Whether the digital era improves society is up to its users that's us

Danah Boyd
April 21, 2012

From guardian.co.uk

Most technology designers engage in their trade to make the world a better place. Technologists love to celebrate the amazing things that people can do with technology bridge geography, connect communities and transform societies. Meanwhile, plenty of naysayers bemoan the changes brought on by technology, highlighting issues of distraction and attention for example. Unfortunately, this results in a battle between those with utopian and dystopian viewpoints, over who can have a more extreme perspective on technology. So where's the middle ground?

One of my favourite maxims about the role of technology in society is called Kranzberg's first law. He argues that "technology is neither good nor bad nor is it neutral". It's irresponsible to assume that the tools being built just wander out into the world with only positive effects. Technology doesn't determine practice, but how a system is designed does matter. How systems are used also matters, even if those uses aren't what designers intended. For example, as social media has gone mainstream, some fascinating shifts have emerged that require reflection. Yet, even as the conversation becomes more important to have, it's often hard to talk in a nuanced way about the role that technology is playing in shifts that are already underway.

With this complexity in mind, I would like to introduce a question that I have been struggling with for the past few years: what role does social media play in generating or spreading societal fear?

This question is grounded in three foundational claims:

  1. We live in a culture of fear
  2. The attention economy provides fertile ground for the culture of fear
  3. Social media is magnifying the attention economy

If we accept these premises, we must then consider how certain values get baked into technology and how the structural conditions shape the ways in which technology is used. Although economic interests definitely play a significant part in shaping the technology sector, philosophical ideals are also quite important. Many technologists have very strong feelings about how to use technology to make the world a better place. Consequently, they design systems that enable certain dynamics without considering the unintended consequences of those decisions. The potential for spreading fear is one of those unintended consequences.

Fear and attention

The term "the culture of fear" refers to the ways in which fear is employed by marketers, politicians, technology designers and the media to regulate the public and shape their worldviews. Fear isn't just a product of natural forces. It can be systematically generated to entice, motivate, and suppress people. Those in power have long used fear to control the populous. One definition of "terrorism", for example, is the systematic use of fear to achieve political goals.

Fear is an important emotion. It's a reasonable psychological reaction to uncertainty and threat. It's a survival mechanism. It's what allows us to assess a risky situation and determine a response. Fear can be learned through experience. Burn yourself and you'll develop a healthy, respectful fear of fire.

Fear can also be enticing. Extreme sports as well as activities like bungee jumping and skydiving allow you to turn fear into endorphins to get a nice high. Overcoming fear is part of the fun.

Yet, fear can also be a tool of control. In the days that followed 11 September 2001, Americans scrambled to understand what was going on and to get their heads around the potential threat that they faced in their community. This is not the first time that America has felt such confusion and chaos. Read accounts of what happened around the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, and you'll hear a similar set of fears borne out of uncertainty. But where post-9/11 narratives deviate from the missile crisis concerns how fear was employed by the military-industrial-Congressional complex. In the United States, we've been on orange alert for over a decade now. Fear is used to justify the security theatre that we see in our airports.

Fear surrounds us. It is useful because it makes people pay attention and, as such, follow orders. But part of why it works is that people are terrible at assessing risks and intellectually responding to fearmongering. Fear works on an emotional response that is not necessarily rational. Books like Freakonomics and Predictably Irrational have popularised research that shows how terrible people are at assessing risk and responding to stimuli in a rational manner. Fear is not predicated on risk assessment, but the perception of risk.

We fear the things and people that we do not understand far more than the things we do, even if the latter are much more risky. I'm not surprised that people fear technology. Its newness is confusing and no one's quite certain what to do with the promises it offers. Furthermore, technology allows us to encounter people who are different from us, the very people we are likely to fear. We fear the unknown. And technology is both an unknown itself and a vehicle to connecting us to greater unknowns.

The attention economy provides fertile ground for the culture of fear. In the 1970s, the scholar Herbert Simon argued that "in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients."

His arguments give rise both to the notion of "information overload" but also to the "attention economy". In the attention economy, people's willingness to distribute their attention to various information stimuli create value for said stimuli. Indeed, the economic importance of advertisements is predicated on the notion that getting people to pay attention to something has value.

News media is tightly entwined with the attention economy. Newspapers try to capture people's attention through headlines. TV and radio stations try to entice people to not change the channel. And, indeed, there is a long history of news media leveraging fear to grab attention, often with a reputational cost. Yellow journalism tarnished newspapers' credibility with scary headlines intended to generate sales. The history of radio and television is sullied with propaganda as political ideologues leveraged social psychology to shape the public's opinion.

Now, along comes social media Needless to say, social media brings with it massive quantities of information unscripted, unedited, and uncurated. Going online is like swimming in an ocean of information. The very notion of being able to consume everything is laughable, even as many people are still struggling to come to terms with "information overload". Some respond by avoiding environments where they'll be exposed to too much information. Others try to develop complicated tactics to achieve balance. Still others are failing miserably to find a comfortable relationship with the information onslaught.

The amount of information being produced overwhelmingly exceeds the amount of information any one person can possibly pay attention to. My favourite response to this is what computer scientist Michael Bernstein describes as going "Twitter zen". This is the happy state people reach when they let go of control and just embrace the information firehose.

This shift is relatively new, which is what causes so much consternation. A few years ago, my brother and I were going through some old stuff at my mother's house when we came across a book that he had purchased in 1994. It was a Yellow Pages for the internet. We burst out laughing because the very notion that you could capture all web pages in a physical directory is absolutely ridiculous today. And yet, somehow, people still think that they should read all blogposts in their feed readers or all tweets in their Twitter stream. In fact, there are tools designed to make us feel guilty when we've left things "unread".

No matter how we feel about the massive amounts of information, one thing's clear: the amount of information is not going to decline any time soon. Given the increase of information and media, those who want people to consume their material are fighting an uphill battle to get their attention. Anyone who does social media marketing knows how hard it is to capture people's attention in this new ecosystem.

The more stimuli there are competing for your consideration, the more that attention seekers must fight to incentivise you to look their way. More often than not, this results in psychological warfare as attention-seekers leverage any and all emotions to draw you in.

And here's where we see fear entering back into the picture. Because fear is a biological mechanism to get people's attention, we see people turning to fear as a tool to get people's attention. Fear is an extraordinarily effective emotion to leverage. Fear is especially powerful in an environment where available attention is limited.

Fearmongers leverage our willingness to pay attention to fear-inducing stimuli, in order to generate attention. A fearful newspaper headline captures people's attention. This draws people into paying attention to the newspaper as a whole, which is precisely the intention of headlines. Likewise, when TV anchors are spouting fearful information, people are far less willing to switch channels.

With social media, the intersection between fear and attention is messier. There are certainly broadcast messages being communicated from far off, but the majority of attention-seeking takes place in the world of user-generated content. This creates an ecosystem where hysteria isn't necessarily from on high, but, rather, all around us.

Interestingly, fear on social media isn't just employed by marketers, pundits, and politicians. Friends, family, and colleagues increasingly use fear to get attention because it works. My work focuses on teen culture so I see a lot of this through that lens. I watch as parents use fear in an effort to get their kids to pay attention to them. I watch as teens use fear in order to get attention from their peers. Teens and parents both develop an acute sense of what will grab their interlocutors' attention. Attention is indeed the currency of contemporary society. Hysteria is one element of this, whether it plays out as fearmongering or simply drama. Many of the teen practices that adults deplore stem from the desire to capture attention in an attention economy. Yet, adults are by no means innocent of this. They too use fear to get attention. Consider the various anti-drug and online safety campaigns. Thus, can we really blame teens for trying to master this adult-defined landscape?

Fear and attention are tightly entwined and, as social media ramps up the attention economy, it seems as though social media can be leveraged to spread fear in unique ways. Although fear may be a byproduct of social media, it is unlikely that designers are trying to generate fear. Thus, it's important to consider how some of the values that designers hold, shape the dynamics that can play out.

Valuing radical transparency

Radical transparency is the notion that putting everything out into the open will make people more honest. It is often discussed as an extreme form of accountability in business, but it can also be understood in a social context. In this light, radical transparency is used to force people out into the open. The logic here rests on the notion that people hide things in private that they wouldn't admit to if they were in public. Many technologists are obsessed with radical transparency, focusing on how exposure will encourage those in power (eg, government officials, famous people, corporations) to be more upfront.

The practice of "outing" for a cause is not new. As a part of the gay rights movement, many gay people believed that publicly outing closeted LGBT individuals would help the movement. I would argue that this practice is quite fraught. Consider the highly publicised case of Oliver Sipple. Sipple was well known in the gay community, but he was not public about his sexuality. In 1975, a woman attempted to assassinate US President Ford; Sipple's marine training prepared him to recognise the situation for what it was. He lunged at her as she was shooting and she missed. The media immediately portrayed him as a hero. He asked that the media not make reference to his sexuality, but Harvey Milk a prominent gay activist chose to out him to the press. He wanted the public to know that gay people could do heroic things too.

