Youth Social Norms and Privacy Online: Interview with danah boyd, Part I

Wednesday, July 13, 2011 at 12:02 pm
Jennifer Dick's picture

This post is part of a series of interviews highlighting leaders in the field of New Learning (what we call “NLI at Inquiry”). Recently, we interviewed danah boyd—Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research, Visiting Researcher at Harvard University’s Law School, and Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales—on subjects including how youth develop online identities, social norms, and privacy issues. Here, in excerpts from Part I of the interview, she discusses how youth navigate online privacy issues.

danah boyd is a Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Associate at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales. Her work examines everyday practices involving social media, with specific attention to youth engagement, privacy, and risky behaviors. She recently co-authored Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media and formerly co-directed the Youth and Media Policy Working Group, funded by the MacArthur Foundation. She blogs at and tweets at @zephoria.

Tell us about your current research.

My research goes in a couple of different places right now. One is that I’ve been doing a lot of ethnographic work trying to understand how young people build out a sense of privacy in very public places, and that line of inquiry is really pushing back against the myth that kids don’t care about privacy. I’ve spent a long time watching young people and their engagement with social media and it’s very clear that they care deeply about privacy; so I’ve been looking at the strategies that they attempt to achieve privacy, how it fails, how they try to cope with it, who they actually consider with regard to privacy, etc. That’s a sort of fun, on-the-ground set of fieldwork.

Another set of ongoing work that I’ve been doing is looking at some of the legal structures around kids and privacy. There are various laws in the U.S. that attempt to restrict data collection about young people, but inadvertently tend to limit their access to all sorts of online places. So I’m doing different research there. One that is about to go to the field is looking at parents’ understanding of age restrictions online…

What are some of the nuances of privacy that exist for young people today?

The whole thing about privacy is that there are many different ways to understand what privacy is, and this has been debated by philosophers, legal scholars, political scientists, and computer scientists for a very long time, so I’m not trying to say that I have “the” answer to “What is privacy?” But it’s very clear to me when I think about teenage enactment of privacy, and I look at it from their perspective, that there are two really important factors at play, and those two really critical factors are the ability to control the social situation and the ability to have agency within that social situation.

Control and agency are really critical factors in all this, which comes out in really important ways: even if you can technically control something, if you don’t have the agency in that environment, it doesn’t matter because you’ll lose that control immediately… Young people often lack agency in their social situations just because of the presence of their parents and their parents’ belief that they have the right to violate privacy at any given point. A good example of this is that even if a teenager can figure out how to structurally lock down their Facebook—which, albeit, is extremely difficult these days—all their parents have to do is look over their shoulder, and that really ruptures any chance to achieve a form of structural privacy. So one of the things my colleague Alice Marwick and I spend a lot of time doing in the field is looking at what are the strategies that young people do to try to achieve privacy, and how does it play out.

We found three categories of strategies that we think are really interesting. The first is the attempt to assert social norms. This is the equivalent of putting up the “keep out” sign on the door in the bedroom, which is like, “I’m going to tell you what the social norms are, and you should follow them.” The challenge with this is the ability to assert is really an interesting one, but then the ability to regulate that assertion is extremely difficult, and this is where power comes into play in really significant ways. And so we see countless adults who are like, “Well, it’s publicly accessible, therefore I should have the right to access it,” violating any attempt to do social norm management.

The next category of strategies that we see comes into what we think of as structural strategies. These are strategies that involve using features in the technology, locking doors, trying to deal with the architecture—whether it’s the online architecture or the physical architecture—to try to assert control over a specific space, a specific set of content. One of the things we see in all of these structural strategies is that they can often be violated through basic social hacks. Even if you can stop who sees your content, it just takes one of your friends to copy and paste things and pass it on for the structural strategy to have failed.

The third and strongest of the strategies that we see (that we haven’t found good phrasing for, but we’re going with the idea that they’re social strategies) are when young people work to regulate access to meaning instead of trying to regulate access to content. So in other words, a good example of this would be, “Oh my god, I can’t believe what she said.” And if you post something like that, everybody who’s in the know knows who “she” is and what was said. It becomes a signal and it becomes a block. So you might be able to say, “Oh, who are you talking about here?” And depending then on how I feel about you, I may or may not tell you who that is. And needless to say, parents are usually kept in the dark on this one. That’s a way of making it visible that you’re hiding; but there’s another sub-practice in there, which I think is really interesting, which we talk about in social steganography. And the idea of social steganography—a cryptography concept—it means “hiding in plain sight.” Young people post song lyrics all the time. Some song lyrics are just song lyrics. Some song lyrics have either meaning to them specifically, generally, et cetera. And so we see young people putting up song lyrics as a way of encoding content, encoding concepts, encoding meaning into written text.

So these are just some of the strategies that we see, and one of the things that becomes really interesting here is that obviously gender is a factor that we see, young women in particular being much more consciously aware of all these different kinds of social protocols. But what’s been really noticeable to us, and what we’re having a really hard time untangling, is that it seems like an even more salient factor has to do with class, and that the more marginalized youth are, the more innovative they seem to get with some of these strategies… And they’ve learned that there’s the idea of street smarts, and they’re taking the notion of street smarts to the digital street.

To be continued...

How do youth view online communities? How do they navigate the different group norms of friends and family? How do they use highly contextual information to keep sensitive information private in online public places?

Next time we will publish Part II of our interview with danah, focusing on what she’s learned about online behavioral norms and privacy from the youth with whom she’s worked.

Additional resources on danah boyd’s work: