Smartphones, Email and Online Communities: Tech Analyst Says Sometimes You Should Take a Sabbatical [TRANSCRIPT, VIDEO]

Digital communication can make us both better citizens and worse humans, so how should we manage it?

Note: danah boyd does not capitalize her name.

Sandra Svoboda/WDET

When danah boyd started researching how people used technology and how online communication and “communities” were forming and operating, she started with teens. 

“They picked up technology as a way to socialize with their peers, to hang out, to relax,” she says. “We saw everything from gossiping and flirting to moments of frustration and conflict all boiling into these technologies.”

When she now looks at adults, she sees a complicated set of dynamics. Often people replicate their existing friendships online and find groups based on shared interests. Rarely, boyd says, do they seek to understand people who think differently than themselves. “Technology allows us to see people and to keep a distance from them,” she says.

WDET’s Sandra Svoboda spoke with boyd while she was in Detroit this week as part of the Future of Information series, a collection of free quarterly conversations sponsored by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Click on the audio link above to hear their full conversation.

Here’s Detroit Public Television‘s taping of the event:

WDET’s interview with the first series speaker, Futurist Amy Webb, can be found here.

Click here to register for the next event, which is Sept. 26 and features Ramman Chowdhurry, an expert in artificial intelligence.

More information, research and data related to boyd’s work can be found here.

WDET is hosting a series of events empowering you to understand what’s true online and to check the facts. More information here.

Click these links for related Detroit Today conversations:

Is Social Media Killing Democracy? with Jamie Bartlett, director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos, and Garlin Gilchrist, founding executive director at the Center for Social Media Responsibility at the University of Michigan.

What is Truth, and Does It Matter? with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and Time’s Charlotte Alter.

The Weaponizing of Fake News in Modern Politics, with Wayne State University‘s Lee Wilkins.

Here’s a transcript of Sandra Svoboda’s conversation with Amy Webb, which aired on Detroit Today on WDET:

Sandra Svoboda: Everyone may have a personal definition of technology. What is it to you? And how can we define it before we start this conversation so we have a common point?

danah boyd: I guess for me technology is the tools that we use to help scale up our capabilities. We think about the histories of them in terms of mechanical technologies, things like even the printing press or here in Detroit the automation systems that we use to build an industry. Increasingly my focus has been on digital technologies: the ability to connect us across the globe using the Internet and the ability to use algorithmic systems to make sense of a large quantity of data that is now part of our everyday lives.

Svoboda: And we call you an expert in technology. How did you earn that title?

boyd: Part of is I grew up online. I was the first generation of kids who found the internet as a place to escape my local community growing up in Pennsylvania, and I wanted to build the things that I saw. So I went to study computer science and started building online communities, and as those communities became more and more popular, they turned into what we now think of as social media. I had the strange position to be able to build huge chunks of social media at the same time I was trying to make sense of people’s use of them. Because I was building tools like blogging services while using them to comment on it, all of a sudden I got labeled an expert in this process. For me, it’s a matter of I’ve always been a user and a builder. I try to marry those in a way that helps people make sense of the world around them.

Svoboda: You mentioned yourself growing up on technology, online, and you have been a bit of an expert and an author and done research related to how teens use technology. I’m going to ask you two questions at a time here. One is what are the big findings of that research? But also how are how teens used technology the same or different as adults of different generations? Let’s start with the first one and your research into teens and those findings.

boyd: I started my work on teens I guess technically in 2004. At the time there were so many concerns about “kids these days” and how the Internet was going to harm them in different ways. It was a rhetoric we’ve seen across all forms of media landscapes: early days of comic books, even the early days of the sewing machine prompted moral panics of different forms.  So I really wanted to understand what teenagers were doing and why their use of technology made sense in their lives. Perhaps the most notable finding was that young people had been experiencing more and more restrictions in mobility. Their ability to just get home and socialize with their friends, to hang out, to have unstructured time, to go wherever they pleased had pretty much been decimated. And so they picked up technology as a way to socialize with their peers, to hang out, to relax. I wanted to be able to share their experiences and their realities back with parents who were often looking at these technologies as this tool that was radically changing youth. The funny thing that I kept coming back to was the Internet mirrored and magnified the good, bad and ugly of everyday life. For teenagers that meant we saw everything from gossiping and flirting to moments of frustration and conflict all boiling into these technologies.

