a feminist technology blog

Month: February 2006 (Page 1 of 3)

links for 2006-02-27

links for 2006-02-26

Blogger’s Guilt

Felix Salmon has a great post that starts out as a rant about Kottke, and turns into a good discussion of blogging in general. I doubt there’s anyone reading my (minor) tech blog who hasn’t read kottke.org at some point, but for those of you who’ve somehow escaped it, Jason Kottke wrote a very popular blog vaguely about usability, design, and content. Last year he quit working for the man and solicited funds from his readers to build a bigger, better, blog. He actually got like $35K in donations, but then he did diddly squat with them and ended up screwing around.

Which is what most people do when they’re on unemployment. I’ve logged two separate six-month stints on the dole, and although I did a few things (finished NaNoWriMo 2002, travelled a lot, read a bunch of books on memetics, DJd, did some freelance PM work, applied to graduate school – okay, maybe my idea of slack is different from most people’s) I ended up wasting a whole hell of a lot of time. Part of the challenge of having a non-traditional schedule (as I do as a grad student) is structuring my time. Methinks Jason Kottke just, you know, kicked it.

The reason I like this post is because Felix points out quite clearly the difference between “some guy in his pyjamas uploading whatever he feels like on a semi-irregular basis” [in full disclosure, I am wearing flannel pajamas with clouds all over them right now. And a Laura Ashley bandanna. Don’t ask] and the kind of blogs that get front-page NYT stories and cash & prizes for their writers: BoingBoing, Gizmodo, Gawker, etc. He sez:

It’s worth noting that the kind of blogs which make the cover of New York magazine are the blogs which are updated dozens of times per day, whether the editors particularly feel up to it or not. In other words, they’re not a stereotypical blog…they’re professional operations, where blogging is a paid job with well-defined responsibilities. Pete Rojas might now be a millionaire. But he got there by working 80-hour weeks more or less non-stop since the launch of Gizmodo in August 2002.

When I moderated a blogging panel at the Apple Store in May 2004, I think the tide was turning. At the time, Nick Denton was still in his blogs-will-never-make-money mode, but both Jen Chung and Choire Sicha conceded that what they were doing was a far cry from what 99% of other bloggers did. They updated their sites regularly because they had to, which was great in terms of building a readership, but much less great in terms of the kind of satisfaction that most people get from publishing their thoughts on the internet and getting feedback on them. Blogging had, for them, stopped being something they loved to do, and had turned into being a job.

You probably know plenty of writers who spend their days churning out action-oriented copy “for the enterprise” (flexible, scalable, buzzworthy) and are too burned out at the end of the day to work on their great american thirtysomething novel. Same with designers, musicians, teachers, professional eBayers, anyone who starts out with a hobby that becomes a job. There’s a BIG difference between doing something because you WANT to and doing something because you HAVE to, even if it’s the exact same thing.

And so I am going to stop feeling guilty if I don’t update my blog very often. Right now I’m totally into it, but I’ve been running a website for 11 years (!!!! OMG I AM OLD) and I am fully aware that I ebb & flow in terms of my enthusiasm of sharing my life with the internets. I am lucky that this is something I like to do rather than something I have to do, and I am going to go with that rather than wishing I had one thirtysecond of Cory’s readership. To use a very early 90’s (and thus incomprehensible to my under-21 readership) analogy: it’s like the difference between a fully-funded publication like Spin or Rolling Stone and xeroxed zines like Beer Frame, Cometbus, or Thrift Score. Most blogs are a labor of love. If you want to get famous, this is probably not the way to go (try reality television).


In other news, lovely to hear from my MA advisor, David Silver, who is a *great* teacher, an inspiring guy in general and the founder of the super-rad September Project. Nice to see you around these parts.

Generation @: Online Communication and New Social Norms

I went to a panel this morning run by my department at NYU. The panelists were all social networking bigwigs, and the general topic was how social software is changing social norms.

