86. danah boyd on freaks, geeks, queers, and lying to the US Census

danah boyd
Reimagining the Internet
Reimagining the Internet
86. danah boyd on freaks, geeks, queers, and lying to the US Census

danah boyd is so fascinated by data and society that she founded a research institute called Data and Society. We brought her on Reimagining this week to talk about one of her long-running research interests—the social lives of teens online—and ended up with a sprawling conversation that touched on everything from anti-trans culture wars to the supremely weird history of the US Census.

danah boyd is a a partner researcher at Microsoft Research, a distinguished visiting professor at Georgetown and wrote the 2014 book It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.

We touch on her recent blog posts “Protect Elders! Ban Television!!” and “Democracy’s Data Infrastructure”, as well as Dan Bouk’s recent book Democracy’s Data: The Hidden Stories in the U.S. Census and How to Read Them.


Ethan Zuckerman:
Hey everybody, welcome back to “Reimagining the Internet.” I am your host, Ethan Zuckerman. I am here today with a dear friend of mine, danah boyd is a partner researcher at Microsoft Research, a distinguished visiting professor at Georgetown. She’s the founder of the celebrated research institute Data and Society, where she remains an advisor. She’s one of the most cited scholars on social media. Her book, “It’s Complicated the Social Lives of network teens” is really one of the key works on understanding youth and the social internet. I could keep talking about her, but you would eventually turn off this podcast. 

danah, it’s so great to have you. Welcome to the show. 

danah boyd:
Thank you. It’s a total delight to be here with you today. 

Ethan Zuckerman:
So I have been wanting to talk to you because you are someone who’s been thinking about social media in serious rigorous ways since the early 2000s. We have, over the last couple of years, gotten into some real concerns about social media and its effects on youth, social media, its effects on society. You have the state of Montana banning TikTok, you have other states looking to do the same. 

And recently, you brought a whole new frame to this. You published the piece on your blog titled “Protect Our Elders: Ban Television.” Tell us about the scourge of television and what it’s doing to elders and what it can tell us about social media. 

danah boyd:
Thanks Ethan. You know, I’ve been studying young people and I’ve been listening to moral panics about young people for decades now and the fun thing about doing research is that you actually start to realize that they go back even further. So I got to read histories of anxieties about young people touching sewing machines and young people, you know, reading comic books. So there’s this long history of them. And these moral panics tend to repeatedly center on how technologies or whatever the new media of the day is, are going to corrupt young people. They’re going to lead them down to these flawed moral paths. 

And so my sort of snarky commentary about banning elders stemmed from that. Because when we talk about young people are like, “Oh my gosh, social media, it makes them so ill-informed. It gives them so much misinformation and disinformation that they end up being confused about the world.” I’m like, “Same with elders.” And so then there’s this moment of saying, “Ah, it distracts them.” These technologies, they don’t get to focus on what’s really important. They’re totally a focus on the technology. I’m like, “Same with elders.” And these moments of like, oh, they could be tripped up and they could do things that will get them into significant amounts of trouble. And I’m like, “same with elders.” 

So my call to sort of snarkily look at above 65s in television is to remind us that a lot of our moral panics that we have, we project onto young people as though they are notably or uniquely vulnerable. But it’s actually a distraction for our broader questions about what it means to be an informed citizenry, what it means to socialize people into a public ecosystem, how we can be active and responsible members of a society. And so I think that age is a distraction. 

And I think we need to really look at why we use age politically and socially rather than just sort of saying, like, what does it mean to sort of step back and say, how do do we help you to be a part of a broader world? 

Ethan Zuckerman:
I teach a class called Fixing Social Media and it uses, you know, transdisciplinary teams getting together and sort of proposing solutions to problems with social media and the students team up and put together final projects and out of the 12 final projects that were pitched this year, seven of them were oriented towards protecting children. And I ended up sort of putting my foot down and saying, you know, we got to have a conversation like what’s going on here. And what it really came down to when we talked about it was that people felt very uncomfortable putting into place what feels like protected access to speech for most citizens, but people weren’t scared at all about doing it if it was to help the children. 

