Privacy is not dead, says SXSWi keynoter Boyd

Recent PR debacles surrounding Google Buzz and Facebook's privacy settings have put the spotlight on basic misunderstandings by tech companies about how people use social media.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read

AUSTIN, Texas--Privacy is not dead in the era of online social networking. It just needs careful curation.

That was the message Saturday from Danah Boyd, a social-media expert who works for Microsoft Research and who was Saturday's keynote speaker at the South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) festival here.

SXSW's Saturday keynote speaker Danah Boyd. Danah Boyd

Boyd is one of the original social-media researchers, having spent years studying the dynamics of how systems like MySpace and Facebook impact teens and youth culture, and how that culture is impacting such services. But she also has demonstrated over the years a keen sense of how people across all age groups use social networks, and her talk touched on many different communities.

To begin with, she said, privacy is by no means dead. "People care very much about privacy, no matter how old they are," Boyd said. "The challenge is that what privacy means may not be what you think...Fundamentally, it's about having control over how information flows...When people feel they don't have control over their environment or their setting, they feel as though their privacy has been violated. And they cry foul."

To begin with, Boyd used the recent Google Buzz debacle as an example of how people of all stripes demonstrated that they care deeply about their privacy. She explained that while there was nothing technically wrong with the way Google's new social-networking system integrated with Gmail, it nonetheless resulted in a PR nightmare for the search giant because "they made nontechnical mistakes that ended up in social disruption."

First, Boyd said, Google failed by interfacing Buzz, a public-facing system, with Gmail--"one of the most private systems imaginable." The problem with that, she explained, is that "people genuinely believed that Google was exposing their private e-mails to the world."

And while that widely held perception was not technically true, Boyd said, Google's lack of understanding about how people would react to the forced opt-out provisions of Buzz caused an unnecessary panic. And, she said, Google is hardly alone in what is, in the best case, a basic misunderstanding of what users want or, in the worst case, a new corporate strategy of trying to get as many users locked in right away, regardless of the consequences.

"More and more technology companies are thinking it's OK to expose people," Boyd said, "and then backtracking a couple weeks later, when people are flipping out."

Her point was that people, as everyone knows, tend to simply click through the choices offered them in new software without fully investigating, most likely because they assume that all will be well. The problem is that in cases like that of Buzz, the automatic settings may well go against what people really want or understand they're getting.

"I kept meeting people thinking that if they opted out, they would be canceling their Gmail accounts," Boyd said.

Breaking the ice
For Boyd, her years of research have been eye opening into the divergence between what users want--and their emergent behavior--and the ways tech companies interpret those desires. Often, she said, companies trying to build efficiencies into their systems profoundly misunderstand what they're trying to be efficient about.

One example, she said, comes from chat rooms. There, she said, she used to encounter people who would frequently be saying "A/S/L" when newcomers showed up. That meant, she said, "Age, sex, location," a way for people to try to find things out about the people with whom they were sharing the spaces.

Chat room owners, however, saw an opportunity to help, and thinking that people were simply trying to get the basic information about others in the chat rooms, began building in age, gender, and location information into users' profiles.

That was a big mistake, Boyd explained, because it turned out that when people were asking, "A/S/L," they were actually trying to use comfortable social cues in order to start conversations. By providing the profile information ahead of time, it removed a normal and acceptable way for people to begin talking to strangers. And, she said, it can be uncomfortable and "creepy," if you start a conversation by saying something like, "Hi, I see you're from Austin."

SXSW Interactive keynote speaker and social-media expert Danah Boyd during her talk Saturday. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Riffing off that example, Boyd then talked about the difference between what she called "articulated networks" such as Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace, and "behavior networks," which are ones that form when people are physically in the same space. Google miscalculated with Buzz, she said, by collapsing articulated networks and behavioral networks and assuming that was the same thing as someone's personal network. The search company, she said, assumed that people wanted different parts of their personal context to be integrated.

"Just because something is publicly accessible doesn't mean people want to be publicized," she said.

It's all about context
For most people, participating in social networks of any kind is all about context. When we're sitting in a cafe, talking with a trusted friend, we are happy to share intimate thoughts, despite the fact that we have no real control over whether that person will then go behind our backs and tell others our secrets. Online, however, the social norms are fundamentally different.

Teenagers, she suggested, have proven to be an ideal testing ground for some of these dynamics because young people have learned a lot about these differences. And while many teens are acutely interested in trying to get noticed, the reality is that most won't ever get attention beyond their closest circle of friends and family. Not in a world where there are 400 million Facebook users.

Security through obscurity then "is not as ridiculous as it might seem," Boyd said. "Even if you want massive amounts of attention, it's often hard to try to achieve that."

Still, Boyd said, people of all ages aren't good at adapting when the rules of the systems they participate in change around them, and they are constantly surprised when those rules shift. And that's why there is often so much dismay at unexpected technology changes in the systems we use the most.

For example, Boyd said, Facebook also had a major "fail" last December when it asked users to reconsider their privacy settings and to choose whether to make their information available to everyone or to keep it private.

The default, she said, was to make information available to everyone and, as always, most people clicked right through. She noted that Facebook, in a bid to show how well its opt-in system worked, bragged that 35 percent of people proactively chose to make their information private. But that meant that fully 65 percent had chosen, deliberately or not, to have their information be public.

And, she said, her research has led her to conclude that nowhere near 65 percent of Facebook users actually wanted that choice. In fact, she said, in research where she has asked nontechies to explain their privacy settings, not a single person could do so accurately.

Some might argue that these are trivial matters, but Boyd would sternly disagree. She gave an example of a girl whose mother had moved her away from an abusive father. After being away for some time, the girl asked her mother to let her start a Facebook account. And when Facebook implemented its December settings changes, she clicked right on through with no idea that her information was now public.

Was the fear that her father will now be able to track her down "an acceptable by-product of Facebook's changes? I don't think it is," Boyd said.

"There's a big difference between publicly available data and publicized data," she said. "And I worry about this publication process and who will be caught in the crossfire."

Indeed, she said, many people face consequences because of the easily available collection of their personal data on social networks. While some of us have no problem with people being able to find things out about us, that is not true for others. Would someone in the country illegally feel comfortable with their profile being open to the world? Or would a battered wife be OK with her ex being able to find her? Not likely.

Chatroulette an interesting throwback
Later in her talk, Boyd touched on the newest online phenomenon, Chatroulette, the site that lets two random strangers see each other via their personal Webcams. In an age, she said, when most interaction online is between people who already know each other, Chatroulette is bringing back the randomness and the it's-all-strangers dynamic of the early days of the Web and "it's kind of delightful to see."

And this is just the beginning. Boyd pointed out what is both obvious and sometimes obscured: that we are going to see a continued emergence of new tools that complicate the boundaries between the public and the private, and technology will continue to make a mess of it.

Ultimately, then, for the people who build these systems, Boyd said, it is imperative that they ask questions about what people really want and what people want to achieve. For marketers, it's essential to remember that the accessibility of people's information online doesn't necessarily indicate that they want to be seen by you. "Just because you can interpret people, doesn't mean you're going to get it right," Boyd said. "Just because you see something doesn't mean you know what's going on."

And to the systems designers on hand for her keynote, Boyd had one final message: "As designers, you need to think through the implications and ethics of what you're doing," she said. "You are shaping the future. How you handle those challenges will shape the future."