Social media expert boyd explores privacy, ethics in Wilson School talk

danah boyd (Photo: Courtesy danah boyd/

Internet expert danah boyd studies the intersection of technology and society, particularly in the ways that young people use social media. “I’m an ethnographer,” she explained in a Feb. 18 talk at the Woodrow Wilson School.“I spend most of my time trying to understand everyday practices and how to map what is going on in our lives.”

A senior researcher at Microsoft Research, boyd (who legally changed her name to include only lowercase letters) described the four “affordances,” or functional qualities, that accompany new technology: persistence, replicability, searchability, and scalability. In other words, information generated online will stick and spread; people can be searched, and their words can be seen by millions.

“Part of the online environment is that we often don’t know what the context is, we’re negotiating it, and again it gets complicated when you think about persistence or when you think about things spreading,” boyd said.

The idea that young people do not care about online privacy is a myth, in boyd’s view. “The first thing to realize is that a lot of young people have chosen to be in a public, which is different from choosing to be public,” she said, noting that this distinction colors the way young people try to control their social situations when online.

Because of the way that modern technology is designed, we have developed “a culture of public by default, private by effort,” said boyd, who studies the blurring of the public/private distinction in issues as diverse as human trafficking, LGBT youth outreach, consumer product branding, and school bullying.

Data from online searches or store purchases can let companies know when someone is sick, pregnant, or planning to commit a crime — opening the door to new ethical questions.

“We’re living in a world of data,” she said. “But how do we make sense of what we see, and what do we do with it once we have the data?”


Sarah Xiyi Chen ’13 is a Woodrow Wilson School major from Arcadia, Calif.