Lydia Nicholas

Researcher and writer, Digital anthropologist

Being us online 

Lydia’s research is key to organisations that are forward-thinking and curious about the future of technology and its relationship to people. She will be discussing how privacy works as a kind of ongoing performance, of making choices about who we are and who we want to be. She will also discuss how current methods of collecting and using data and organising social platforms are problematic for the ways people want to develop relationships, and how this impacts trust.

Lydia’s work focuses on the places where data, bodies and culture meet. She has a particular interest in the networks, tools, ethics and ways we live and work together in the digital age. Lydia has worked with the BBC, Wellcome Trust, UK Cabinet Office and The Science Museum and is a Senior Researcher in Collective Intelligence at Nesta.

Dots Live

Does context collapse allow us to be ourselves online?


A desert looks different depending on who’s viewing it. An oil prospector’s view of it is different to a web developer going to Burning Man for the first time. These differing perspectives reflect how we live online, said Lydia Nicholas, opening speaker at Dots 2016, as she discussed the conflict between building relationships and protecting privacy.

Lydia, a digital anthropologist and senior researcher in collective intelligence at NESTA, focussed on how our online lives are often at the mercy of two concepts: context collapse and leaky identities.

Does privacy exist anymore?

We often hear two seemingly unrelated things about life online: firstly that we’re becoming more separated – that our filter bubbles are more like filter bunkers – and that it’s hard to connect to others who don’t have same views.

But at the same time, we continue to hear about the end of privacy – the idea that privacy doesn’t exist anymore. “We can’t talk to our neighbours, but our secrets keep leaking out,” said Lydia.

Over 90% of people are concerned about who could get information from and about them. Yet these people are still on Facebook, putting out personal details.

Thinking in terms of human relationships

Often a misunderstanding of the cloud exemplifies this contradiction of the need to share and the need for privacy. In America, 95% who say they’re not using the cloud are actually using it for things like online photo storage.

When elderly people are surveyed, the majority say they wouldn’t want medical records on cloud – because anyone can get them. But they want GPs and hospitals to be able to access their records at any time.

Online, privacy works as a kind of ongoing performance. You make a choice with every act of disclosure. But often people are anxious about how much to reveal about themselves.

“Humans think in terms of relationships. It’s distressing not being able to be the kind of people you need to be in certain situations. If lots of people have different expectations of you, it’s difficult to transform yourself,” said Lydia. This conflict is at the core of context collapse.

Context collapse and leaky identities

The profiles by which we live online are made up of other peoples’ choices – we blur online. Everything you do has an effect on other peoples’ lives and choices.

But what if you want to create a new future for yourself? If you respect people they can give you wonderful things. Lydia says that the enjoyment of being human is making these decisions.

“People want to be able to design their own lives.”