How a culture of fear thrives in attention economies, and what that means for "radical transparency" and the Zuckerberg doctrine

Danah boyd's "The Power of Fear in Networked Publics" is a speech delivered at SXSW and Webstock New Zealand (that's where this video comes from). Danah first defines a culture of fear ("the ways in which fear is employed by marketers, politicians, technology designers [e.g., consider security narratives] and the media to regulate the public"), then shows how "attention economics" can exploit fear to bring in attention ("there is a long history of news media leveraging fear to grab attention") and how this leads fear to dominate many of our debates:

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 is spinning out of control. The funny thing is that we have a lot of data on this topic, data 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.... Online, interactions leave traces.... The scale of visibility means that fear is magnified."

And that's where her critique of "radical transparency" starts:

Increasingly, the battles over identity are moving beyond geek culture into political battles. The same technologies that force people into the open are being used to expose people who are engaged in political speech. Consider, for example, how crowdsourcing is being used to identify people in a photograph. It just so happens that these people were engaged in a political protest.

Radical transparency is particularly tricky in light of the attention economy. Not all information is created equal. People are far more likely to pay attention to some kinds of information than others. And, by and large, they're more likely to pay attention to information that causes emotional reactions. Additionally, people are more likely to pay attention to some people. The person with the boring life is going to get far less attention than the person that seems like a trainwreck. Who gets attention – and who suffers the consequences of attention – is not evenly distributed.

And, unfortunately, oppressed and marginalized populations who are already under the microscope tend to suffer far more from the rise of radical transparency than those who already have privilege. The cost of radical transparency for someone who is gay or black or female is different in Western societies than it is for a straight white male. This is undoubtedly a question of privacy, but we should also look at it through the prism of the culture of fear.

The whole paper and the video are both worth your attention. "The Power of Fear in Networked Publics" (via Schneier)