danah boyd and digital anthropology

There’s a great interview with digital anthropologist danah boyd in The Guardian. I love danah’s work. We so desperately need more people like danah who take a calm and evidence-based view of the way the internet and social tools are changing society (or not, in some cases). She proved to be an essential source for my work on digital natives earlier this year, and her work should be essential reading for everyone in recruitment and HR.

The article says:

Lately, [boyd’s] work has been about explaining new ways of interpreting the behaviour we see online, and understanding that the context of online activity is often more subtle – and more familiar – than we first imagine.

Last week she outlined some examples at the Supernova conference in San Francisco, including the case of a young man from one of the poorest districts of Los Angeles who was applying to a prestigious American college. The applicant said he wanted to escape the influence of gangs and violence, but the admissions officer was appalled when he discovered that the boy’s MySpace page was plastered with precisely the violent language and gang imagery he claimed to abhor. Why was he lying about his motivations, asked the university? He wasn’t, says Boyd: in his world, showing the right images online was a key part of surviving daily life.

This is possibly an extreme case, but an important illustration. There are so many examples of people who have been fired or had job/univiersity offers withdrawn because of their behaviour on social tools. As a society we need to be really careful about how we handle the occasional mismatch between what we see and what we want to see. Sometimes it’s just more complicated than it seems and people deserve to have that complexity examined before people leap to a conclusion.

Social tools bring into the light behaviours that were previously hidden and we risk making very poor HR decisions if we don’t examine the nuance of each scenario individually. Is it right that employers expect a potential hire’s Facebook page to reflect the employers’ values rather than the reality of the new hire’s life? How long do youthful transgressions linger? After all, how many managers making hiring decisions have an entirely unblemished past? The fact that their mistakes are buried in the mists of pre-technological history doesn’t mean that they didn’t make the same ones that we witness young people making online now.