The panelists were:

  • Matt Cohler: Facebook
  • Scott Heiferman: Meetup.com
  • Jessi Hempel: BusinessWeek, author of The MySpace Generation
  • John Hiler: Xanga.com

Some thematic highlights:

Is Cyberspace a place? The Online/Offline divide

  • The panelists made a significant distinction between two types of social software: the traditional ideas of online community as meeting people you don’t know, and the idea that social software is a tool that augments your offline, “real world” community.
  • LiveJournal, Xanga, and Meetup fall into the former category; Friendster, MySpace, and Facebook fall into the latter category. Note that the first category also assumes that you are interacting with these people to a certain extent offline: certainly Meetup is predicated on the idea of meatspace interactions, but Xanga/LiveJournal give rise to offline friendships as well.
  • Generally, the idea of cyberspace being its “own place” seems quaint and out of date.

(It seems to me that this view really devalues “virtual communities”, seeing them as somehow less important or less worthy than online communities; this view was espoused by all the panelists. I definitely agree that the online/offline dichotomy is outdated. And I also agree that the shift to replicate one’s offline networks online is significant. But I do think that there are still enormous numbers of people using social software to create “virtual” communities (just look at fandom), and that this shouldn’t be discounted or looked at disparagingly.)


Many of the panelists talked about the culture of fear around online communication fueled by Dateline NBC’s Predators series and the recent upsurge in MySpace scare stories. The overall feeling was that these concerns (and to my dismay, they lumped privacy, identity flexibility, and micromarketing in this category) were due to the technology being new, and therefore unfamiliar. Many analogies were drawn between the introduction of the automobile and how social practices had to emerge and become institutionalized (crosswalks, stoplights, etc.) to respond to problems and fear of the new. Matt said (paraphrased):

“Do we need education around potential risks of internet? Sure. But those risks are no different from the risks of other communication technologies and the benefits clearly outweigh the costs. People need to be educated.”

Jessi pointed out that every website that exists will eventually go out of favor or be replaced by something else, and it makes more sense to educate users rather than depending on the sites to police themselves. When the user base moves to a different site, they will retain their skill set, rather than having to again depend on a different site’s mechanisms for enforcement.

(I tend to agree with this. I don’t think websites should be responsible for patrolling for underage drinking, risque pictures, etc. But I do think that websites have to include features that make privacy and security a priority. MySpace, for example, is flat out refusing to let people make their profiles private because it dilutes the value of the network. Right now, only younger users are “allowed” to make their profiles private, which means that lots of users who want to have private profiles are changing their ages in order to protect their privacy. MySpace is now threatening to kick them all off.

This is ridiculous and I’m sure MySpace will have to change this policy soon since they’re currently in the middle of a PR nightmare over teenagers, pedophiles, etc. Privacy should be built into every system, it should be recognized as a basic right online, and people shouldn’t have to bend over backwards to kludge it together. The answer to this, of course, is “If you don’t want to reveal your personal information, don’t join MySpace,” but MySpace does afford certain types of social capital that are important to teenagers. In some social circles, if you’re not on MySpace, you really are missing out on a significant part of social interaction. The tradeoff should not be giving up your personal information.)

Identity and Marketing

The panelists debated over advertising. Scott (Meetup) was very critical of including advertising, and Matt was obviously less critical (since that’s where Facebook is making its money). Jessi pointed out that micro-targeted advertising is better for users, because they are given information about products they actually want.

My response to this is something I heard Joseph Turow (Annenberg School of Communication at University of Pennsylvania) say at AOIR: What’s good for the individual (getting a discount on something, finding out about a new product) is not good forthe collective, in terms of both our overall privacy rights, and in terms of which people are then constructed as valued consumers and which are left out completely.

