Following up on danah boyd’s essay and its reception

2007 July 1
by Cornelius

Edit (4/21/2010): See my comment here before reading this.

After reading a number of interesting comments in the course of the last few days, I thought it would make sense to follow up on danah boyd‘s blog essay concerning socioeconomic status and social networking sites with a second post (read the first one here). As with my previous piece, I’m especially interested in the reception and in how boyd herself is reacting to the (shoddy) journalism of the BBC and others.

Last week, boyd posted this on the heels of her essay:

Dear esteemed members of the press,

I am in the field collecting data and then will be attending a conference. I am not able to respond right now. Do not call my house phone. Do not pester my department. And do *NOT* hound my subletter. All press inquiries should be sent to press [at] danah.org. When I can, I respond. When I can’t, I don’t. Do not use other email addresses – I check the press one from my phone and answer them in order when I have spare cycles. Other requests are typically ignored.

The BBC coverage of my blog essay is hugely problematic. If you want to discuss what I’ve written, please read the essay itself. This is not a formal report. This is a blog essay based on observations from the field. And this is not a 6-month study; it is a 4-year study with a tide shift that I’ve noticed in the last 6 months. Again, read the essay. At some point, I will turn this into a formal article, but this is not that. Cover it as you see fit, but do not call it a report.

Thank you,
THE MANAGEMENT

(emphasis mine)

From the viewpoint of anyone who has ever done genre studies, this is a pretty interesting text. Obviously the genre categories boyd uses – blog essay, formal report, study, formal article and report – are important. boyd essentially claims that the semantics of these terms place them in distinct distance from one another. In other words, the fact that a) her blog essay is in fact a blog essay (and not a report, study, article etc) and b) the knowledge of what a blog essay is should both have been available to the BBC’s reporters and their failure to use the correct terminology to describe her piece suggests incompetence or even a willful misrepresentation. They are calling it a study although it isn’t, because they don’t understand how ethnographic research works.

And of course this is perfectly true. All the labels used by the mass media to describe Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace are their invention -nowhere does boyd use the terms report or study.

Some of the comments I’ve read capture the problem quite well. Says Marianne Richmond:

I think perhaps that the fallout of Danah’s blog essay is a case study in new media participation and consumption in and of it self: Her observations were interpreted, misinterpreted and remixed within the context of academic research that is more typical of the author…even though the standards of academic research were specifically stated by the author as not applicable.

The last statement is actually incorrect. boyd made the explicit statement that the piece was not an academic article after the initial posting. This short paragraph originally preceded the text, followed by the essay proper.

I want to take a moment to make a meta point here. I have been traipsing through the country talking to teens and I’ve been seeing this transition for the past 6-9 months but I’m having a hard time putting into words. Americans aren’t so good at talking about class and I’m definitely feeling that discomfort. It’s sticky, it’s uncomfortable, and to top it off, we don’t have the language for marking class in a meaningful way. So this piece is intentionally descriptive, but in being so, it’s also hugely problematic. I don’t have the language to get at what I want to say, but I decided it needed to be said anyhow. I wish I could just put numbers in front of it all and be done with it, but instead, I’m going to face the stickiness and see if I can get my thoughts across. Hopefully it works.

The paragraph following it – what could be called the ‘disclaimer for academic readers’ – was added retroactively:

For the academics reading this, I want to highlight that this is not an academic article. It is not trying to be. It is based on my observations in the field, but I’m not trying to situate or theorize what is going on. I’ve chosen terms meant to convey impressions, but I know that they are not precise uses of these terms. Hopefully, one day, I can get the words together to actually write an academic article about this topic, but I felt as though this is too important of an issue to sit on while I find the words. So I wrote it knowing that it would piss many off. The academic side of me feels extremely guilty about this; the activist side of me finds it too critical to go unacknowledged.

boyd also later edited the blog post announcing the piece. Sadly, I have no way of retrieving the original text to check what changes were made, but it seems she highlighted the word essay multiple times to emphasize the status of the publication as something other than an article/study/report etc. Of course, she also made no claim going into the other direction. When using a descriptive label for her piece, she consistently calls it a blog essay or essay. As I’ve noted before, the semantics of the compound term blog essay are bound to be unclear to her readers, as she is one of very few people who use this phrase at all.

