"Do you See What I See?: Visibility of Practices through Social Media"

danah boyd
Supernova and Le Web
Supernova: San Francisco, CA on 1 December 2009
Le Web: Paris, France on 10 December 2009

[This is a rough unedited crib of the actual talk]

[French version]

Citation: boyd, danah. 2009. "Do you See What I See?: Visibility of Practices through Social Media." Supernova and Le Web. San Francisco and Paris, 1 and 10 December 2009.


Today's talk is about visibility, about the power of what you can see and whether or not you are looking.

Login to Twitter. Login to Facebook. What you see is a world that you've constructed. These are YOUR "Friends", the people you've chosen to follow. Or at least the people you've been guilted into following. These people shape your experiences of social media.

They speak about things that matter to you, either because you know them personally or because you like the way they think. They speak like you. Or, more accurately, you speak like them. Cuz even though you might think you're speaking to your "audience," your sense of norms is based on the content you read. So, really, you're speaking to the people you follow, even though they might not be the ones who are actually listening. You aren't speaking to your "audience" but to the people who you like to watch.

Your sense of what people do with social media is highly dependent on what you consume, how you consume it, and why you're there in the first place. So is mine. The world you live in online looks different than the world I live in. And it looks different than the world that an average teen lives in. And it looks different than the world Lady Gaga lives in. And it looks different than the world that people from different cultural backgrounds experience. Our worlds are different, even if the interface gives us the impression that they're the same.

What social media does is allow us to look in on these people's lives. Or, more accurately, see the traces of one aspect of their life. Public genres of social media give us the ability to access worlds that are different than ours. Regardless of where we are in the world, we can see the experiences of people who are different than us. But are we even looking?

I have a funny habit. Every day, I login to search.twitter and search for common words. Admittedly, I primarily search in English because my language skills in other languages are poor. But sometimes, I entertain myself by looking in other languages just for fun. I search for words like "the" or, better yet, "teh" just to see what people will write. I look for common names or random words.

Why on earth do I do this? I do this in order to habitually look at worlds that are different than my own. As a researcher and a scholar, this is an essential technique. I am familiar with Twitter and Facebook and MySpace as a participant, but to observe, I need to move beyond my narrow frame. Thank goodness for search and browse. I look into the lives of people in order to get a sense of the different cultural practices that are emerging. But you can also look into what people are doing.

These same features that give me - and you - the ability to move beyond our personal worlds also introduce new complications. The biggest challenge in being able to look is knowing how to interpret the information we're seeing. What we see isn't always what we might expect.

Let me give you three examples from my research with youth and social network sites that highlight different issues in visibility, in what is made available and how people interpret it.

1. College Admissions Officers

When MySpace was just gaining visibility beyond its early adopter populations, I received a phone call from a college admissions officer at an Ivy League institution. The school had received an application from a young black man living in South Central in LA. He had written a heart-wrenching essay about how he wanted to leave his gang-ridden community. When the college went to his MySpace profile, they were aghast. His profile was filled with gang symbols and references to gang activities.

The question asked of me: why are kids today lying about their lives when it's possible to see the "truth" online? I laughed. That kid from South Central was not lying to the college admissions officer. He was trying to survive. Every day, he walked into his school in South Central. To survive in that school in that community of South Central requires being a part of the gang culture. He was posting for his classmates, not for the college admissions officer. Yet, the college admissions officer had the ability to see. And she misinterpreted what she saw.

I don't know what happened to that young man's fate, but I hope that my conversation with that admissions officer helped him realize that what you see is not always an accurate reflection of reality. It's all about the context. All too often we interpret content we see completely out of context, thinking that our expectations of how the world should be apply to others.

2. Parental Access

The father of a 16-year-old was ecstatic when his daughter invited him to be her friend on MySpace. She had kept a private profile because she didn't want strangers peeking in. Her father was happy with this, but also disappointed that he was excluded. So when she invited him to be her friend, he felt overjoyed. And then he went to look at her profile.

Halfway down, he found a personality quiz. The question was "What drug are you?" And the answer was Cocaine! He wasn't sure how to respond. But he did the right thing. He approached his daughter respectfully, asking for an explanation.

She giggled at him, using the "Oh, dad!" voice. She went on to explain that it was just a quiz. That everyone at her school did these quizzes and they didn't mean a whole lot. But they were fun. Puzzled, he asked her how she ended up at cocaine. She explained that the answers you give really gave the answer away automatically. And when she thought about it, she thought that the kids at school who smoked pot were lame and she didn't want to be like them. And the ones who did mushrooms were crazy. But then she said that line that cinched it all: "But your generation did a lot of coke and you came out OK."

The father couldn't say much to that. His tattoos made his past impossible to hide. Still uncertain, he asked if she was doing coke. She immediately responded with exasperation and horror, "God no!"

This father chose to look, but he also chose to see. Rather than misinterpreting what was visible, he made a decision to understand the context. He did not force her to take it down, but rather, used it as an opportunity to open a conversation that he's very glad he had with her. Choosing to look is one thing; having the confidence to know that one's interpretation may not be accurate is another. The key is asking, talking, opening up conversations.