Svoboda: Back to the second part of my very long question a minute ago but that is how in adults’ use of technology and communication platforms online, how are we now the same or different than those teenagers?

boyd: I think over the course of history, we as adults have gotten busier, a lot of expectations. We have the ability to be connected to our work, to our peers in complicated ways as well. One of the things that’s hard especially for kids to understand, is that as parents we have this pressure to be the good parent, to be constantly present, but we’re not actually always so good at living up to that ideal. I think that was one of the things I kept seeing with regards to the relationship between young people and adults which is that adults were often more likely to use technology to escape the present. Not be at the football game but instead be in their phone, not paying attention to their kid because they were exhausted and they weren’t really prepared to be the good parent. I joke that my mother’s generation picked up a glass of wine. This generation picks up an iPhone.

Svoboda: You’re here for your speech with the Future of Information series, which is sponsored by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and the Knight Foundation. One of the topics that you’re touching on is society, technology and how technology is affecting community. Can you speak a little more about that?

boyd: Many of the people who were building technologies, digital technologies, especially in the 80s and early 90s imagined that this would allow people from around the globe to come together and create community online and that we could use technology to bridge all sorts of social divides. Twenty years on, we’re questioning that very basic idea, and part of what we’re seeing is that most people have approached technology in order to reinforce the relationships they already have, in order to connect with people that are like them and often in opposition to people who disagree with them. The idea that they can get information from any community doesn’t mean they want information that contradicts their worldview, and so we see this dynamic of confirmation bias. In a moment of high-politicized polarization, there’s a huge challenge around technology where rather than being a tool that allows us to connect and try to understand one another, we’re seeing us pull on the information ecosystem in ways that allow us to double down on our differences. Unfortunately, we’re also seeing a whole variety of folks manipulate these information ecosystems in order to increase that division. A lot of what I’m coming back to and asking a question around is how do we rebuild community in an environment where we have such significant fragmentation?

Svoboda: And how do we rebuild that community with maybe less inequality, is that what you mean as well? And how does the inequality online compare to economic inequality we see in the world or financial inequality or educational inequality, all of those other problems?

boyd: For me, inequality is very much married to the social networks and social fabric that we need to build our society. When we have rampant inequality, whether it is things we can measure or things we perceived, you see it in the social division of the social network, of the social fabric of society. So those divisions actually get reinforced by the inequality and the inequality gets reinforced by the social structures, which is one of the reasons why the key to building community is to bridge those social relations and with it those economic opportunities that we care so much about.

Svoboda: And let’s get into politics. Technology, community and democracy. This idea that what technology is doing to our personal politics, to our political communication and our politicians and political systems. What is your research sort of uncovering in those areas that some of us may be acutely aware of or some of us may be trying to avoid?

boyd: The way that our political structure, our American democracy works is we need that functioning social fabric. We need to be connected and we need to be collectively committed to a project that is America. Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all actors in that project are committed to that agenda. Unfortunately, our political activities have become in many ways sport. Sport that has huge financial opportunities for people to engage in. So there’s a lot to be gained by seeding and encouraging division as opposed to trying to negotiate people to bridge divides. Technology has been a tool in that process because people in the political establishment and the political infrastructures can actually speak to subcomponents of their communities, they can raise money in different ways. We’re seeing that corrosive nature play out online the same way we’re seeing it play out within face-to-face environments. It’s simply that it’s getting amplified in a way that can be especially corrosive. Combating it requires us to go back and build those social networks and finding bridges across those divisions which is not going to be an easy thing to do.

Svoboda: When you say “social network”, I think the first thing people probably think of is Facebook. And now we have Twitter and Instagram and YouTube and What’s App and Snapchat and things teenagers are using that I haven’t heard of yet. When you talk about social network or think about social networks of the future, how will they be the same or different than what we’re using now?

boyd: I think it’s important to separate out between social media, that’s where the term “social network” has become, and what we actually mean by all the interpersonal connections that sociologists have historically referred to as a social network. In the history of the United States, the military is one of our most important social networks. Which is to say that people throughout this country have grown up, and they’ve gone into a basic training, and they’ve met people from around the country, and they’ve learned to connect across massive divisions in order to keep up this project of America. That’s an extremely important way of building out that infrastructure. Likewise, we see it within local communities. You see the idea of volunteerism, the idea of the university, all of these have built out those networks. What’s tricky about the social media environments is that many people who are building them thought they would do the same kind of work as say the military. But there’s a big difference between doing basic training with people versus sharing and liking each other’s content. What ends up happening is that these technologies we’re seeing under the rubric of social media tend to come in a couple of different forms. They first allow you to connect with the people that you’ve already encountered face-to-face, and we see that certainly on Facebook. They also allow you to connect with people across a shared set of interests. We certainly have seen versions of that on Tumbler or Twitter. They also allow you to try to participate in a larger public. But that’s where things get murky. Because none of those systems are meant to allow you to be exposed to everyone in Detroit. There’s still fragmentation. That’s where there’s been a huge set of divisions between what allows you to connect across a graph of social connections and what allows you to connect to, say, a geography.