The funny thing about your example with elders in television is that I think we all can think of at least one person in our lives who has been led down a very dark path by too much Fox News or I don’t know, maybe there’s someone who’s been radicalized by Rachel Maddow, but there certainly is the possibility of absorbing television to the point where you take on a political ideology. You know, how do you sort of think about that question of what social media should we have access to in a free society?

danah boyd:
I’m a believer that as a parent, and for all the parents out there, that our biggest responsibility is to socialize young people into the world. And that socialization doesn’t happen on a certain birthday, that socialization doesn’t happen overnight. That is a constant negotiation that’s about helping young people make mistakes and learn from them. And your goal is to hopefully end up with bruises, not broken bones, let alone something worse. But it’s about this constant working and negotiation. 

So first, the way that I always approach problems is going back historically. So one of my favorites is to think back about how we created compulsory high school in the United States. This is actually a pretty modern invention. It was first proposed in the 1880s by moral reformers. Moral reformers were very concerned that young people as they were hitting teenage years were being corrupted by older folks. And so they wanted to create a bubble of innocence for young people as long as possible. The idea was that high school as a compulsory requirement would be a way to protect them from the sins of the older population. 

They got nowhere in the 1880s, but in the 1920s, labor unions started panicking that there was not enough jobs available for older men. It was all about men. And so they ended up teaming up with moral reformers to create compulsory high school as a way of shielding young people from the adult world in order to protect the available jobs. And this is sort of a weird thing to think about. You’re like, oh, it turns out that high school is jail in the United States by design. 

And so when we put in regulatory frameworks, where the goal is to segment young people from these other things, we’re doing it for a political agenda and we’re not focused on a socialization process. The key to speech for me is that you socialize young people and understanding the speech acts of our world, why they play out the way they do, what is really at play, what is being contested, how do you make sense of the language that’s being thrown around you? 

Because the other thing that I also struggle with is in the United States where we valorize that idea of quote unquote freedom of speech. We miss the whole point of freedom of speech is to be able to be a responsible speaker for an informed citizenry. It doesn’t mean the right to be amplified. Those are two different things. 

And so I think for me, it’s this process of like, what are the consequences of your speech? If your speech hurts another person, you have to learn to pay consequences for that. 

And that’s by the way, what young people are learning, you know, even in the school environment, like we take something like bullying. Bullying is worse in the school than it ever is at home. And we’ve known that in our data for a very long time, the irony of COVID was that bullying is integrated. 

Turns out when kids don’t go to school, they can get bullied. It’s not that they actually went up higher because of online. The online bullying went through the floor. So it was this weird natural experiment for all of us where like school actually turns out to be the main site of meanness and cruelty and nobody’s going to be sitting there like, “let’s ban school.”

Ethan Zuckerman:  
If Montana’s TikTok ban is found to be constitutional and lord only knows what happens with the current Supreme Court, but what’s actually going on there is that Montana youth are then not getting educated in how political speech ends up being constructed these days and how to read it and how to encounter it and might actually be at a disadvantage compared to youth in other states if anyone thinks that the ban is actually going to be enforced or taken seriously which also feels challenging to pull off. 

danah boyd:
So I mean I take the TikTok ban in a different light, right? The TikTok ban is a geopolitical battle. 

Ethan Zuckerman:
Sure, it’s US–China. 

danah boyd:
It’s US–China. And you know what, any teenager who wants to figure out how to get on to TikTok, just like any Chinese youth who wants to figure out how to get on to the US, they’re going to. The question for me is that when we create these walls, what do we think we’re achieving and what are we actually achieving? 

You know, and again, we can take other parallels. Right? We have a law that says you cannot drink alcohol under 21. I’m sorry, we know the date on of this. This is not what stops people from drinking alcohol under 21. They drink it. But unfortunately they drink it in a way that they’re again not being socialized into thinking about it housely and anybody on a college campus knows that like the drinking dynamic in the United States is far more toxic than in most other countries around the world. And so this is where I find these bans are playing one set of politics and not thinking about the consequences of them, let alone how to negotiate it. 

So, you know, for me, I don’t think the outcome of this is going to be about whether or not young people use or don’t use TikTok. I mean, no social media also stays around for forever. They ebb and they flow. So there’ll be a next one. I think the question for me more generally is how do we help young people negotiate and understand network media? 

And I think this is to your point is that we often have historically tried to make it quote-unquote simple in these weird binaries. We get really locked into our binaries. Wikipedia, good, Wikipedia, bad. You know, you know, formal official news organization, good formal official news organization, bad, right? These different sort of tensions, rather than help, helping people realize like it’s an ongoing process, it’s a negotiation, it’s always within context. And that’s one of the reasons I think elders often get tripped up because they got really lazy in their binaristic thinking where they’re just like, oh, everything could be simple if I could just know if this was a good or bad source. And that’s not the right framework in a networked environment. It’s about realizing how much context matters and how to keep going with context. 

