Incantations for Muggles: The Role of Ubiquitous Web 2.0 Technologies in Everyday Life
danah boyd, Doctoral Candidate, School of Information, University of California-Berkeley
Thank you so much for getting up at this hour. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Harry Potter, there are way more readers of HP than there are of BoingBoing or Digg combined. Muggles are those who are not wizards, those who do not have the magic.
Muggles have magic all around them… but don’t see it.
The talk is titled this way because it can be read on 2 levels — we’re here celebrating magic, because we are the wizards. But then we start to not think about Muggles, and mock them. Does that make us EEEeevil? What powers, and responsibilities do we have?
Or the flip side — perhaps we are the Muggles? People make magic everyday. Maybe we are trying to model things on the magic of everyday life? What does it mean to try to build it into technology? What if we build mirages not magic?
What are the spells we cast on one another, the spells that technologists cast on society, and what are the spells that practices cast back on us?
1) going to talk about ways to look at people and who they are
2) talk about tech companies and biases in systems
3) stuff that bubbles up when tech and people come to together
Questioning “build it and they will come.” What’s cool is when you look behind the scenes — when you look at a Penn & Teller show you don’t understand the stuff behind the curtain. The stuff behind the curtain for us is people, especially in social media. There are different ways to look at people. But one of the most important ways is to segment them — because you need to understand that there are people who are not like you. We run the risk of seeing the world as one big homogenous group.
Life stages in one way to look at this:
- identity formation and role-seeking: youth, college, teens
- integration and coupling: 20s
- societal contribution: professional life, marriage
- Reflection and storytelling: retirement
Youth asks, “who am I and how do I fit in?” They look at what are norms, then at their peer groups. People start to fit into groups: geeks, freaks, queers, other labels we got in middle school. You’re trying toi realize that the world is not all contiguous. We try to project education onto this young group, but what youth are trying to figure out is actually the world around them. And it’s not an individual process. We cannot be defined individually, but by the people around us. So a lot of stuff comes down to socialization, friendship, interaction.
As we switch to finding a formalized role, today integrating into the workforce is not where you find that identity. So you look for meaningful labor. How do I begin to contribute? Young people today have more trouble finding careers, as opposed to jobs. A lot of 20 somethings are just doing jobs. A quarter-life crisis, basically. Also a real drive for coupling.
Because the 3rd stage is this image of marriage from the 50s, which is a myth and was even in the 1950s. This dream works because we want to work towards this, contribute.
As we get older, our roles shift. We no longer are focused on even our children or labor, but instead on what our life was about. What matters to us? This is going to change radically in the next ten years because baby boomers have a very different picture of reitrement.
This is just one way of slicing things… the question is what people care about.
Family, friends, religion, labor, etc. It shifts over time.
1. friends, attention, play, sex, consumption
2. sex, friends, money, play, labor
3. labor family money power property
4. family, health, religion, hobbies, friends
Teens are obsessed not with sex but with having a boyfriend or girlfriend, with social connections. 20s are actually obsessed with sex, coupling off. Friends fall off in astounding numbers at stage 3. This is also where property comes in, not just consumption. Then in 4, health comes in, religion because of reflection, and of course family.
All of this is debatable, but because it’s a way to look at how people engage with tech. This may not be people like you. They have different values. Silicon Valley is not at all what it looks like in the rest of the country.
Young people are going to social network sites for friends — not strangers. 20-somethings use the sites for sex to meet strangers – “once you have slept with your friends, you don’t sleep with them ever again”. LinkedIn has no value for these younger folks. So you see people move through technologies because they meet different needs.
The social glue is magic not created by the creators, it’s magic.
Blogging is interesting, a little bit older than the social network sites. Young folks are not seeking large audiences. Then there’s the older take which is about constructive work. And what’s going to happen when the older folks start blogging: Modern Millie, reflective blogging.
Many of you in the room are passionate about the techs you create. you dream of changing the world. Education, politics, civic engagement. We want the world to be a better place. Corporations are most of the folks controlling the tech, and they have very different incentives and needs. Specifically, the concept of shareholders. A lot of what they want is monetization and growth. You can’t just be profitable, you have to be growing constantly.
What Kathy Sierra is saying that you have to make people passionate and excited in order to get them to pay. Teens are fine with ads, they know that they pay the bills. Just make the ads relevant, they say. The issue is that we are often forced to grow, and that has consequences.
