danah boyd Discusses the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Internet

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on July 6, 2017


“Technology is made by people in a society, and it has a tendency to mirror and magnify the issues that affect everyday life.” - danah boyd


Image: danah boyddanah boyd joins Ezra Klein (on The Ezra Klein Show) to discuss a plethora of topics from her years of work with youth and social media, the social and cultural dimensions of big data, and the civil rights implications of data analytics.


Topics covered in this engaging 90-minute conversation include: why fake news is so easy to believe, digital white flight, how an anthropologist studies social media, the reasons machine learning algorithms reflect our prejudices rather than fixing them, what Netflix initially got wrong about their recommendations engine, the value of pretending your audience is only six people, the early utopian visions of the internet, and more.


Here are a few excerpts:


danah boyd’s Early Work Studying People’s Use of the Internet


Internet stuff was so esoteric. I loved it because it was esoteric. I loved it because people were imaging all sorts of possibilities. And so much of how they were using these technologies – which is why I was so fascinated by their practices – was to imagine things that went far beyond what the designers were imagining. They were just trying to see these as tools within their broader lives, and they were trying to use them for what they thought was most important for them. And it was often not what those Silicon Valley designers were imagining they should be used for. And that disconnect is part of what I loved. Understanding the disconnect between the design and the development process and the everyday usage practices.


The Internet is used for the good, bad, and ugly. It magnifies the good, bad, and ugly. And I always come back to that. I still believe that that’s true. It’s this moment where we can see these tools be used to create such openings, to create such opportunities, to imagine different futures. But they can also be used to reify all sorts of existing prejudices and inequities.


In the early days of my work, when I was doing work with youth, I was the one that was simultaneously looking at how people who were identifying with a lifestyle of anorexia were using these tools alongside dreamers who were imaging them as activist tools. And they were seeing it in the same vein, the same kind of online communities.


The same is actually true today. And the challenge is that the cost of not grappling with both simultaneously means that we ping-pong from hype to fear. Back and forth. And right now, we’re definitely in a moment of fear. And the remedy is not to go back to a moment of hype. It’s to understand what that manipulation looks like, what the negative aspects of society look like, where we see inequities, and how we can actually help alleviate pains that have existed within society long before the Internet came in to play.


The Value of a Hacker Mindset


The way of thinking that I keep coming back to is a hacker mindset. And I mean that in a really positive sense. If you think about the rise of security, you think about putting hackers alongside people trying to develop security infrastructure; because it’s the people who break it alongside the people who make it that actually can imagine all sorts of different possibilities. And I think we need that for broader societal structures. We need to understand why people are trying to break these systems as well as why people are trying to make them, and where that collision occurs. And that the resolution is not necessarily more technology. Or just a magical fix that will somehow fall from the sky. It’s about working through those differences. And that is the project of being part of a society. And it’s the hardest project to maintain. And it’s one technology can’t solve for us.


Listen to the full podcast on The Ezra Klein Show: “danah boyd on why fake news is so easy to believe


danah boyd is a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, the founder of Data & Society, a visiting professor at New York University. Dr. boyd’s research examines the intersection between technology and society.