And that’s, I will say what I really appreciate about learning from young people is that they are more aware of networks and context as something that they’re constantly negotiating because they’ve had to. And the sad and disappointing thing for me as an old person now is that we are not helping provide long frameworks for thinking about it. They’re learning it on their own, and they’re not able to scaffold it abstract out and see what they’ve actually learned. So they don’t necessarily know how to apply it. And that’s on us.

Ethan Zuckerman:
So let’s actually pick on one example within that and kind of talk about how that’s transformed over the last 20 years, which is Wikipedia, right? So, Wikipedia appears on the scene, every educator freaks out, “Oh my god, anyone can edit this encyclopedia, how do we rely on it?” We have the Seigenthaler Affair where a bio is changed and changed in a libelous fashion, and it becomes this great warning, no one should take Wikipedia seriously. You’ve pointed out that a couple of things come out of this. 

First of all, you have a generation of kids who are taught to find out on their own, seek for themselves, which basically means search on Google and find the first search result that aligns with your ideological preconceptions. 

The second thing is that educators figured out at some point that actually Wikipedia is pretty terrific. It’s a way that you can check your work, figure out where the citations are. You now have teachers saying Wikipedia is a great place to start, not a great place to finish, which is honestly what we’ve always said about encyclopedias. It’s a great way to get an overview of all of these things. For me, I found the moment when YouTube decided that Wikipedia would be its measure of objective truth. And if they were going to try to figure out how to anchor in facts any of the videos that they were debunking, they would turn to Wikipedia as that source of truth. For me, that was that full transformation over about 15 years. 

You’ve had the chance to watch social media from the sort of pre-Friendster, pre-Myspace days. You’ve now had 20 years of sort of watching this very close up. Give us sort of a sense of how we’ve gotten to this point where social media is now sort of society’s favorite technopanic to use Alice Marwick’s term. 

danah boyd:
Yeah, take a moment just to close out your Wikipedia loop because I agree with you, but I think you’re missing one extra stage, which is now that it has so much infrastructural power in shaping young people and in shaping algorithms such as YouTube. It’s now a phenomenal site of manipulation, right, which is and the gamification. That’s also where, you know, acknowledging the power component of the two. 

Ethan Zuckerman:
And Heather Ford’s new book on Wikipedia, which looks at how the Wikipedia article on Tahrir Square and the protests in Tahrir Square and the decision on Wikipedia to call it a revolution from very early on has enormous political weight. And so looking at Wikipedia now as a highly effective political institution. 

danah boyd:
Absolutely. And so then to think about these trajectories of what we think of as social media. So it’s true that I’ve been doing this since before we had that term even close to it. And one of the things about early adopters, especially if we’re talking ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, early adopters of what we would now sort of think of as the prehistory of social media is that these were people who self-identified as some combination of geeks, freaks and queers, right? 

And as somebody who identifies as all three, these were sites of total joy for me growing up because I was not a part of mainstream life. And here I was in an environment where yay, it was totally cool to be like, you know, my weirdest self and find others like me. And the low status, low societal status of these environments meant that you were negotiating among people not for capitalist reasons, not for, you know, eyeball and advertising reasons, not for even political reasons, but because you were just trying to find somebody else like you somewhere in the world. And so that looked very, very different than as these things evolved. 

And some of the first evolutions of this had to do with these fantasies of scaling, right? Which is that one, people like me were like, do we make this available for everybody else like me? And if we make it available for everybody else like me, should we just make it available for everybody? ‘Cause won’t that be great? Won’t the world be better if we’re all just connected, right? And we’ve heard this rhetoric has sort of come into every generation of social media. 

But in order to like do this like oh let’s make it work for everybody It’s like well, how do we pay for it? And you know as you know better than anyone all paths lead to advertising, right? Which is this like the answer is like let’s put eyeballs and then you get this moment of like well, We’re going to you know make it eyeballs. How do we think about these layers of influence and how do we think about getting people to be really engaged long term? and how do we send them down in certain paths where they’ll spend more time on site? And you get these, you know, multiple incentives colliding with one another in different configurations with each particular technology. 

And, you know, meanwhile you have people still carving out space sort of in there and being like, I just want to connect with my friends. And they’re trying to find those spaces. 

