There’s this idea that hard-core techies are code geeks. But hard-core techies also look like ethnographers. A tech ethnographer not only has to understand cultural code, but the mechanisms for how software design links back up to tech practices. I sat down with one of the most well known tech ethnographers of our time, danah boyd (@zephoria).
Over breakfast at The Ace Hotel’s Breslin, danah and I talked about her career. This fascinating and personal interview reveals danah’s journey through industry and academia.
We’re also excited to have danah’s interview launch Ethnography Matter’s second column, Tell Me More, featuring interviews with people who are pushing the boundaries of ethnography in unconventional and exciting ways. We conduct the first interview and then post a follow up interview with crowd-sourced questions from the audience.
Post your follow-up question for danah in the comments or tweet it with the hashtag #askdanah by March 10. danah will select her favorite questions to answer in her second interview!
Tricia: danah, I’m super excited that we get to talk ethnography over some yummy breakfast food! Earlier last year, you were inducted into the SXSW Hall of Fame. An ethnographer being validated by geeks! I was beyond excited when I heard this news. How did you feel when you found out?
danah: SXSW has been a very important event to me for a long time. I learned so much about the tech industry through that conference by spending late nights drinking with entrepreneurs and makers. I actually got many a job that way too. It was at SXSW where Ev Williams and I started debating blogging practices. He hired me to work for him that summer. Oh, and SXSW was where I met my partner.
Tricia: What? Are you serious?
danah: ::laugh:: Ayup! And now we have a baby who we’re taking back to SXSW this year.
Tricia: Shut up. That is so sweet. Where did you guys meet at SXSW?
danah. At a Sleater-Kinney show.
Tricia: That’s awesome.
danah: It’s just funny to be honored there because I’ve selfishly gotten so much out of the conference.
Tricia: Well I remember very clearly when I read the transcript of the keynote you delivered at SXSW in 2010. It was about Facebook’s issues with privacy. Your talk generated so much discussion. How did you settle on this topic?
danah: I thought, what could I do that would provoke this audience to think? I saw it as a political platform; not big P but small p. I wanted to use this opportunity to challenge norms inside tech industry. I decided to take on the underlying values and beliefs in tech industry regarding privacy because my research was showing that the rhetoric being espoused was naïve. My topic was not surprising for academics, but it was for practitioners.
Tricia: Right, as a researcher I was not surprised. But it was super big to bring up this topic with practitioners. Why do you think it was such a big deal?
danah: At that time, Web2.0 was all the rage and people were focused on how to monetize. It was the beginning of big data when “big data” wasn’t a term yet. The tech industry was running around thinking “wheeeee, this is what we can do with people’s data!” From 2003 on, a lot of tech folks didn’t imagine a world beyond their own communities. They were designing for Silicon Valley. They were designing for their friends.
Tricia: Well, I would argue that many still are doing that.
danah: The thing is that as a designer, you knew that other people were using your tech, but you didn’t necessarily understand their lives and you didn’t try to.
Tricia: Right, part of the craziness of being in that space is that you’re just trying to stay in the game.
danah: Yeah, it’s startup world. Tech folks were just trying to get to the next round of funding or build the next feature. There wasn’t strategic thinking, but I knew that these issues were going to get messy. And I knew that the crowd at SXSW wasn’t thinking several steps ahead in this way. So I wanted to push them. There’s an advantage of not being mired in the tools. At the time, I was in the middle of fieldwork focused on how teens were navigating social media. The norms in the Valley just weren’t what I was seeing on the ground. I still remember watching The Social Network come out in Tennessee. After the film, I did what I always do after a movie. I went and sat in the women’s bathroom to listen to how they’d talk about the film with their friends.
Tricia: That’s an amazing ethnographer’s move
danah: Tangent. My best bathroom experience ever was when I saw the bio pic of Marquis de Sade at a posh movie theatre in the upper west side in NYC.
Tricia: I love reading about de Sade. Do tell me more.
danah: I was sitting in bathroom listening to women in mink coats dissect the movie, “I’m not sure about that representation.” I love sitting in the bathroom at theaters. So, anyhow, I was in Tennessee sitting in a stall listening to people talk about The Social Network and I couldn’t help but reflect on the total disconnect between the Valley and the users over the ideas of technology, entrepreneurship, social interaction, and data. I decided that the SXSW audience needed to hear voices from outside the industry, to reflect on the issues that their decisions raised in others.
