Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

Microsoft’s Danah Boyd: Social Media Makes the World More Fearful

Our networked society has a talent for fear-mongering, said Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd in a speech at SXSW Interactive in Austin on Saturday.

Information overload makes us numb, but things that freak us out have a rare ability to break through and capture our attention, Boyd said. As she put it, “The attention economy provides fertile ground for the culture of fear.”

Everyday negative occurrences can seem more important because social media documents them and makes them visible. Boyd noted that a story of a mugging or a personal experience with bullying is what sticks in our minds, much more so than rational information.

“Fear cannot be combated through data,” she said.

In fact, examining historical data shows that kids bullying each other actually isn’t on the rise, Boyd contended. It’s just that now parents have a window into their children’s online actions, so they’re freaking out about the rise of cyberbullying.

Boyd called on social media toolmakers to consider how their creations may be repurposed to spread negativity. Even if techies have idealistic hopes of people using technology for good or even neutral purposes, that isn’t always going to happen.

She said she didn’t have a solution to offer, but wanted to start a discussion. She does have some thoughts about what won’t work.

For one thing, Boyd doesn’t have much faith in so-called “radical transparency.” Many techies love the idea of trying to combat intolerance by making the world more open and honest; for instance, Facebook requires users to register with their real names.

But people who are marginalized often benefit the least from transparency, Boyd said. “Why do we expect that when people go online and are exposed to new people it will be good? Just because you have opportunity to meet strangers and value their perspectives doesn’t mean you necessary do.”

(Photo credit: Esty Stein / Personal Democracy Media)


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— Om Malik on Bloomberg TV, talking about Yahoo, the September issue of Vogue Magazine, and our overdependence on Google