the cost of lying

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by: danah boyd

This afternoon, i did an interview with MTV. Although the clip will be only 3 minutes in length, they interviewed Zadi Diaz and i for almost two hours. The core of our conversation concerned the story of a teenage boy who wrote a suicidal message on his MySpace.

Zadi saw it and contacted the boy; he wrote back indicating that he was in the middle of taking a lot of pills. Zadi wrote to her friends, begging for help. One of her friends found the boy’s school on his profile and contacted the principal who, in turn, contacted the family and got an ambulance to the boy in time.

I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if this boy had followed the "safety measures" that most parents groups advocate. The data that made him traceable – his school, his real name – helped a kind stranger save his life. I wonder how many people’s lives are saved (or enhanced) by the presence of authentic data online.

Many years ago, a young Ani DiFranco fan contacted me. She wrote to me regularly about how her mother abused her, how she wanted to commit suicide. I pleaded with her to get help. I offered to help her find someone to talk with. But she would never give me identifying information. I knew she lived in Ohio, but that was it. Her email address was a Hotmail account (and there’s no way Microsoft was going to help). She was terrified of her mom finding out that she was telling on her. Her messages got more and more desperate and i begged for a way to contact her. And then she disappeared. I still live with the fear of what that girl might have done and am constantly asking myself what i could’ve done that would’ve helped more.

It’s a double-edged sword, isn’t it? The things that make us safest from others make us least from ourselves.

I also can’t help but wonder if there are other costs to all of this deception that we’re promoting as a safety mechanism. What does it mean to tell an entire generation that the way to be safe is to lie? Lie about your age, your name, your hometown, etc. All for good reason. Are we creating a generation of liars? Sure, it’s a "white" lie, but that’s a slippery slope, no?

Lying about one’s age is at the core of socialization into the Internet. Did Congress really believe that all 13-year-olds suddenly disappeared from the social sites regulated by COPPA? Ha! 8-year-olds are telling me that the way to get into this that or the other site is to say you were born in 1993. The technological affordances have forced them to lie to get what they want. Next, their parents will tell them to lie to be safe. What’s next? Lie to get into college? It sure is a funny moral, no?

The lying is certainly working. In my last round of talking with teens, not a single one of them put a real age on their MySpace profiles. They were no longer saying that they were 69 or 104 (typically identifiers for teens). Instead, they were choosing arbitrary ages ranging from 16-24. Think about that. If this is as common as i’m seeing, none of the data is remotely real when it comes to age. How far does this go? Does it extend offline? Many teens are well-versed at pretending to be 21 in this country… fake IDs have gotten more sophisticated but they haven’t gone away. But what happens when a 21-year-old starts talking to someone that he thinks is also 21 on MySpace?

I can’t help but think that all of this lying has a cost…

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