This is the thing I always loved about young people, even when people had their first big panic about my space and whatnot. Young people are always talking, we’re like, yay, “Can I just hang out with my friends? “Because that’s all I care about.” Like, “Sure, you do to you on the business side, “but I just want my friends.” 

We are now at a stage in this, through various twists and turns and paths and whatnot, where these technologies are such a site of power, economic power, political power, the possibility of manipulation, a geopolitical power, all of these are coming together, where the comfortable ways of, can I just hang out with my friend, have become extremely uncomfortable. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re struggling with this moment, because I would say that the average person, even the elders who are using Facebook, they’re just trying to hang out with their friends. And the teenagers are like, oh my gosh, go away all of you people. I just want to see cool things. 

There’s another collision that happened here that I think is important to acknowledge, which is that we had a parallel universe between what we think of as entertainment media and what we would have thought of as social media, whereas like social media was where you hang out with your friends, entertainment media was where we go and see famous people do famous things, whether that was like formal actors, you know, produced by television and made into film, or whether that was celebrities, and you know, in my day that was about magazines. 

But I think that one of the things that’s interesting to me is that the fantasy of the founder of Friendster was one of like getting everybody to date one another. Right? That was his fantasy, he just didn’t succeed. He was also really obsessed with celebrities and he got a first wave of them, but it was actually my space where the celebrities came in and for force. In fact, it was the celebrities that drew into social media, so many young people. And this was very much about LA and bands. And I think that we need to acknowledge that because this was the first big move, I would say at scale, where people felt as though they had direct access to the celebrities and boy did Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian know how to use that, right? 

And they became, so these things, they’re not as like quite pivots, as constant ebbs and flows. And like, you know, there’s an alternate, I mean, there’s an alternate history, which is that like, imagine had Murdoch won his bid to get YouTube instead of Google, because that was the bidding war that night. And in the end, Google got it because it became people at search and it be even about data. But the alternate history would have been that MySpace would have captured YouTube and we would have seen that convergence differently. 

So these technologies and their paths also have to do with these business histories that are also interesting and tangled in different ways in a way that one of the things we can’t, I mean, it’s hard to think about Twitter without thinking about its new reality as a private company rather than a public company. You know, which to me just also hearkens back to the days of Hearst, right? Which are just like, where do we have these moments of like, who controls media for what agendas? And how do you work, and you line it up in terms of technologies. I’m interested in how different actors use those technologies, give them whatever configuration exists at that moment.

Ethan Zuckerman:
And the different ways that we outline the history is actually touch on some really worthy scholars along the way. You know, when you’re talking about artists reaching out to fans and sort of building those relationships, I find myself thinking about Nancy Bame’s work and how that sort of comes into play, TL Taylor’s work on gaming and how those relationships are sort of coming into play at the moment.

So now we’re at the moment where this medium that started with the freaks, geeks, and queers that started with topical discussions has now become in some ways the most accessible public space, the most international public space, never a truly international public space, ’cause China’s never been part of it, never public, because almost all of these things are privately held, but certainly enormously influential and enormously powerful. Is this time to burn it all down? Is it time to regulate it? Is it time to build alternatives to it? We’re at this moment where I think even in the wildest fever dreams of 2005, it would have been hard to imagine that the ownership of Twitter would be daily discussion in global media. And maybe should be daily discussion in global media because as the 2024 presidential election ramps up, how that platform gets used may turn out to be immensely important and immensely influential.

danah boyd:
So I want to also be careful here because I think that there’s fantasies of what the public sphere is or was and it’s always been contested. And I know that you know this very well and I can’t help but think about, you know, the public’s encounter, public’s tension, you know, Michael Warner’s work, et cetera. But it’s also even in terms of American sites of public connection, we have historically entangled them with private enterprises. I mean, I grew up as a mall rat, right? Like those were privately owned environments.

So I think that we have to think about these layers of publics in this constant evolution of publics and who gets to participate. And of course, you know, I think of course, in the United States, we can’t talk about this without thinking about the longstanding exclusion of nonwhite populations, of, you know, of non-male populations, of course, of non hetero insist populations, because one of the things that just keeps coming back up is who gets to be at the center of this. 

