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The Dark Side of Social Media

Danah Boyd is a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley. Lisa Poulson serves as president of Kirtland Enterprise Group Inc. Wendy Seltzer works as an intellectual property attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And Chris Kelly serves as chief privacy officer and general counsel for Spoke Software. During a panel discussion at BlogOn, they explored some of the challenges brought on by social media — for users, as well as organizations.

Danah Boyd is a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley. Lisa Poulson serves as president of Kirtland Enterprise Group Inc. Wendy Seltzer works as an intellectual property attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. And Chris Kelly serves as chief privacy officer and general counsel for Spoke Software. During a panel discussion at BlogOn, they explored some of the challenges brought on by social media — for users, as well as organizations. What follows is a partial transcript of their conversation:

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Danah Boyd: For the last several years, I’ve been researching how people use social media. I’ve been studying Friendster, social networks, and blogging in terms of different forms of the presentation of self. I’m fascinated that we’re on a panel about the dark side. What do people think when they hear about the “dark side”? The first thing is Star Wars, and that’s associated with evil. We’re talking about what users do. Are users evil? People also mention Pink Floyd and the Dark Side of the Moon. The dark side is that which light has not yet shined upon. Thats an interesting way to think about this. What are people doing? What are the concerns and fears? How is the technology being placed into society? We have utopian visions. It’s great that there are all these possibilities, but there are also consequences.

Lisa Poulson: Corporations just want to be loved, and when I think of the dark side, I think about fear. There’s a continuum between openness and control. Companies need to think about what side they’re on. Figuring out how to integrate social media so something good happens, figuring out how to encourage transparency and conversation is something corporations will need to do.

Wendy Seltzer: The EFF is thrilled about the new opportunities these tools give individuals to express themselves and the non-corporate opportunities for expression. Of course, as our conversations become accessible by search engines, they can become targets of corporations. The Chilling Effects Clearinghouse is a site we’ve put up to collect cease-and-desist letters from corporations. One person developed a font set that incorporated McDonald’s golden arches as the “m.” McDonald’s responded with a cease-and-desist letter. So they replaced the “m” with a big censored sign. We’re interested in the back and forth that goes on. Individuals can be squashed, and individuals can use their voice more loudly when they get squashed. The Internet can fight back. We aim to empower people and bring to light some of the letters that misstate the law.

Chris Kelly: I want to thank Danah for moving us from Darth Vader to Pink Floyd. I’d rather be Pink Floyd. We’ve moved from where it’s important to know things about people to where it’s easy to know things about people. There’s just a lot more data out there. That doesn’t mean that privacy needs to make that wither away. We’re talking about control over that data. Give us the power to control our information. Responsible companies in this space will build that into their systems. We allow people to reveal or not reveal information about their relationships. We try to embody the conception of privacy as control.

Mary Hodder: How should corporations contend with social media?

Poulson: Watch and learn. There are a lot of people who have a lot of opinions about every corporation, and they’re having conversations. That’s free market research. A corporation that is afraid of the participation that comes with conversation has larger problems. With social media, corporations lose control of when news gets released. That’s OK.

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Boyd: Have you ever watched children take a square peg and try to fit it into a round hole? There’s another idea with watch and learn. You need to evolve your tools based on how people are using them.

Seltzer: As a matter of legal policy, I encourage people to watch both sides. It’s easier to infringe on copyright. We hear a lot about that side of it. The music industry cracks down on people who are otherwise their fans. The fans and the users may be better educated about their own legal rights and what the Internet allows them, and companies could understand that better. Sony releases its little robotic dog, which has a limited set of things that it could do. A programmer reprogrammed his dog so it would dance when you put jazz music on. That creative little hack may have encouraged more sales. Sony’s response was to say that the hack circumvented copyright controls on the dog’s memory stick. Never mind that the memory stick wouldn’t be useful to anyone who didn’t already have a $3,000 robotic dog. Or that the hack didn’t create a whole new set of dedicated fans. It’s not about how can we shut this down, it’s about how can we draw this in and make it better? Your fans can be your allies rather than your enemies.

Kelly: Wendy points out that the law can be slow to catch up. We have longer-term regulatory structures that are applied across the Internet. We have copyright law. And you need to be aware of how legislation could affect what you’re doing.

Boyd: The robot dog example and what Chris says makes me think about fan fiction. 13 year olds are getting sued by companies for writing stories about characters from popular narratives. I used to make mix tapes for my friends. And it seems to me that a lot of this is stuff that’s been done before — but is amplified because we now have a culture of more widespread sharing.