Home' Technology Review : September October 2010 Contents notebooks 11
ing in public. We speak privately in pub-
lic all the time. Sitting in a restaurant,
we have intimate conversations know-
ing that the waitress may overhear. We
count on what Erving Goffman called
“civil inattention”: people will politely
ignore us, and even if they listen they
won’t join in, because doing so violates
social norms. Of course, if a close friend
sits at the neighboring table, everything
changes. Whether an environment is
public or not is beside the point. It’s the
situation that matters.
Whenever we speak in face-to-face
settings, we modify our communication
on the basis of cues like who’s present
and how far our voices carry. We negoti-
ate privacy explicitly—“Please don’t tell
anyone”—or through tacit understanding.
Sometimes, this fails. A friend might gos-
sip behind our back or fail to understand
what we thought was implied. Such
incidents make us question our interpre-
tation of the situation or the trustworthi-
ness of the friend.
All this also applies online, but with
additional complications. Digital walls
do almost have ears; they listen, record,
and share our messages. Before we can
communicate appropriately in a social
environment like Facebook or Twitter,
we must develop a sense for how and
what people share.
When the privacy options available to
us change, we are more likely to question
the system than to alter our own behavior.
But such changes strain our relationships
and undermine our ability to navigate
broad social norms. People who can be
whoever they want, wherever they want,
are a privileged minority.
As social media become more embed-
ded in everyday society, the mismatch
between the rule-based privacy that soft-
ware offers and the subtler, intuitive ways
that humans understand the concept will
increasingly cause cultural collisions and
social slips. But people will not abandon
social media, nor will privacy disappear.
They will simply work harder to carve out
a space for privacy as they understand
it and to maintain control, whether by
using pseudonyms or speaking in code.
Instead of forcing users to do that, why
not make our social software support the
way we naturally handle privacy? There
is much to be said for allowing the sun-
light of diversity to shine. But too much
sunlight scorches the earth. Let’s create a
forest, not a desert.
danah Boyd is a soCial-media researCher at
miCrosoft researCh neW enGland, a felloW
at harVard uniVersity’s Berkman Center for
internet and soCiety, and a memBer of the
2010 tr35 (p. 49).
During a Crisis
soCial softWare, says
daVid koBia, Can help
durinG a Catastrophe—
Ushahidi was created in response to
the crisis after the failed elections in
Kenya in 2007. In our quest to minimize
the impact of riots and unrest around the
country, we developed a free open-source
platform that allows people to report
incidents they witness. Their reports
are added to an online map that rap-
idly becomes a source for information
neglected by media and governments.
Watching Ushahidi in use after disas-
ters like the Haitian earthquake has
shown that in a crisis, the barriers of com-
placency and cultural indifference break
down. People directly, indirectly, and
even remotely involved in a situation are
suddenly open to collaborating and shar-
ing. It is at this moment that the crowd is
the most powerful. Once the crisis is over,
though, apathy breaks up this cohesion.
With Ushahidi, in keeping with a pattern
seen in other social media, a mere 1 per-
cent of participants actively contribute
new content, 9 percent interact with it,
and the other 90 percent are mere view-
ers. These ratios slide further toward pas-
sive viewing once an event is no longer
front-page news. Finding ways to help
keep the crowd engaged beyond the crisis
is one of our greatest challenges.
Like anyone trying to promote user
engagement, we must relentlessly remind
people of our message to encourage them
to use the service. We have to connect
different sources of information that oth-
erwise would never be linked. Adapting
Ushahidi to incorporate social media is
a big part of our strategy: it encourages
user-generated content and gives every-
one a front-row seat as events unfold.
After a user reports a crime or a dan-
gerous situation, the balance between
give and take is crucial. A first responder
can take action if appropriate, or the
person who reported the event can sign
up for alerts of similar events reported by
others nearby. All this is made possible
by tools like text messaging and mobile-
phone applications that reduce the barri-
ers to participation.
Ushahidi has often been described
as simply a map with red dots. That is
not far from the truth. But people often
forget that behind each of those dots is a
human experience—perhaps a life or lives
that have been touched by disaster.
daVid koBia is direCtor of teChnoloGy deVel-
opment for ushahidi and a memBer of the
2010 tr35 (p. 44).
Sept10 Notebooks.indd 11
8/11/10 9:47 AM
Links Archive July August 2010 November December 2010 Navigation Previous Page Next Page