3. Violence at Home

In Colorado, a girl named Tess killed her mother with the help of a few friends. When the TV news picked it up, they talked about it as "girl with MySpace kills mother." This prompted me to go and look at her MySpace; her MySpace and all of its content was entirely public. It was heartbreaking. For months, she had been documenting her mother's alcoholic rages through her public blog postings on MySpace. Detailed accounts of how her mother physically abused her, yelled at her, and psychologically tormented her. Emotional outpourings, frustration and rage, depression and confusion. Her own decision to start abusing alcohol, her own confusion about what to do. Her friends had left comments, offering emotional support. But they were in above their heads and there was no adult present in any of those comments.

Reading through Tess' page, I found comments from a close friend of hers which had transformed into defending her after she was arrested. This friend's page was also public, filled with heart-wrenching confusion and hurt and uncertainty. I decided that I couldn't be silent so I reached out to this young girl and we started a dialogue. She told me about how everyone knew Tess' mom beat her, but no one knew what to do. No one was willing to listen. Sure enough, as the story would unfold, we would learn that social work had been informed of the abuse from teachers, but nothing was done. The teens in her world felt powerless, unable to even get support in the aftermath from the adults in their community. I counseled this young girl into seeking support from an adult, unable to be a proper counselor for her from afar. But it was clear to me that she had no adult in her community to whom she could turn.

Just because we have the ability to see does not mean that we're actually looking. And often, as in this case, we aren't looking when people need us the most.


Each of these cases raise critical questions to be addressed, but in aggregate, they invite us to think about visibility. The public and networked nature of the Internet creates the potential for visibility. We have the ability to see into the lives of so many people who are different than us. But only when we choose to look. So who is looking? Why are they looking? And in what context are they interpreting what they see?

By and large, those who are looking are those who hold power over the person being observed. Parents look. Teachers look. Employers look. Governments look. Corporations look. These people are often looking to judge or manipulate. Given the powerful position they are in, those doing the looking often think that they have the right to look. The excuse is simple: "it's public." But do they have the right to judge? The right to manipulate? This, of course, is the essence of conversations about surveillance. And so we argue and argue and argue about the right to privacy in public spaces.

But privacy is a complex topic. We used to argue for a right to privacy to justify what happens in the domestic sphere, including domestic violence. The idea that domestic violence was once acceptable is hard to imagine today, in this world, but not that long ago, the logic used to go: "she's my wife, it's my home, I can do whatever I want to her." We cannot use privacy to justify the right to abuse people in private. But we also can't use privacy to justify not looking when people are hurting or when they're crying out for help. We need to find a balance that allow us to have control over our information, but also be heard when we are in need of help and support.

So I want to twist this around for a moment. When should we be looking? Not looking to judge or manipulate, but looking to learn, support, or evolve? Shouldn't we be looking for the at-risk kids who are in trouble? Shouldn't we be willing to see their stories, their pain, their hurt? So that we can help them? Shouldn't we be looking to see the world more broadly? Shouldn't we be willing to see in order to learn and transform the society we live in? This is the essence of what Jane Jacobs called "eyes on the street".

It breaks my heart that there are youth out there, crying out for help. And no one is listening.

What is made visible online includes the best and worst of society. In this community, we love to talk about transparency of information, the power of collective action, the beauty of user-generated content. But what happens when we are also forced to see inequality, racism and misogyny, cruelty and violence? What happens when the content out there isn't the idealized content? Often, we try to stop the problematic content, but what about helping get at the root of the problem?

One of the reasons why people fear the technologies we make are because they make thing visible that we don't like. Parents aren't comfortable seeing the bullying and harassment that happens everyday in schools around the country. So they blame the technology for making what has always been there more visible. Bullying isn't radically on the rise, but it is most distinctly more visible now than ever before. Those who have moved to gated communities to escape people who are different than them hate being forced to see diversity. So they complain about the technologies that represent cultural values outside of their comfort zone.

Think of those who complained when the Trending Topics on Twitter reflected icons of the black community during the Black Entertainment Television awards. Tweets like: "wow!! too many negros in the trending topics for me. I may be done with this whole twitter thing." and "Did anyone see the new trending topics? I don't think this is a very good neighborhood. Lock the car doors kids." and "Why are all the black people on trending topics? Neyo? Beyonce? Tyra? Jamie Foxx? Is it black history month again? LOL". These tweets should send a shiver down your spine. Perhaps these people assumed that Twitter was a white-dominant space where blacks were welcome only if they were a minority.

Not everyone shares our values and, perhaps we should accept this. But I would argue that we should be informed so that we can make change that we want to see in this world. We have the power to build these systems. Rather than being shaped by our imagination of what we think will be, we can be informed about how the world is. And use that to drive the creation of systems in order to make change, in order to help create a world that we want to live in.

So we think about the digital society that we are creating, I invite you to think about visibility. What can you see that you couldn't before? How does this make you feel? And what are you going to do about it? Perhaps its time that we embrace visibility and take a moment to look. Take a moment to see. And, most importantly, take a moment to act.

Thank you very much!