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.”