Tangent: there was a report years ago that women had no media role models… and two tv shows came out of this: Buffy and My So Called Life. MSCL had a more successful pilot, went to ABC, Buffy went to the WB. They hit the target demo very precisely to an unprecedented level. But no other demo watched either one at first. ABC needed growth, so they killed MSCL. And WB said, let’s focus on niches instead. They made a ton of programming about niches. The more passionate the niche was, the more the broad audience tuned in. They also were able to sell a crazy amount of stuff to this passionate niche.
Tech companies have not taken up this model. We think it needs to scale to everyone. But this has a lot of cost. Facebook is frustrating me — it was a rite of passage: you talk to college kids who wanted the .edu address desperately because college life was all about Facebook.
Then it opened to high schools. And in the Princetonian we see an article about how he didn’t want to be on a site with his younger brother — that’s why he left home. College kids make posters like a banned sign over a “I facebooked your mom” t-shirt.
Expansion has costs. One of the costs is that you get people angry with you. The common response is lock-in: you have to stay even if you don’t want to, which goes against what people really value. Unhappy users do not make products stick, cf Friendster.
We talk about people and tech companies. When they come together amazing things happen. But you don’t see them in the tech industry. What does it mean for young kids in Iraq o communicate with their families via the web? They create communities of support. People create spaces (like Etsy) where they share the art they create. People find each other in meatspace — knitters, for example. With stage 3 folks it started, and now it is moving into stage 4. My grandfather was all excited over this technology which facilitated real life meetings. They can come together for different actions – - this weekend a rally for teens on politics of immigration, for example.
What comes out isn’t always good for society: a site dedicated to fighting and putting up videos of how teens beat each other up. For better or worse, it reflects what happens offline. A site dedicated to self-harm, with pictures of everything they do, and compete for how far they can go.
Also a lot of mourning: sites dedicated to the dead. Every day for years the friends will come back and comment there because the site is “proof of existence”. A guy who writes letters every day to his dead daugter on her MySpace page.
The fact is that social media are people (poster of Soylent Green).
I talk a lot about
- persistence: everything sticks around
- searchability: what does it mean that you can always be found?
- replicability: how do we know what truth or reality when you can copy and paste and cannot tell the original and dupe apart? Or conversations that move across and scale? MySpace break up with each other on MySpace comments… bc they know that anything can be taken out of context, they put it on myspace where it’s surely their original words.
- invisible audiences. What doe sit mean that we don’t know who is watching us? I have a sense right now of who I am talking to. But online you do not know the social context of who you talk to and what social context. I still feel really badly for the Star Wars Kid– big personal consequences. His life has changed since then.
These are all which are different from how society works now.
We are used to having walls in the real world. We assume them socially. We know that norms here are defined with that boundary — how we communicate is dictated by the environment around us.
What are the walls online? The moment that the conversation spreads it changes context. How do you train a generation to speak to speak to all people of all sorts at all times? It wouldn’t be socially appropriate to dance on your conference chairs. The rules change based on context.
Most people go with ostrich mode. If I can’t see it, it doesn’t exist. Really, all rules of privacy are changing. Young people have taken ownership of this issue and dealt with it. And the older folks are upset with them over it!
So all sorts of new rules are the result. Andy Warhol and the 15 minutes of fame. Now we speak of famous to 15 people. Twitter is the most fascinating example of complete cognitive overload. Is it really building meaningful social realitions? Do we really gain anything? I know way too many details about Angelina Jolie. She won’t be there for me when I have a crisis. Will Twitter friends be there for you? It’s not a space where you can talk about deep things in your life. It’s valuable because you feel presence, but how much can we take of it? Gossip is juicy, but what does it mean that we are making tech that gives us more and more influx of info?
In Facebook, what are the costs for knowing who broke up with who on the entire campus?
I wish things would go meaningfully mobile. Someday it will happen, carriers or not. Then we will have location data, and how do we deal with that? We have ad hoc ways to look at it, but practice will shift radically.
This is all about architecture. Tech is architecture, code is too as Lessig says. We thru tech are shifting architecture in society. People are figuring out how to work around it. Do we keep being ostriches, or do we try to understand what people are doing?
What does it mean to pay attention to the spells cast in both directions? The accidental spells? The Star Wars kid? The student who gets kicked out of college because of their Facebook? We think it’s all positive. Are we always happy with that? Do we even think about it, or do we forget that people’s lives are at stake.
I ask you to ask these questions when you build tech. What are the consequences and how do you prepare?
Edit: danah has posted her “crib” for the talk, which is more complete and grammatical than these notes.