Overall, I found the panel to be very squirrelly about marketing. I pointed out that microtargeted advertising is dependent on singular, “authentic” profiles – you know, my MA thesis – and that these networks don’t build in provisions for people to present themselves differently precisely because they are dependent on advertising. I talked about my students finding my MySpace profile and having to neuter it as a result, but I could have given a thousand examples of people being fired for their blogs, or the NYU undergrad who was fired from her job at an IP law firm for being a member of NYU’s Free Culture group, or of a gay guy being outed to his Christian, conservative family through his Friendster profile. Significant stuff.

Well, the answer to that was a softball to be sure. Matt (Facebook) said that he thinks we’re moving towards a world that is more socially transparent, where there will be less of a divide between your work self and your play self, and so these issues won’t be a problem. I think this is really shortsighted. Just because we can now wear jeans to work and call people by their first names does not mean that our desire to vary self-presentation has decreased. There need to be spaces where I can express myself in ways that my employer, my parents, or my ex-boyfriend won’t find out about. It’s really patronizing to users to basically say “society will change, so we’re not going to do anything about it”, it assumes these issue aren’t significant, and it totally takes the onus of responsibility off the company and on to society.

These are issues that social software HAS TO address. Increased transparency won’t result in everyone being about to be their “true selves” 24/7, it’ll mean people have to hide who they are so they won’t get fired, and employers will be monitoring everyone’s online and offline selves. It’s one thing to work for a liberal social networking dot com, it’s another thing to work for Wal-Mart. Personal transparency needs to be a choice, not a requirement of use, and it must be respected.

I’m working through my notes and might post more if anyone’s interested, but I think these are the generally main points of the talk. It was really fascinating to hear many of the issues I obsess about all day being addressed from the business standpoint, which is completely different from the academic viewpoint, in that it’s generally much less critical and can’t, by definition, critique the profit orientation of the enterprise.

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Torture, Guantánamo, and Presidential Power

There’s a fantastic article in this week’s New Yorker about the US government’s use of torture in the War on Terror. The article indicts the government for clearly and knowingly violating the Geneva Convention, for using techniques at Guantanamo that, if not outright torture, certainly count as cruelty:

Qahtani had been subjected to a hundred and sixty days of isolation in a pen perpetually flooded with artificial light. He was interrogated on forty-eight of fifty-four days, for eighteen to twenty hours at a stretch. He had been stripped naked; straddled by taunting female guards, in an exercise called “invasion of space by a female”; forced to wear women’s underwear on his head, and to put on a bra; threatened by dogs; placed on a leash; and told that his mother was a whore. By December, Qahtani had been subjected to a phony kidnapping, deprived of heat, given large quantities of intravenous liquids without access to a toilet, and deprived of sleep for three days. Ten days before Brant and Mora met, Qahtani’s heart rate had dropped so precipitately, to thirty-five beats a minute, that he required cardiac monitoring.

These are not techniques that were previously deemed acceptable, signalling a significant change in US policy. Whatever your thoughts on the US military, it’s fairly clear that international human rights law, like the Geneva Convention, has historically been taken quite seriously. Of course there are exceptions, and there are certainly plenty of instances of egregious military violations of human rights. But in 2002 President Bush specifically made the decision to circumvent the boundaries of the Geneva Convention, refusing to outlaw cruelty towards suspects.

Of course, the Pentagon now says that this has been taken care of, that post-Abu Ghraib the list of “approved interrogation techniques” has been significantly limited. But there is still no evidence that the military is taking the Geneva Convention as a framework in which to limit these actions, and there is no clear deliniation between acceptable and unacceptable techniques in terms of cruelty or torture.

But even more significant than this–and this is very significant– is the overall Bush Administration movement toward greatly increased and consolidated presidential power.