And I think one of the reasons why some of this is so disheartening, and these really hardcore takeovers of these systems are so disheartening is that they are re-centering white American male, you know cis hetero populations at like the most intense ways and you’re just like really we’re—

Ethan Zuckerman:
We’re going back there again, yeah. 

danah boyd:
Right, it’s like okay, I mean we never left it in truth but I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s so disheartening because so much of the future envisioning of those of us who were self-identified geeks, raking queers, was that we could create a future that did not center those communities of such privilege and power. 

And we dreamed this dream that we did not get to realize, and we quickly realized that what we thought were our allies in that fight were not. And I think that’s very disheartening and very confusing. And it’s one of the reasons I think that I don’t want us to dream of a past public that wasn’t, but I do want us to acknowledge our dreams of the past that did not become our futures that we’re now living with. 

Ethan Zuckerman:
So it’s interesting, one of my projects lately has been trying to think back to different moments in the past where the public sphere might have functioned differently. 

And there’s an argument that in sort of immediately post-colonial America, you had some very different functionings of publics. You had a lot of face-to-face publics. You had a lot of groups meeting to discuss issues of the day. You have the Tocqueville talking about American associational genius. Part of me wants to step up and sort of defend and say, “No, no, no, no. It wasn’t inclusive of every moment it was a highly functioning public sphere,” the other part of me wants to acknowledge that it’s always been a tension between the dream of the public sphere and the actuality of the public sphere. 

You and I are part of a generation who get dismissed as cyberutopians, but maybe a healthy way of looking at it is to say, we actually imagine these technologies being built consistent with our values and towards some of the goals that we hold dear, we did not did a good enough job politically ensuring that our values got built into those technologies. I think one of the interesting questions at this point is, you know, how redeemable are these spaces as we head into 2024 do we still have idealistic views of how these spaces might get used in the backdrop of our politics or is the project dismantling them building alternatives to them keeping them in a box to one extent or another? 

danah boyd:
So I think my very definition of activism is to fight for a better future than a present. And one of the things that I love are the various versions of dreamers and activists who you do imagine and strive for and work towards a better future that doesn’t necessarily accept the present. And I think there’s really reasonable differences of view of how to get to that, you know, various versions of better futures, more inclusive futures, more equitable futures. And I think the things that I, you know, that has sort of shifted over my career is like certainly growing up as, you know, this queer kid in, you know, rural America, I saw technology in my youth as the thing that would be allowing me to go to that better future because the technology of my youth and the ways in which these technologies that I was living with were already marginalized, already appeared to align with it. So I thought that that was something I could hook to. 

At this point, the technologies of the present are entirely entangled with forms of late-stage capitalism that are about exploitation at its core. So I’m not as committed to saying that hooking my activist future and my belief of towards a better future on a fight for these technologies is going to necessarily work towards an aligned arrangement. And so I think a lot of what I’m struggling with personally and intellectually is like, how do I fight for a better future? Because I’m not committed to thinking that it’s technology. 

And this is where for me, I think like you, I was always seen as like, you know, a techno-optimist. And I think that that was, you know, a misnomer because I think that what I was, I’m an optimist that it’s possible to get to a better future. I for a long time saw technology as one of the tools in that and one of the sites where those things could play out. And I do believe that many, it’s been an amazing site of contestation that’s like made visible a whole set of values and enables so many people to come together. 

But it’s not, I’m not a tech determinist. I don’t believe that the technology is the thing. It just, it was the thing that made sense to use at the time. And I think I’m asking myself, what are the things to use now to fight for a better future. 

Ethan Zuckerman:
Well, as much as I would love to talk about our plan to rebuild the social internet on CB radio, I actually want to get to a space where you’ve been doing a great deal of scholarship that I know is important, but do not know why is important. You have become, I think, obsessed is a fair word. With the US Census, you have spent time embedded in the US Census Bureau. You’ve written a great deal of scholarship based on sort of researching the process of the 2020 Census. Why? Why the Census? What are you learning from this data? How does this connect to some of the work that you’ve been doing previously? 

danah boyd:
You know when we’re talking about flawed projects and flawed imaginaries you can’t help but think that the whole US democracy is is really on it. I mean we’ve built a nation state you know on an indigenous land and a colonial project predicated on the ideas of including only some people with a fantasy and a dream of you know towards a better future. So the funny thing for for me is that like I actually think that the project of American democracy has so many problems in it, is so many layers flawed, and that makes it really fascinating. And what makes it even weirder to me is that we thought we could actually anchor this whole project of inclusivity on data, right? And so from the beginning, right? 1787, we’re like, hey, if we could just count everybody, we can like figure out how to portion representatives and actually do this like inclusive democracy thing, which is like a fascinating fantasy that we have seen fought since then, right? In all of these like ugly ways. 