The impact on Sipple was devastating. The White House put distance between Sipple and the president; Sipple's family rejected him. He sued the newspaper for invasion of privacy. Meanwhile, his personal life began to fall apart. He drank profusely, gained massive amounts of weight, and became paranoid and suicidal. He was reported to have talked about regretting his act of heroism. He died at the age of 47.

Did the societal benefits of outing Sipple outweigh the personal consequences for him? That's a hard moral question to ask. Yet, this is the question that we must ask ourselves whenever we think about acts of radical transparency. Many proponents of radical transparency believe that the long-term gains from radical transparency outweigh the short-term pain and suffering.

Consider this in light of Facebook. David Kirkpatrick has argued that Facebook's approach to privacy rests on co-founder Mark Zuckerberg's belief in radical transparency. I would agree with his assessment. In many instances, Zuckerberg has argued that people are more accountable if they don't hide behind pseudonyms and privacy settings. It's hard to interpret the shift in privacy settings that took place a few years back as anything other than the outing of Facebook users. This is precisely the argument I made at SXSW two years ago when I was given the opportunity to make the keynote speech at the conference. As I explained then, just as with other types of outing, there were serious consequences for individuals who were exposed by Facebook. But the question on the table still remains: is society better off when everyone and everything is publicly out in the open?

Radical transparency presumes that outing people will combat fear and increase tolerance. But does it? Are marginalised people better off as a group when they are exposed? I genuinely don't know the answer to this. But my hunch is that things aren't working out the way it was intended.

Many gay activists look to the past 50 years and argue that LGBT acceptance continues to increase alongside the rise of highly visible LGBT-identified people. But historian George Chauncey is quick to highlight that gay culture pre-WWII was much more vibrant and open than what was available in the 1970s, the supposed liberating years for the gay community. In fact, the fears that rose after prohibition are what drove the oppression of gay society. In Germany, the 1920s were an extraordinarily gay time. In all senses of the word. Fear crushed that. "To use the modern idiom," Chauncey writes, "the state built a closet in the 1930s and forced gay people to hide in it." What happened?

Social forces are not linear. There's no universal narrative of "progress" where we continue to march forward to ever-increasing levels of enlightenment. There are even radically divergent ideas of what constitutes progress and enlightenment in the first place.

Tolerance is a value that I am completely committed to. But it is often espoused as though it is neutral. It is not. The fact is that people tolerate certain things and not others and this tolerance changes depending on who they're with, what the issues are, what the risks are of being tolerant. Our decisions about what is acceptable to tolerate stem from our values and our beliefs about what is right and what is wrong. There are certainly people who embrace difference when they're exposed to it, but there are also people who fear it.

Exposure to new people doesn't automatically produce tolerance. When explorers traversed the earth looking for opportunity, they pillaged and plundered even before they began colonising. Fear ruled the seas. And let's be honest, exposure to other people during great explorations did not magically produce tolerance. It bred anger, distrust and hatred.

Through networked technologies, the average person is exposed to more things today than ever before in history. People can get a window into the lives of others halfway around the world. Onlookers may not understand what strangers are saying nor may they be sharing that much publicly, but the internet enables more access to more people than even the greatest explorers in history ever had. But what does someone make of this opportunity? Are people really looking around to understand difference? Or are they more committed to finding similarity and avoiding people who aren't like them?

The internet makes visible things that we want to see, but it also makes visible things that we don't want to see. It exposes us to people who are different. And this is the source of a great amount of fear.

Consider the various moral panics that surround young people's online interactions. The current panic is centred on "cyberbullying". Every day, I wake up to news reports about the plague of cyberbullying. If you didn't know the data, you'd be convinced that cyberbullying was spinning out of control. The funny thing is that we have a lot of data on this topic, dating back for decades. Bullying is not on the rise and it has not risen dramatically with the onset of the internet. When asked about bullying measures, children and teens continue to report that school is the place where the most serious acts of bullying happen, where bullying happens the most frequently, and where they experience the greatest impact. This is not to say that young people aren't bullied online; they are. But rather, the bulk of the problem actually happens in adult-controlled spaces like schools.