That being said, I fully agree to Marianne’s observation. In the media ecosystem we live in today, an author constantly risks losing control of her text and it being recontextualized by others in meaning-changing ways that cannot be predicted. Such recontextualizations can be deliberately misleading or the result of a misunderstanding. It’s often a thin line.

In this vein, Elaine Young sides with boyd and notes the inaccurate reporting:

You go girl! Fancy that. Asking the media to READ something before they report on it. But … there is no guarantee that they will full comprehend what they are reading and there in lies the challenge in posting “information” that is somewhat controversial on the web in an open forum.

The way “information” is put in quotes here is interesting to me, as it seems also to point once more to the unclear status of the piece and a lack of clarity regarding boyd’s investigative methodology. Note that I’m not saying that her methodology is in any way unsound. It’s a perfectly well-established practice in a range of disciplines that produces highly valuable results. I am saying that Young’s way of phrasing it suggests that she is not clear about the kind of evidence that ethnographic methods produce (is it information or just “information”?).

This blog gives a very good summary of the sequence of events:

Berkeley PhD candidate Danah Boyd, has the web astir after she posted an informal essay on her blog about the class divisions associated with the popular social-networking sites Facebook and MySpace. Boyd, who is already among the most prominent of academics of the Internet’s social sphere, posted the essay on Sunday. On Monday morning, the BBC reported on Boyd’s “conclusions”, and by midday Monday, nearly 100,000 readers had flocked to Boyd’s original entry. Though many have written in support of the essay, others have taken major offense, calling the work “racist” and academically unsound. Boyd sees the negativity towards her essay as a product of its misrepresentation in the press–specifically in the BBC’s “hugely problematic” coverage of her essay–which she says referred to the essay as a final product of academic research, rather than the exploratory mid-process musing it was meant to be.

Kevin P comments over at Tuttle SVC:

I’m not sure. I can’t decide if we should blame danah for not being *more* clear it was not research or the media for not being *more* clear that it was not research.

Certainly she’s getting flamed, and boy is she getting known.

The topic is being discussed like crazy.

Blogs are confusing with standards and danah is firmly on the crack, but I think it’s put her out as a leader.

Would her problem have been solved if she had moderated comments like you do and just taken out the really nasty ones?

It’s interesting to conclude that the essay is “not research” (which is again not phrased that way by boyd). If it were not research, or based on research, the idea that there is a socioeconomic split between Facebook and MySpace users would merely be an opinion. Instead, it is supported by research data – just not by data of the right kind, in my view. Whereas a large volume of quantitative data could answer the question of the Facebook and MySpace user communities’ makeup with relative precision, the qualitative data that has been used cannot. That does not mean that the assumption isn’t true, it just means it can’t be validated.

This post also caught my attention:

Ms. boyd is a quite accomplished scholar of social systems and her thoughts tend to carry a fair amount of weight. She’s an acknowledged expert in a given field, yet as an academic, she has two different “modes” of presenting her thoughts. One is very formal, involving calculated and well researched statements reflecting research and study and highlighting correlation and conclusion. In other words, your typical research paper.

The other is the equivalent of sitting at a coffee shop for an hour.

The funny thing is that it’s often those latter statements that seem to have the highest likelihood of spreading like an Atlanta lawyer on a transcontinental flight.

Kent and i got into a quick discussion about this and i think he touched on something kinda key. He noted that it won’t be long before academics realize that they don’t necessarily need the structure and peer review that they previously always had. They can be more open and have greater impact without it. i disagreed, since i know that often that peer review system exists for a good reason and a lot of folks actually like it since it helps them refine and defend their assertions instead of just shouting them into the void.

Peer review is regarded by many as a guarantee of scientific integrity, yet to others it means elitism and expert-worship. I agree with the author though – without peer review, the scientific process can turn into a popularity contest. What can be proven often isn’t what’s generally believed, what is plausible or popular.

Ken Cousins of Augmentation is impressed by the potential of blogs as a publishing platform for academics:

Think about this – a grad student publishes preliminary fieldwork notes to the web, and within 24-48 hours has drawn the attention of a mid-sized city. Granted, danah is a rock star, and not all of the comments were appropriate or well-conceived. But I think most academics would consider their careers a success if they commanded an audience of such size over their entire careers.

Is danah a super-hub? Are the rest of us scattered throughout the long tail? Clearly, on both counts. But at the very least, this suggests an emerging mode for scholarship, a new means of engaging the broader community (both scholarly and pedestrian) in our work.