And it’s like this strange, very big data project and I always loved it, like this first count, the 1790 count. First off, you get some really fascinating moments, right? 1790 count, we decide that, okay, we gotta figure out how do we actually do this thing that we’ve now committed to ’cause it’s like not really clear how we do it. So we’re going to take law enforcement, US Marshals, and we’re going to send them to everybody’s door to convince them to share information about their community, because they’re going to be trusted. That’s fascinatingly weird. And we don’t even trust them, so we’re going to make them post what they find on the town halls of every town, just to check our work. Also really weird. 

And by the way, we don’t really like actually want to count everyone. We say we want to count everyone, but we only want to count everyone so that white male landowners have political power. So we will count everybody as a household census, which is also fascinating, where we counted white male landowners and their property by which we meant women, children, and enslaved peoples. Like, this is insane. And then we get the data back, and you get this really fascinating moment where George Washington’s like, “Don’t believe the number.” I don’t think that’s right, right? Because, and I don’t know we should publish it because actually it just makes us look weak. And you’re like, what is this strange vision of inclusion? Like it’s weird. 

And so fast forward, you know, 233 years, and we’ve had these crazy twists and turns to this data-driven project. We no longer believe in sending law enforcement officers to doors, thank you. We no longer believe in actually posting people’s data on the town square, ’cause it turns out that’s really creepy and weird, and we learned that in 1840. So we now actually have these commitments to confidentiality that have their own weird history. 

By the way, we still do a household census, which is strange. We still do all of these things that are the legacy of here. And we produce data at scale that we no longer just use for apportioning representation. We now, since the 1970s, we do all these like massive federal funding structures on it. It’s also the way that we know our economy. It’s the way that we know so many other things. But man are these data messy. And it’s a part of my fascination is that they are infrastructural, right? They are at this core where we assume them to also be perfect. 

So we have a Census Bureau acting director standing up there and saying the population count of April 1, 2020 is 331,449,281. And everybody goes, yeah, okay. And you’re like, what? Like really?

Ethan Zuckerman:
Right, what does that even mean? I mean, the census takes place over some long period of time. People are born, people die. How could you possibly have a number of that precision?

danah boyd:
You start to untangle it and you see how these data are made. And that’s what I’m really fascinated. There’s a making process. So like, we now publish full census data 72 years after it was collected. So we have data from 1950 and before. 

And one of my favorite little artifacts in these data that are published is the age variable. This would seem like a piece of data that could be actually precise, right? We would have a good sense people know their age. It turns out people around, they lie. They don’t actually even know they talk about their neighbors and whatnot. So you get these amazing spikes at 30, 40, 50, 60, right? Because it’s sensible. And so this moment of such a very simple variable, the one that we think of as like the least controversy, ends up having to be edited, smoothed, in order to make it look real. So in other words, we also have this tension about what is fake, what is real. 

So, and then these things become infrastructural. And so, part of why I’m also really interested in the present, right, aside from the fact that like, we’re talking about data nonstop, is that we take data across all these things, we assume it means something, and we built system upon system upon system on it, which is what we did with this census. And so I want to understand what are the ripple effects, the problems that ripple effect through this. Also very relevant to other contexts. Once we realize the power of these data, we try to politically manipulate them. 

And it is hard to talk about the 2020 census without talking about the layers of attempts to, shape, shape, shift, alter, and change the perception of those data.

Ethan Zuckerman:
So let’s play with just one of those incredibly political layers to this data, right? So the census has to happen in a real sense because if we are having a government that represents people, if we’re having representation, Washington initially wants to have one representative per 30,000, having one per 40,000 would not be representative enough. It has to be one per 30,000. We start counting to ensure that we know know who these people are, how many representatives they should have. As you and I have talked about at length because we’re both sort of obsessed with this, we have not kept up proportionality throughout the 20th century for some very complex political reasons. 

