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)

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  1. Radical transparency is particularly tricky in light of the attention economy.

    This is a joke, right?

  2. I am tired of the fear mongering. My wife is the biggest sucker for it. The crap I have to tip toe around sometimes is ridiculous. 

  3. Isn’t she fear-mongering in this?

    Also, she says “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.” I’d venture t0 say that it is more likely used to identify subway muggers, car burners, window breakers, sports rioters and sexual predators.

    She also says, “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.” Mark Foley and Anthony Weiner would beg to differ.

    1. It is certainly likely that those who are trying to motivate people to identify subjects of a photograph will assert that they were rioting, or at least dance around the issue by saying that “the protest turned into a riot”, without actually asserting that those specific people were present for that part.

      Also
      – Mark Foley is straight now?
      – Who exactly has assaulted Anthony Weiner?  Oh, right – he has lost a little bit of his still considerable privilege.  He has not lost housing, his children are not starving due to his loss of employment, he has not been murdered by imaginary weeny-text-ophobes.

    2.  “it is more likely used”

      Like sex offender registries.
      Only bad people end up on those…
      People who peed in an alley, people who mooned, 15 yr old males who had sex with a 16 yr old partner, etc.
      There is a long list of people on the registry who the average person knowing the facts would assume should not be on that list. 
      But it is more likely used to get more headline grabbing attention for a DA running for reelection, or as a bludgeon to get someone to give in to unfounded charges.  It only ruins their life…

      While you can name all sorts of good uses for it, there is the downside we hate to consider… it being used in ways never intended.

      Foley and Weiner made themselves public figures, and then did unsavory things.  To compare that to someone who did not opt to put themselves out there shows a disconnect from reality on your part. 
      Maybe you were unaware there are still people being killed in parts of this country because of their skin color and not kowtowing to a bigot.
      Maybe you were unaware of how many GLBTQ people are attacked, murdered, bullied, fired, run out of towns, etc still.
      But those poor members of congress, we must think of their privacy first.

      1. I was the one who got caught peeing in a large public park (forested). An off duty police officer arrested me.  I was in jail for two days. The first charge was indecent exposure, but I proved he came upon me after I was done and had put my equipment away. The charge then changed to lewd conduct. Then attempted lewd conduct. The officer’s report suddenly included there were children present. I was told if I did not plead to lewd conduct, I would be charged with Indecent Exposure in the presence of children and be charged as a sexual predator and placed on a sexual predator’s list. I capitulated. Under a diversionary agreement, I plead guilty, paid a $500 fine and couldn’t do ANYTHING wrong, misdemeanor or otherwise, for two years. However, part of the agreement was that, after two years. my record would be wiped clean. Yeah right, it’s still showing up 10 years later. 

        Never mind that my doctor wrote a letter confirming I was suffering from a bladder infection.

    3.  Um… no. I have 3 friends, people I know personally, who have gone through the hell of being stalked online and in real life, by stalkers who behaved in every way like genuine psychopaths. I have a friend who deleted her Facebook profile, changed her name, and moved to a different continent. So let’s just say that the comparison to Anthony Weiner doesn’t exactly hold up.

  4. “There is thing keeping everyone’s lungs and lips locked/

    It is called fear and it’s seeing a great renaissance”

  5. “For the night is dark, and full of horrors!”

    She’s buried an assumption that the attention economy is a real thing, and that fear is somehow a force that interacts with the attention economy.

    I’ve got a different premise: we live in a fear economy, and that information and attention are forces that interact with this economy.

    We don’t go to work because we desire the things that work creates, we go to work because we’re afraid of losing our health care, our houses, our families – if we don’t.

    If fear of the unknown can be diminished with knowledge, then there will be less fear as we exchange information. (assuming that you have an agenda when you turn your computer on….)

    1. If fear of the unknown can be diminished with knowledge, then there will be less fear as we exchange information.

      I bolded the If in your sentence because there’s a strong implication in the talk that your hypothesis is false:

      Communications scholar George Gerbner noticed that media coverage of violent content makes people believe that the world is more dangerous than it really is.  He called this phenomenon the “mean world syndrome.”  The more people are exposed to negative content about what’s happening in the world, the more they believe the world to be a negative place.

      In this case, more information has led to less reliable knowledge and more fear.

      1. Emergency signals propagate faster than soothing signals: we notice sirens in the night more than we notice that violent crime is down.

        But humans eventually figure it out. In my experience, flame wars are much less frequent now than they were in the 80’s, I think because people have learned to handle the novelty. I don’t think fear propaganda is any different: we’ll learn to filter it out.

  6. My phone company’s ads are suddenly rife with fear grabbing one-liners:

    BREAKING NEWS!!!

    TIME SENSITIVE MATERIAL!!!

    YOU MUST ACT NOW!!!

    YOUR  IMMEDIATE RESPONSE IS REQUESTED!!!

    And my favorite–

    THIS IS A PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT!!!

    These are the things  Danah Boyd is talking about. 

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