Svoboda: danah boyd, you’re here as part of the Future of Information series being put on by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and the Knight Foundation. A few weeks ago, the futurist Amy Webb was here (as part of that series), she was in the studio as well for an interview that we did. I want to ask you a question that I asked her. And that was: When you see what’s going on in the world with so many issues related to technology, how could we maybe have better prepared for those issues in the past and learned going forward?

boyd: Part of it is, I think, from an engineering perspective, we were extraordinarily naïve about what we were building but I think there are other features to this where we’re looking to technology without recognizing other facets that are actually playing out and being amplified by technology. Let’s take one of them: journalism. One of the things that we’ve seen since the 1980s is a significant decline in access to local journalism, which is why having podcasts and radio stations like this are so critical. With that decline in local journalism, we’ve lost a sense of trust within the very idea of the news, and we look to this and say, “Oh, this must have declined because of technology.” We point to changes in the advertising ecosystem, changes in the mechanisms of amplification. But one of the things that gets lost in that environment, and one of the things I think is particularly interesting given the history of Detroit, is the role of financiers in reshaping the news landscape. Huge numbers of financiers have come in and eaten up local news, usually to buy up their assets, often in the form of real estate, and then have bankrupted news. We’ve lost news because of this. The reason I go to finance is that what we’re seeing in technology right now, especially in the last 10 years, has been shaped by a form of capitalism – and there are many forms of capitalism – but a form of it that is rooted in venture capital which suggests that the only thing that tech can and should do is amplify fast and furious. So it’s no longer about building sustainable communities or finding ways to connect people like you hear Mark Zuckerberg hoping for, it’s really about how do we get as many people onto a service, clicking on as many things as fast as possible, and that may not be sustainable.

Svoboda: I think sometimes when I think about technology, I’m an expert on what I do myself. And maybe this is something other people think or maybe it’s just me. I’m an expert on how I use technology and which platforms I use. But then there’s this whole world of tech out there that’s swirling and changing so fast, new things are coming at me, and how do I decide where I’m finding information. What are your recommendations for people in the few minutes we have left that really help us take control of our own technological online world in a positive way and then also learn more about how to manage it and learn about what developments that are out there?

boyd: I think with any tool, a lot of it requires reflecting back on what you’re trying to achieve. Are you trying to connect with your friends and your peers? If that’s the case, you look for very specific technologies where they might appear. When is your connection to your friends and your peers too much or you feel the need to check over and over and over again? Maybe it’s a moment to take a break. This is summertime. I’m a big believer in what I call “e-mail sabbaticals,” which is to just say, “I’m going to take a break from connectivity from a week and go on actual vacation so I can get bored again.” It’s not because I don’t love my friends, but there’s something to be said for actively stepping back. We don’t leave a lot of room for that. We expect a level of always on and connectiveness. This is that moment where we have to come back and say what are the practices that we want, what is the information we want to get access to?

Another place where I watch a lot of people struggle is you start searching for something and then you end up four hours later having followed Wikipedia links upon Wikipedia links and into a zone and you’re like “Wait, where did I end up?” This is one of the things that I’ve found is a gift to myself is: Write your questions down and separate them out so you don’t have to look them up right away. If you have to look them up even 10 minute later, you won’t end up on the same path. Or, if those questions are going to be particularly challenging for you, give them to your best friend and say, “Can you look them up for me and tell me what you find.” These are some of the small little tactics but it really is about those moments of reflection.

Svoboda: When we have this conversation 10 years from now, how might it be the same or different?

boyd: I think we’re going got see a lot more visual media. We’re already moving toward video and audio. We’re going to see a lot more of that. Our mobile devices will be much more prolific. We’ll see a lot more technology that moves more seamlessly across more sizes and shapes. I think there are lot of dreams that we reach the Starr Trek world of holographs and what not. I doubt we will be there. I think the advances in this will be technologies affecting other sectors other than communications. I think communications is going to go easier, more simpler, more video-oriented, more visual

Svoboda: We’ve talked about the platforms and the technology itself, but what is your best advice for making it all a little bit more human in our lives?

boyd: I think we’re living at a high time of anxiety in America, and I think that we owe it to ourselves, we owe it to our children to try to take a step back, and try to be more reflexive in our own practices and much more empathetic to people. Technology allows us to see people and to keep a distance from them. But I invite the listeners here to try and take a moment to try to understand other people, to look at their voices, look at their tweets, and see where they’re coming from. Their insecurities, their anxieties and to  appreciate where they’re at. Empathy could go a long way in this country right now.


  • Detroit Today
    Dynamic and diverse voices. News, politics, community and the issues that define our region. Hosted by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Stephen Henderson, Detroit Today brings you fresh and perceptive views weekdays at 9 am and 7 pm.