The awareness that you can communicate with an enormous number of readers almost effortlessly via your blog has still not reached the majority of academics, who are used to thinking in very tightly knit groups and don’t really consider the importance of addressing a wider audience. I’d be very surprised if the majority of researchers in the humanities and social sciences isn’t blogging 10 years from now. Why? Because I think these areas have suffered from a lack of knowledge about what they do and how, on the part of the majority of the population.

Finally, I want to quote a full post by Michael Clarke on the topic that I found very insightful.

The reaction to Danah’s essay in the newspapers suggests that mainstream media are still very fond of privileging expert, authoritative discourse – when it suits them (i.e. when it gives an opportunity to discuss/reinforce class divisions, say “Oooh, it’s bad this Noo Medjaa stuff, isn’t it?” and so on…). Three days previously, Weinberger and Keen were debating the “…value of authority in a connected world…” and it’s fascinating how much of the attention given to Danah’s post accrued from her status as an academic (and how much hatred that this seems to have generated on the comments on her most recent post).

This is in line with studies such as the Edelman Trust Barometer (see slide #22). Academics are still generally trusted as credible, though a democratization of trust is taking place (“someone like myself” is now considered the most trustworthy source of information in many areas).

One might argue that perceived “expertise” has always been related to demagoguery both benign and sinister (Gina Ford of Contented Little Baby, Scoble, Hitler, Alain de Botton, Ghandi…) – social media just democratises people’s access to becoming a demagogue (lowers the entry requirements).

I find that observation both keen and very amusing, though I don’t think Robert Scoble deserves being mentioned along with mass-murderous dictators.

Perhaps “experts” then, in a constructed sense, are still very much with us but social media renders them more open to challenge than ever before. The Danah cited in a slightly sloppy piece by the BBC is thoroughly mediated by their take on her work but it’s one click away from her blog. On her blog, she’s speaking for herself – and people can answer back.

No doubt the openness of the social media is a good thing, but the diversity of opinions and the lack of accountability also make it hard to figure out whom to believe. That isn’t a catastrophe, but the market for things which are simply untrue (but nicely serve to compound our stereotypes) is definitely there.

Any conclusions? Expertise is accountable on Web 2.0. And perhaps more useful as a result of this, as any socially mediated means of distribution makes the consumer of expertise equally accountable for the uses they put it to. Well, that’s my optimistic take on it, anyway…

Expertise is only truly accountable if you have it yourself. In other words, I have to be physicist to understand an advanced physics problem, social web or no social web. If I don’t, my only alternative is to trust someone who knows more about this stuff than I do. Believing what the majority finds plausible can be a dead end. That doesn’t mean that the social web is not a boon for academics, but since earning and keeping trust is vital to what we do, we should make sure we do our job well.

The initial lack of clarity regarding the genre-status of the piece is what caused all this fuss. While it would be nice if journalists and the general public knew more about different forms of academic writing, I believe that danah boyd intended the piece to be both more than just a blog entry and less than a real research paper – and therein lies the problem. I don’t think you can have it both ways and make it authoritative for those who believe and “just an essay” for those who don’t, which is what this looks like.

6 Comments
2007 July 6

Great post…you have written THE case study so that when the debate is renewed and everything is reinterpreted and reconfigured again your post will accurately reflect what really transpired.

Marianne

2007 July 6

Thanks. I’m curious to see if danah follows up on the discussion once she returns from her trip.

2007 July 9

::blush::

To be honest, I am only now reading the blog posts about what happened. I posted this and then went into the field and then my personal life spun out of control and I’m only now coming up for air. You probably know more about the reaction than I do. If you wanna follow up via email, I’d be happy to answer questions to the best of my ability. And I would love to hear more of what you’ve seen in response.

danah

2007 July 9

Thank you for stopping by, danah and thank you for the offer. I’ll definitely email you. I hope all is well for you personally and that the media reactions haven’t been too overwhelming. As your last message implied, having reporters call up your landlord is nobody’s idea of fun…

2007 July 13

Hi – thanks for the kind words and I enjoyed reading the other perspectives in your post. Oh, and I don’t think Scoble is an evil dictactor either! I did put him in the same sentence as Gandhi, after all. Mind you, I also mentioned him in the same breath as Alain de Botton…

2010 April 21

[...] (4/21/2010): This post and another one published a bit later stand here as testament to the smartassery and smugness of a young PhD student (me). While some [...]

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