Tricia: Well it worked, I remember seeing all the tweets and comments after your talk.
danah: I think the industry is still grappling with it. There’s so much hype around data and what it will provide. I like to joke that big data has nothing to do with bigness and rarely has anything to do with data. As Kate Crawford and I wrote, “big data” is a scholarly, technical, and business phenomenon. When you recognize that, you start to realize what matters are the promises, rhetorics, values, and myths embedded in it. As scholars we can critique that. Practitioners talk about where they hope it goes. One of the things embedded in that talk is that there’s this idea that with more data we will know more with no consideration for interpretation and consequences of that data.
Tricia: Well we’re going to see a lot more apologies coming from companies like facebook. But the issue is that apologies don’t always filter back to a serious reflection on company practices and policies.
danah: Have you heard Geof Bowker’s quote on big data?
Tricia: No I haven’t.
danah: He says that “Raw data is both an oxymoron and a bad idea; to the contrary, data should be cooked with care.” [danah cited Geof in an article co-authored with Kate Crawford, 6 Provocations for Big Data.” (2011)] It’s a reminder that data doesn’t speak for itself. It’s the process of working with and interpreting data that makes it valuable. Who the chef is matters. Who’s doing the analysis, the sense-making matters.
Tricia: So what do you think about the state of sensemaking around Big Data right now?
danah: We’re not there yet. There are promises that increasing the capture of data will increase value in and of itself. But we’re only just beginning to make sense of this data. And there are so many serious ethical and social implications of surveilling people or repurposing their digital traces. Rather than grappling with the complexities of data or offering a nuanced way of addressing the intersection of data and society, scholars often pooh-pooh the entire phenomenon.
Tricia: Ahh yes, the gaze of the ever critical scholar.
danah: I don’t think it’s productive for scholars to disconnect themselves from the public conversation. This is my intellectual commitment: I believe fully in our professorial mandate. If you have the privilege to be able to examine complex issues and have the skills to do meaning-making and the freedom to think for a living, you have a responsibility to help others understand what you know. It saddens me that the professorial mandate has boiled down to an expectation that you begrudgingly teach hung-over 18-year-olds. I must admit that I get frustrated with the state of contemporary academic culture. Not only are most academics not making any effort to engage the public about these issues, but when they do, they often sit up on high and dismiss the tech companies for embracing American capitalism.
Tricia: Oh yes that’s why I think ethnographers can play an important role in being a bridge between the social sciences and tech industry. Our methods are all about trying to understand cultural practices, so it’s very hard to be a “judgmental” ethnographer! That’s an oxymoron!
danah: I wish I thought that was how most scholars felt. I’ve been saddened by the hypocrisy that I see in university settings. And the outright dismissal of doing things with a public impact, even by ethnographers.
Tricia: So why did you get your PhD?
danah: I decided to go to graduate school because I wanted to understand complex systems and how the world works. I didn’t necessarily need to be in school. And I actually kept dropping out. But then I’d find myself writing papers in my free time.
Tricia: Why did you drop out?
danah: I was in institutional hell. I got into fights with all sorts of folks because of the hypocrisies that I was witnessing. Part it was also me. I live in a world now where I have more access to resources and visibility than my teenage self could ever imagine. I really struggled with that transition. I got angry at others for their privileged bullshit but it was also me trying to deal with my own privilege.
Tricia: So not everyone just comes to recognize the privilege and power they have. Usually something happens. How did that process look for you?
danah: I grew up on the lower ends of middle class and the upper ends of working class. My mother worked her ass off to give us as many opportunities as possible. As a teenager, I had these fantasies that those in power must be brilliant. That anyone in government must be amazing. Anyone who was rich had to be brilliant. I was horribly condescending to those around me. I hated the contradictions. For example, it annoyed me to deal with religious people who were alcoholics and abusers except on Sunday. My attitude towards those around me was awful. All I wanted was to get out so I went to college. Talking about a privileged place–I went to Brown. And I had a crash course in how naïve and foolish I was.
Tricia: I bet. What a contrast in social environments.
danah: It was my freshman year when my email was hacked and put out onto an anonymous server. I left school for a while. I was humiliated and depressed, in part because I had to face my own naivety.
Tricia: OMG what? That’s crazy.
danah: Yeah. At Brown, I was also forced to contend with racism and misogyny. This was supposed to be a privileged liberal haven. I thought I had made it. Realizing that power didn’t erase stupidity and cruelty forced me to do a lot of thinking. That’s when I got into Foucault and Gender Studies. It was my junior year I went on a Foucault binge. I went to the Netherlands to work in a gender clinic. I was forced to grapple with privilege and elitism in a different way. But it took me a lot of thinking to realize just how lucky I was.
