erred on the side of forcing people to obey legal norms. I disagree with Facebook’s approach and I was glad to see trans activists and drag queens get loud and proud on the issue.

Where do you expect to see the biggest privacy battles or conflicts in the next ten years?

Companies think that privacy has to do with finding better mechanisms to control the flow of information. People care about finding ways of controlling social situations, including understanding the context and preparing for how what they share is interpreted.  The more that organizations feel as though they have the right to use any publicly-accessible data for any purpose, the more we will see a backlash of frustration and annoyance.  All of this comes down to trust, and when companies are exceedingly popular, they risk it all when they lose the trust of their users.

Who are your favorite writers on this subject?

Oh gosh.  For provocatively insightful public commentary, I always rely on Anil Dash.  For mind-blowing ethnographic ideas, I turn to Biella Coleman.  And to keep myself grounded technically, I turn to Latanya Sweeney and Cynthia Dwork (less for their writings and more for the ways in which their thinking allows me to see any issue differently).

Halley Suitt Tucker is an author, entrepreneur, TechStars alum, and two-time successful Kickstarter campaigner. She lives in Arlington.
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