The comfort of strangers – finding safety by putting eyes on the digital street

I recently read Danah Boyd’s “It’s complicated” which I enthusiastically recommend as a great dissection of many common concerns about the Internet. Boyd devotes chapters to topics such as identity, privacy, danger and addiction, discussing them in relation to the behaviour of teens online. In addressing the fears that adults have – many of which are seeded by media scare stories, she argues – Boyd is clearly flying a flag that proclaims “The kids are alright”. However, many of the ideas that she presents apply well beyond teens, and provide great starting points for conversations about our collective online behaviour and the assumptions we may have made about it.

One of the sections of the book that particularly caught my attention was the conclusion of the chapter on danger. The majority of the chapter refutes the media-inflated idea that kids who use the internet are at risk from strangers lurking in chat rooms or on social networks.  Boyd argues the dangers to teens on the internet are not as scary as news stories might have us believe.

But she also acknowledges that teens do occasionally end up in destructive situations online. She explains that this is usually the product of troubles in their offline lives, ones that give them reasons to engage in risky or damaging behaviour online. In one example, a teenage girl detailed her struggles with abuse and suicidal thoughts via a public YouTube video, which tragically failed to get her the support that she clearly needed.

Why are cries for help and other warning signs of underlying misery often ignored online, or fail to attract the attention of adults who could intervene to help? One of the reasons Boyd provides is that adults are turning a blind eye to the struggles of others in an effort to protect their own children. By banning their kids from hanging out in online spaces (where they fear their kids may encounter others with problems) adults remove the eyes – and the support networks they could attract – that those in trouble really need.

Community – the digital eyes have it

In concluding the chapter, Boyd urges us to stop turning our backs so that we face away from the “scary” interactions we might find online. And to stop hoping that turning inwards will mean that the bad things will no longer be a threat to us or our loved ones. As she explains,  “When parents create cocoons to protect their children from potential harms, their decision to separate themselves and their children from what’s happening outside their household can have serious consequences for other youth, especially those who lack strong support systems. Communities aren’t safe when everyone turns inward; they are only safe when people work collectively to help one another and those around them.

Just as on a street, removing our adult eyes from the digital street leaves it an unwatched space, one where neither we (nor anyone else) will notice when it’s important to intervene.  “People may appear to ignore a child biking down the street,” says Boyd, “but in a healthy community, if the child falls off the bike, concerned individuals will come out to help because they are all paying attention. Young people need the freedom to explore and express themselves, but we all benefit from living in an environment in which there’s a social safety net where people come together to make sure that everyone’s doing ok.

Boyd notes that her call for eyes on the digital street to create a safe atmosphere is an extension of an idea that urban theorist, Jane Jacobs presents in her book “The death and life of Great American Cities”. Intrigued, I decided to take a closer look.

The digital street - stairway to heaven or highway to hell? Image credit: Flickr user Magdalena Roeseler:

The digital street – stairway to heaven or highway to hell?
Image credit: Flickr user Magdalena Roeseler:

Urban planning theory – and the digital street

Jacobs’ book is a strong criticism of urban planning in large cities in the US. It’s also surprisingly readable, and a fascinating consideration of the social dynamics of how and why people use spaces in cities. The more I read, the more I saw parallels with online interactions – not just among teens, but more generally among anyone using shared online spaces.

Cities, unlike small villages, are places where we expect that the majority of residents will be complete strangers. And yet these strangers can create dynamics that ensure that there’s an environment that feels safe. Jacobs argues that one of the functions of streets is to create that safety, which is achieved via the following 3 conditions (quoted directly from Jacobs’ book):

  1. There must be a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space.
  2. There must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on the street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both the residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind.
  3.  The sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers. Large numbers of people entertain themselves off and on by watching street activity.

Sharing our online sidewalk stories

Doesn’t this also describe the way things might work in some places online? Many of us are strangers to each other on the Internet. Our feeds on social networks such as Twitter are full of people we haven’t necessarily met in person, despite reading their musings for years. And yet Twitter probably fulfils the three conditions Jacobs defines:

  1. There is a clear demarcation between public and private – we share what we want people to know, and there is an unspoken etiquettes that usually results in everyone respecting the context in which the information is shared. So, for example, you might live tweet the talks at a public event, but the private conversations you have in the bar afterwards don’t end up online
  2. There are plenty of eyes on the Twitter stream (although what those eyes are engaged with i.e. who they choose to follow, is a matter of personal choice much as you might choose which neighbourhood you live in)
  3.  There are “people on the street” at all times of day as users around the world interact with each others.

So in light of this, how many of us feel that the eyes that we put on our digital streets are not just looking for information or entertainment, but are actually looking out for each other? How feasible is this and does it differ from street to street, platform to platform?

In considering some of the factors that might affect a willingness to look out for one another, how big is your digital street, your community? And what determines whether you’d offer to help if you saw someone in trouble, either because they were being publicly harassed or because a change in their behaviour indicated that they might need a hand? Perhaps you feel more comfortable reaching out via a back channel, rather than in public. Or do the ties to a semi-stranger feel too weak so that it would be awkward to get involved at all?

Does this kind of helpfulness also extend to keeping your digital street in good order in other ways such as reporting spam, blocking bots and encouraging good behaviour by upvoting liking or resharing content that you’d like to see more of?

I’d love to hear your feedback and ideas in the comments!

6 thoughts on “The comfort of strangers – finding safety by putting eyes on the digital street

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