Tricia: Well a few of the contributing editors at Ethnography Matters had some questions. Let’s start with, how did you get involved in ethnography?
danah: Genevieve Bell! I was a Master’s Student at the MIT Media Lab and she was a mentor and we got connected. I’m not even sure I remember exactly how. But I went to Portland to intern for her and she took me under her wing. I remember showing up and she handed me a stack of books and told me to read them. I didn’t know what ethnography was, but I was in awe of how she thought so I was determined to be like her. That summer, I fell in love with the critical perspective that ethnographic methods offered. And I never looked back!
Tricia: We also were curious, from your point of view what make digital practices intriguing from an ethnographic perspective?
danah: I’m interested in everyday practices. Technology is a part of everyday practice. But the reason that I think technology is especially cool is that it destabilizes in ways that allow you to see things from a new light. So when I look at how people use technology, I can see the fears, anxieties, and dreams they bring to the table. And I can see what is normative because technology shines new spotlights on old practices.
Tricia: You’ve been writing a lot about big data. How have you talked about ethnography in the context of all this attention on big data?
danah: I hate the quant/qual wars. They don’t get anyone anywhere. Each question can be asked from different perspectives. As scholars, I think we have a responsibility to keep trying to ask questions and make sense of phenomena around us. Some of the questions that I have are quantitative in nature. But often, I want to understand the cultural logic underpinning a particular phenomenon. That’s what ethnography gets me. When it comes to the “big data” phenomenon, I want to really understand what the values, norms, and expectations are. I want to see how biases get inserted into the process. I want to see faulty logic and naïve assumptions. I don’t want to tear apart computer scientists and mathematicians; I want them to be able to ask more grounded questions. And this is why I think that a critical perspective is needed. I get excited thinking about the kinds of puzzles that ethnographers and data scientists can work on together.
Tricia: At Ethnography Matters, we feature a lot of work from ethnographers working with corporations. As one of the pioneers in opening up the tech field to ethnography, you’ve been able to get lots of companies to listen. So what are some tips you have for talking to companies about the importance of research?
danah: All too often, social scientists try to engage companies by offering design interventions or widgets. These practices certainly have their place, but I think that they often come off as social scientists telling designers and engineers how to do their job better. When I work with practitioners, I’m more interested in helping them understand phenomena from a different perspective. I want them to appreciate different perspectives because I think that this makes them stronger.
Tricia: And how do you explain to them the reality that great ethnographic research takes time.
danah: To be honest, I don’t. I focus on what I know and what I don’t know and I iterate. But I also show people half-baked observations and works-in-progress. I don’t like doing research in a vacuum. So I often think through my data out loud with practitioners because engaging them as I’m working through what I’m seeing often helps both of us. I think there’s a lot of value to being transparent about process and limitations of knowledge.
Tricia: One of the reasons why we all started Ethnography Matters, is that as ethnographers who worked in a mix of industry and academic settings, we needed a place to share ideas. So we’re curious about your career – in that you’re one of the most public and early ethnographers of tech practices to build a very untraditional career. Were you scared? And now that are well into your career do you have any tips?
danah: Oddly enough, no. As a teenager, I couldn’t imagine living to be 30. I didn’t get a PhD to become an academic. I studied computer science in order to have skills that I could use to pay the rent so I wasn’t even really risking that much because I always had a fall-back plan. I was always prepared for waking up and realizing that one day I’d have to get a day job. Everyone I knew growing up had to get one and so I was just trying to avoid it as long as possible. The weird thing is that, in the process, I ended up finding a way to build a sustainable career. In many ways, I have a unicorn job, the kind of job that you can’t even imagine exists. But I didn’t have time to be scared. And I never thought enough into the future to be scared. I focused on the moment at each stage, for better or worse. I don’t know that it’s replicable. What I do know is that I’ve been supported by so many amazing people over the years and I’ve been darn lucky. So I try to give back as much as possible, to open doors for others. But I often don’t know how to advise junior folks except to say be aware of your own limitations, your own risk tolerance. And be careful of becoming bitter.
danah: I’m in the middle of my year of triplets. In the summer, I gave birth to a bundle of cuteness who’s teaching me to see the world from a different perspective. In February, my first monograph will be published. “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens” unpacks numerous myths and anxieties that adults have about kids these days, addressing everything from bullying and privacy to questions of digital natives and inequality. I’m stoked to get that into people’s hands. The third child that I’m birthing this year is a research institute dedicated to addressing social, technical, ethical, legal, and policy issues that are emerging because of data-centric technological development. The Data & Society Research Institute will launch properly in 2014 but I’m having fun building a think/do tank startup!
So what else do you want to find out from from danah (@zephoria) in her follow-up interview? Either post your question in the comments or tweet it with the hashtag #askdanah by March 10. danah will select her favorite questions to answer in her second interview that will post by March 25.
The Tell Me More column is trying out a new format with the followup crowd-sourced interview. Let us know what you think!