Category Archives: danah boyd

Danah Boyd and social network freakouts


Marketers are hungry to mine new social-network data: not just what you say, but whom you’re saying it with. There’s a homophily concept, you see, that birds of a feather buy together. A classic 2004 study by AT&T Labs Research found that people who chat frequently on the telephone are three to five times more likely to respond to the same marketing pitch. Twitter today has 75.2 million monthly users, and while 93% of them have sent fewer than 100 tweets, that leaves a population of about 5 million frequently updating their likes about brands, products and services, with visible connections.

Danah Boyd, in her SXSW keynote address, pointed out a nuance in networks, though, that should warn marketers to be careful before they toss offers based on sheer data. The concept goes like this: Imagine you know X people in the world and interact with all of them in some manner. Your behavioral network is everyone you touch somehow, which could be observed from the outside. Yet within this you may have a smaller group that you say you know — by pinning their names inside Microsoft Outlook, or Facebook, or your cell phone contacts — which is your articulated network. And within this, there is an even smaller group who are your personal network — family, true friends, or perhaps enemies, the intimates who touch your inner mind. These are not mutually exclusive categories; an intimate friend may not be someone you log in to an address book; but you treat them as three discrete concepts in your head.

Google’s Buzzworthy failure

Buzz was an attempt by Google to build a new social network; to scale it rapidly, Google decided to tie the on ramp to its Gmail. Gmail users who opened their web mail in February were greeted with a message touting how Buzz would share updates with their friends easily! Trouble was, the default setting in Google Buzz was public disclosure of the names of your Gmail contacts you communicate with most frequently. Want to catch a whiff of a competitor’s business development strategy? Hook in with Buzz and see who they’re emailing. Users could disable the feature, but it was complicated, an opt-out, and made some worry they might cancel their entire Gmail account by doing so.

Danah summed up Google’s mistake:

“Google 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.”

Metcalfe wants more

Technology companies are doing such things not to be evil, but to build networks with more utility that can be monetized at greater value in the future. It’s no mistake Facebook removed privacy settings by default in December, opening your updates to everyone (with the option to go back); the greater the nodes in the network, the higher the value to potential advertisers. This week Twitter announced a new @anywhere initiative that basically allows you to click on links in news articles to follow or retweet authors, publishers or brands — another way to expand its network nodes. Such pushes may indicate social networks are cresting in adoption; Twitter, for instance, should be concerned that 57% of its users have only 1-10 followers and 24% have no followers at all. If you run the network, you want it to grow and to be as open as possible — because that unlocks all doors to value.

But Google, Facebook and other companies that tap networks too hard without weighing the nuances of privacy are met with a fierce backlash. For marketers about to wade into the social streams, it’s worth considering more than the sentiment and volume of tweets about your brand, the connections between users that indicate their responsiveness, and the tactics you can deploy to get them leaning toward your message. You might also consider if your observant intrusion is going to freak anyone out.

Danah Boyd and transparent light


If you don’t follow the mind of Danah Boyd, Google her and get on with it. She’s the leading ethnographic researcher on social media. Here, in an excerpt from her recent dual speeches at Supernova and Le Web, she explores a gaping void in how we use social media to listen:

The public and networked nature of the Internet creates the potential for visibility. We have the ability to see into the lives of so many people who are different than us. But only when we choose to look. So who is looking? Why are they looking? And in what context are they interpreting what they see?

“By and large, those who are looking are those who hold power over the person being observed. Parents look. Teachers look. Employers look. Governments look. Corporations look. These people are often looking to judge or manipulate. Given the powerful position they are in, those doing the looking often think that they have the right to look. The excuse is simple: “it’s public.” But do they have the right to judge? The right to manipulate? This, of course, is the essence of conversations about surveillance. And so we argue and argue and argue about the right to privacy in public spaces.

“But privacy is a complex topic. We used to argue for a right to privacy to justify what happens in the domestic sphere, including domestic violence. The idea that domestic violence was once acceptable is hard to imagine today, in this world, but not that long ago, the logic used to go: ‘she’s my wife, it’s my home, I can do whatever I want to her.’ We cannot use privacy to justify the right to abuse people in private. But we also can’t use privacy to justify not looking when people are hurting or when they’re crying out for help. We need to find a balance that allow us to have control over our information, but also be heard when we are in need of help and support.

“So I want to twist this around for a moment. When should we be looking? Not looking to judge or manipulate, but looking to learn, support, or evolve? Shouldn’t we be looking for the at-risk kids who are in trouble? Shouldn’t we be willing to see their stories, their pain, their hurt? So that we can help them? Shouldn’t we be looking to see the world more broadly? Shouldn’t we be willing to see in order to learn and transform the society we live in? This is the essence of what Jane Jacobs called ‘eyes on the street’.

“It breaks my heart that there are youth out there, crying out for help. And no one is listening.”

Danah’s complete speech is here. Image: Gabriela Camerotti.

Turn off, tune in: In praise of tangential engagement


Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd has an elegant riff about the culture clash of young people who use the internet as a backchannel (say, clicking on laptops or cell phones during meetings) and older people who get annoyed by it. At a recent lecture on sociocybernetics in Italy, Danah ticked off an elderly speaker with her multitasking on a gadget.

“But during the talk, I had looked up six different concepts he had introduced (thank you Wikipedia), scanned two of the speakers’ papers to try to grok what on earth he was talking about, and used Babelfish to translate the Italian conversations taking place on Twitter and FriendFeed in attempt to understand what was being said. Of course, I had also looked up half the people in the room (including the condescending man next to me) and posted a tweet of my own…

Danah concludes this is a problem for every business, in which older professionals see web use as productivity leaks instead of enhancements.

The question is thornier for advertisers, who must wonder, for instance, if television impressions are really that if younger demos are multitasking on laptops or mobile. Perhaps the answer to the current debate over how advertisers can climb aboard social media is not to push in at all, but to welcome social backchannels as a companion forum. Let them talk among themselves. It may help them listen.

Image: Alex // Berlin