As I mentioned briefly in our final class, perhaps big data’s greatest victims are our youngest internet browsers. My own teen years in the aughts saw social media evolve from Xanga(!) to LiveJournal to MySpace to Facebook (allegedly Friendster was in there somewhere too). Nowadays the platforms are too many to list—although Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter merit mentioning—and the modern American teen’s life is drenched in the internet in a way no other generation, mine included, has experienced: according go a 2015 Pew study, a whopping 92% of teens go online daily, aided by these growing platforms and the ubiquity of smartphones.
The difference between adopting social media and living in a world where it has always been the norm cannot be overstated. There’s a not-unfounded assumption that younger generations are inherently savvier with new tech, but without proper education, it would take an unusually paranoid teen to realize just how much information they’re giving away in what’s always been their everyday life. While educating parents and teachers is crucial, especially because big data is gathering information on their children from birth, teens as independent agents must be taught to be safe in ways beyond the easily ignored “because we’re adults and we say so” method.
This is why I appreciate Michael Keller and Josh Neufeld’s Terms of Service: it informs the reader about the dangers of big data through a narrative, and a visual narrative no less, to spread the message beyond the classroom. It may be wordy and dry at times—after all, this is a comic entirely about two men explaining things to themselves and getting things explained by others—but Neufeld’s stylish art design and the character arcs of Keller’s cynic and Neufeld’s optimist makes Terms of Service accessible to a far wider audience than the typical news article or academic paper.
Terms of Service charts the correlation between new internet technology and loss of privacy, beginning with the birth of Gmail in 2004. Former California state senator Liz Figueroa discusses what was then a fear and is now a reality: that Gmail not only mines data from its users, but from non-users communicating with Gmail users. While Google claimed to delete the data after collecting it, Figueroa’s attempt to codify this practice into law failed, largely thanks to the efforts of “good guys” like Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Al Gore. A telling panel sees Figueroa obscuring a crucial word in Google’s bygone motto “Don’t be evil.”
This theme of feared future outcomes coming to pass resonates throughout the text, and Cassandras like Figueroa are positioned as scrappy underdogs against an unstoppable force. While this narrative’s appeal is universal, it’s particularly potent for the teen audience: the slew of dystopian young adult bestsellers, for instance, relies on an identical power dynamic. Technology is new and exciting, so condemning it is generally seen as an act of the old and out of touch, but positioning big data as a corrupt institution to distrust makes it instantly relatable to the Hunger Games generation.
In an interview with danah boyd, Terms of Service explicitly discusses teens in terms of their use of social media to control their public image. For instance, a teen who wants to be seen as happy-go-lucky may exclusively write humorous posts, while one seeking support might write in a way that elicits sympathy from Facebook friends. Boyd* also notes that teens are as apathetic about privacy as their older counterparts: her research shows that youths will “give up WHATEVER to be able to hang out with their friends.” Facebook and its ilk have become seemingly non-negotiable elements of their lives.
This section accomplishes two important goals for teen readers. First, rather than isolate teens as problematic, Keller and Neufeld connect them with adults to show that apathy is a universal problem. In doing so, the teen reader won’t feel singled out or talked down to, and is more likely to pay attention. Second, after boyd explains the image-maintaining rationale behind many teens’ social media practices, Keller and Neufeld deconstruct the notion by pointing out how corporations can use a teen’s data to construct their own narrative about the user. Social media may appear to give power to teens, but it actually takes it away. While the text as a whole is an excellent primer for young readers, this message in particular is bound to resonate.
Terms of Service is hardly perfect teen reading: beyond the aforementioned bouts with dryness, a major story element is Neufeld’s frequent use of the already-outdated FourSquare, and the app-specific terminology can be confusing to the unfamiliar. All of its principal characters are understandably adults, who aren’t totally foreign to teens, but obviously aren’t as identifiable as their peers. This is forgivable given Keller and Neufeld didn’t create the text specifically for a teen audience, but whatever the reason, this text is not in and of itself the solution to undereducated teens.
The issue of web privacy and security has certainly been addressed in young adult literature before. The most notable example is Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, a near-future dystopia pitting a teen hacker and his friends against a drastic upswing in government surveillance. Doctorow fills the story with real-life tips on safe browsing and primers on peaceful resistance methods (mostly surveillance jamming), and despite being written in 2008 it remains a timely read.
However, corporate invasion of privacy is rarely written about for the audience most vulnerable to it; in fact, I’ve yet to find anything remotely close to Terms of Service in my usual search (using internet, library, and former bookstore sources). So, despite its flaws, the comic remains the best resource I’ve found to introduce teens to big data. We can only hope, for the future’s sake, that others will take Keller and Neufeld’s lead.
*While danah boyd doesn’t capitalize her name or personal pronouns midsentence, she does follow capitalization rules for sentence openers.