What's different has to do with visibility. If your son comes home with a black eye, you know something happened at school. If he comes home grumpy, you might guess. But for the most part, the various encounters that young people have with their peers go unnoticed by adults, even when they have devastating emotional impact. Online, interactions leave traces. Not only do adults bear witness to really horrible fights, but they can also see teasing, taunting and drama. And, more often than not, they blow the latter out of proportion. I can't tell you how many calls I get from parents and journalists who are absolutely convinced that there's an epidemic that must be stopped. Why? The scale of visibility means that fear is magnified.

The power in networks

Activist and author Eli Pariser's "filter bubble" is a useful lens for looking at how algorithms are skewing our perspective, but it doesn't account for the complex mechanisms of networked power. It's not just any voice that gets amplified. It's all about structural position and flows across networks.

Sociologist Manuel Castells argues that we've seen a shift in how power operates. Power is no longer cleanly hierarchical. It's now about power within networks. He argues that there are four different kinds of power in networks: networking power, network power, networked power, and network-making power.

This is the most critical form of power because all other types of power are built on top of this.

By restructuring the networks, technology can destabilise hierarchical power. Those who can control the flow of information and those who can control people's attention are extraordinarily powerful. The only people more powerful than those who control the networks are those who can make the networks. It's no longer simply about broadcasting a message; it's about setting in motion mechanisms to draw attention to you. If you want power in a networked society, you need to orchestrate control over the information ecosystem.

The networks that are forming through social media are quite powerful. Information spreads fast and the potential for social action is quite high. Yet, it's also possible to spread misinformation, propaganda, and fearmongering content through these networks. Like the rest of internet content, this too will spread at the speed of light. People trust information that they receive from people they know and people like them. This is fabulous when that information is credible, but not all that spreads through people's personal networks is.

Increasingly, we are seeing "awareness" campaigns that spread information rapidly with little consideration for how people interpret what they encounter. Consider Invisible Children's "Kony 2012" campaign. The video associated with this movement spread like wildfire, generating passion and a desire to increase publicity about the issue and demand public action. Many African experts have criticised the video for misleading the public about Joseph Kony and the dynamics in Africa. More harshly, Invisible Children has been accused of misusing donations, failing to engage directly with African people, and engaging in colonialist rhetoric through a paternalistic frame. Through a message that is both well intended and problematic, Invisible Children convinced American children that Africa is filled with warlords who are kidnapping children and forcing them into war. While the video is intended to spread empathy, it simultaneously perpetuates an image of otherness that is at the root of fear.

People regularly use Facebook and Twitter to share links and tell stories. Some of this is about fear. Fearful messages about politicians, crime, and "others" regularly spread through social media. Much of this is invisible to the public writ large because it is localised within people's social networks. Yet, sitting down with people and looking at Facebook with them, I often encounter messages laden with anxiety. Given the political climate in the United States, I'm not surprised to find fearful discussions about Mormons and, notably, Mitt Romney. I'm also not surprised to find panicked messages about how the news media has hidden the truth about President Barack Obama's "real" birth certificate. Anxious discussions about bullying, sexual predators, and other types of child safety issues are pervasive among parents. Pregnant women fret over articles they find regarding autism, mercury poisoning, and vaccines. Each community seems to have something that they fear and those fears get exacerbated online.

In some senses, none of this is new. We have seen upticks in fearfulness with previous genres of media. Indeed, communication scholar George Gerbner noticed that mainstream media coverage of violent content makes people believe that the world is more dangerous than it really is. He called this phenomenon the "mean world syndrome". The more people are exposed to negative content about what's happening in the world, the more they believe the world to be a negative place. Yet, what happens when they are exposed to meanness, cruelty, fear, and anxiety through people that they know?

Networked media connects people to their friends and loved ones, but it also creates an infrastructure through which information can flow rapidly. Baby pictures and celebratory notices spread like wildfire, but so does misinformation and fear. How does such fearmongering affect society? Who is responsible for curbing fear? Is this a design issue? An individual responsibility issue? A societal issue?

Social media is here to stay. We need to get past the point in which we celebrate it or lament it in order to figure out how to live productively with it. We need people engaging critically with the dynamics that unfold as a result of a new structure of connecting people. The values of technologists have been baked into the infrastructure, but it's also possible to change the ecosystem through cultural practices. One thing's clear: it's high time we examined the values that are propagated through our tools. We all need to think critically about the information we create, consume and share. We all need to take responsibility for helping shape the world around us.

Danah Boyd is a senior researcher at Microsoft Research and a research associate at Harvard University's Berkman centre for internet and society. She co-authored Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media" and co-directs the youth and media policy working group, funded by the MacArthur Foundation. She blogs at http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/ and tweets at @zephoria