But this question of how many representatives different states have continues to be one of the absolute key political questions. At the same time, we now know that certain groups of people, particularly people of color, particularly lower income people, are likely to be undercounted within the census. This suggests a world in which a party that tends to have more support from lower income people, people of color, and a party that tends to have more support from wealthier people, white people, that there’s all sorts of possibilities for politics here. Talk a little bit about how extrapolation and statistical sampling kind of gets us to those questions of counting representation.

danah boyd:
So there’s a lot going on here. I’m going to take a couple of threads through this. The first thing I’m going to riff on Dan Bouk’s work. So one of the things about the first, up until 1910, people assume that there was like really good math to take the number of people and then assign it to the number of representatives. It turns out Congress was in charge of taking the data from the census and figuring out how to do math. And the way that they did their math was much more of a colloquial story, which is how do I make sure none of my colleagues ever lost their job? And how do I give the states that grew some much more extra seats to make them calmer? That was the funny math, right? And there was this sort of technocratic fantasy that started emerging of like, what if we just figured out the algorithm ahead of time and chose the number of representatives ahead of time and then just like fed the data into a nice little algorithm and like would be great. So this was something that people went into the 1920 census hoping they could do. They didn’t get there politically. It wasn’t possible for a variety of reasons. First of which was political because turning it into a zero sum game would become a hotly contested. 

And so then a funny thing happened. The data were delivered by the Census Bureau. Congress was on the brink of figuring out how to do its funny math, when an editorial was written by a mathematician from Harvard who was like, you’re going to do the wrong math. I chastise you. I am an academic. I say it’s wrong. And the result was that a politician, a Southern Democrat was like, I see a political opening. I’m going to use this accusation to make sure we do not reapportion the House representatives because that way I don’t lose political power no matter what. And that was very strategic because it was a way of instituting all of our anti-immigration laws in the 1920s. We never reapportioned in the 1920s. This fight continued, constitutional crisis back and forth and back and forth. 

In 1929, a group of politicians were like, “Enough. We need to figure this out ahead of time so we don’t run into this again because this is a crisis.” And so they finally instituted a formal mathematical algorithm and capped the house at the size it was in 1910, which is 435, which we live with today. And to your point, this means that we actually have this really problematic thing. 

Now the thing to remember about these earlier days of the censuses is that states were allocated their total representatives, right? The math was funny, but it was also not this current environment of like carving up and gerrymandering individual districts down to the single person. So yes, there were undercounts, and in fact, the first studies of undercounts occur within the Census Bureau itself, and they actually are studying the 1880 census, but it turns out nobody pays attention to this, and this was done by a group of black government workers, but nobody paid attention to it until a white academic did the same study in the ’40s. 

So then it becomes suddenly something that people want to pay attention to, which I think is also really interesting about like why do we not trust the community themselves within the government who are trying to improve this? That’s sort of a fascinating history itself. But when we start to actually try to quote on foot fix different parts of the census, we start getting obsessed with it being more precise. We get it obsessed with being it drawing districts down to the single person. We start having more and more people playing math. And that’s where the act of gerrymandering becomes a more professionalized activity, linking data, doing all of these other things. 

And so each of these things are pretending like you can solve a political problem with math, but it just shifts the site of the political contestation and it carves out and closes different possible futures. Congress today could change the size of the house. Congress could change the algorithms that are used. Congress could day could change, how you actually think about representation so it doesn’t actually have to be down to these, like weird geographies that look like literally salamanders. But those are these moments where we are seeing Congress try to shift the burden of its own political activity onto math. And that should be a nice warning side, because we do that all over the place. Congress isn’t the only person trying to shift the side of politics. 

And so I think this is one of the reasons why you ask why this is relevant to me. And it’s relevant to me because the lessons and the tales we can tell about the census help us see what we’re doing in all of these other contexts that involve data, where we have biases everywhere, where we presume that if we just, you know, make it into a math problem, we’ll remove the politics. And I just want to claim no, that’s not how this works. And so I want to, and one of the reasons I’m writing a book about this is I want to see all the sites of politics, all the contestations. 

And they’re not as simple as just saying there are good guys and there are bad guys, or any of these like, you know, generic narratives. There’s not even this way, even amongst partisan politics, you can’t separate them out. It’s like everybody involved in this is playing their own game with their own values and their own agendas. And we need to understand how those contestations are happening in our names, because as Americans, those having in our names.

Ethan Zuckerman:
You have this really interesting way of presenting this which is this notion of data as infrastructure, right? This data becomes the infrastructure for how we aside representatives to states. It becomes the infrastructure for how we assign funding. It has so many different implications that sort of play its way through. And you and I both come from a camp that basically says, you really want to look very closely at infrastructures. They have values and politics baked into them. You really want to pull them apart. What’s another, are there other cases that you find yourself interested in, where data is infrastructure in a similar sense. 

danah boyd:
There’s these interesting moments about, how do we build knowledge? How do we build probabilistic knowledge? How do we build confidence intervals into it? How do we understand and work with uncertainty? How do we not go and throw ourselves down? And we’re like, we know everything. But how do we work in these complex worlds to make decisions? And that’s also where I would say I want to resist this moment as we move into things like AI, where we’re like, well, the AI will know, or the AI will like magically solve all these problems for us. Like, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, this is going to be flush with all these problems.

Ethan Zuckerman:
The funny thing about this question of social media and its impact on young people is that there’s really no question that’s more probabilistic than that. We know that the effects of social media are really different on different people in different circumstances. And that when people do extremely large samples on this, if you find negative effects of social media on youth, tend to have very small effect sizes because what’s actually going on are positive effects for a lot of people, negative effects for a lot of people, lots of balance within there. 

It feels like in many ways what we need to do is get comfortable with very different ways of knowing. We can make some probabilistic guesses and we can react situationally to what’s going on with those individuals in our lives, but building those much larger patterns requires enormous amounts of uncertainty on top of something that we might still call knowledge. 

danah boyd:
And I think this is also where we have to ask, what are the sites of intervention that make sense, you know, at a societal level and at a personal level or familial level? 

So one of the things that’s notable to me is we often think that the site of intervention is the thing that made it visible. And this is one of the things where my bullying work really, I was really struck by as I was going through all this data for years on bullying, because even though we were consistently seeing that bullying was actually far worse in school, people kept saying, no, no, it’s far worse on the internet and I’d start to untangle this and like no it was made visible on the internet. It’s mirror magnet, it’s mirrored and magnified on the internet. How do we actually deal with that? It’s likewise what we’re seeing. I mean young people are actually in a really bad state right now right like and I don’t want to dismiss this you know the the scale of suicide ideation and suicide attempt is escalating the you know the degree to which mental health issues are our play is huge. 

But this is also this interesting moment of like, why do we want to focus entirely on technology as our site? Because there’s another thing we know. We know that young people’s mental health is also correlated with what’s going on in terms of familial stability. We’ve known for decades things like divorce or job loss amongst parents, unstable schedules, any forms of anxiety amongst parents, you know, makes, it’s really, really consequential for young people. We’ve also known that big national crises, actually have ripple effects that actually are not immediate. They actually get delayed. 

And so this is also one of those moments where it’s like, where do we have the political will? And we’re going to regulate technology. We’ve seen state level regulations. But I’d also like to note, most of these are actually to encourage parents to be more surveillant of young people. 

And this is one of my also big sites of frustration because I think a lot of people think that that’s actually a good thing because they imagine all parents are good. And one of the heartbreaking things about my work is learning that, like, no, not always are parents the best actor for young people. 

And it’s worse than that. When we’re in the middle of a cultural war, where we’re trying to actually encourage parents to have control over children’s bodies, you know, in this way that’s actually strategically oppressive, these are laws that are about trying to enable and encourage large mechanisms of oppression that will actually cause more damage long-term than they will actually address the problems at bay. 

So this is one of the reasons why these current debates are very disheartening for me, very confusing for me, because it’s not actually about privacy, or it’s not actually about helping young people. It’s about maximizing surveillance, giving parents power over their children, and actually making certain that we cause more harm long term under this sort of fantasy of moral values and oppression. And that scares me.

Ethan Zuckerman:
In some ways, I think social media comes up because it feels like a place where we might easily intervene. And because it feels new in a way that, you know, fixing the census does not. It’s 20 years old. How hard can it be to fix social media? I think what we’re all discovering is that fixing social media in many cases means fixing society. And that’s in fact pretty challenging.

danah boyd:
Indeed. Indeed. And I think that’s a beautiful way to end this, but I think it’s extremely important to remember that. We don’t have quick and easy fixes to societal level problems. We’ve got a lot of societal problems that if we want to address them, I think that abstracting out and seeing them as entangled with other systems is going to be one of the most important things that we do. 

Ethan Zuckerman:
I just want to say thank you so much for having this conversation today. Well, first of all, she’s danah boyd. I’m Ethan Zuckerman. danah boyd, Microsoft Research, Georgetown, Data and Society, so many other wonderful things. My friend, this is always such a joy to get time with you. Thank you for spending time with us. 

danah boyd:
Thank you.