Lawrence Wilkerson, whom Powell assigned to monitor this unorthodox policymaking process… said, “I saw what was discussed. I saw it in spades. From Addington to the other lawyers at the White House. They said the President of the United States can do what he damn well pleases. People were arguing for a new interpretation of the Constitution. It negates Article One, Section Eight, that lays out all of the powers of Congress, including the right to declare war, raise militias, make laws, and oversee the common defense of the nation.” Cheney’s view, Wilkerson suggested, was fuelled by his desire to achieve a state of “perfect security.” He said, “I can’t fault the man for wanting to keep America safe, but he’ll corrupt the whole country to save it.” (Wilkerson left the State Department with Powell, in January, 2005.)

The President should NOT have the right to do whatever he wants. In fact, the idea that the President CAN do whatever he wants is in direct violation of the Constitution, the general philosophy of checks and balances in government, and is the first step towards a far less democratic and far more despotic type of government.

I’d urge you to read the whole article: coming about a week after the new photos from Abu Ghraib and the UN urging the US to shut down Guantánamo, it really shows how incidents of torture of “terror suspects” are NOT, by ANY means, isolated incidents of a few people acting inappropriately. Rather, they are systemic, condoned from the top-down, and part of a larger discourse of expanded presidential power that should concern all Americans, no matter what their political leanings. In case you can’t tell, I’m really, really bothered by this, and I’m trying to figure out if there is anything that the citizenry can do about it.

links for 2006-02-23

The Dramatic Followup to the Wikipedia Experiment

If you’ve just tuned in: I changed my usual start page to the main Wikipedia page for a few weeks to see if a very minor technological change would have an impact on my life.


The answer is: yes.

A start page has two functions:

1. It’s the first thing you see when you fire up a new Firefox session

2. It’s basically the easiest page to return to, so it behooves you to make it something useful (Google, shudderHotmail, etc.)

Each of these two functions is completely different and so has different success metrics.

Wikipedia performed well for the first function. I became very well-informed on issues like the Mohammed cartoons controversy, and I learned about a bunch of cool stuff like the trial of David Irving, the whackjob Holocaust denying British historian. Considering my two daily must-reads are BoingBoing and Pink is the New Blog (gossip), this was a good way to get a fairly well-rounded account. The main Wikipedia page is especially cool because it has random featured articles as well as news, so you can pick up some history/factoids while skimming the headlines. So the success metric for “first thing you see on a new session”, for me, would be “Does this page help me become better informed?”

(I suspect that something like the New York Times or Salon would work just as well, though).

Wikipedia was a TERRIBLE substitute for the second. If you look at my start page, I have it all set up with everything I use on a daily basis. (The one on my server is actually a few months out of date; I’ll have to add updating it on tiara to my endless, joyless to-do list.)

Typically, I hit HOME at least a few hundred times per browsing session. I wiki direct from my mozilla address bar, so I don’t need the whole wikipedia page as a reference tool, and the zillions of links on my regular start page are WHAT I NEED TO LIVE MY LIFE ONLINE, dammit. No single solution is going to replace it.

So my metric for the second use would be “Is this the most useful online tool I could put in this space?” And by that metric, Wikipedia fails spectacularly.

So the best thing would be to integrate some sort of news feed to my start page that would pull from Wikinews, Salon and the New York Times but be unobtrusive enough not to interfere with the main function of that page, which is to provide a zillion links to everything I like.

(My real world, lazy unprogrammer workaround was to add a bookmarklet to Firefox that reads HOME and is directly below the address bar. So now I hit that 100,000 times a day.)

So what did I learn? Well, first I learned that I will absorb information somewhat osmotically if I force myself to stare at it every day, even if it’s just for the 15 seconds it takes me to hit my home made HOME button. Second, I learned that what’s more USEFUL for me is a higher priority than what I think is GOOD for me. And third, I learned that it’s interesting doing usability experiments on yourself.

(It’s also at that point when I stare into the mirror and think “Oh my god, do I need to get a life, FOR REAL.”)

The problem with fair and balanced

This isn’t news to anyone else in Communication, but I just wanted to state for the record that the American tradition of providing “balanced” reporting does more harm than good. Say I am doing a story on global warming. Say 98% of reputable scientists agree that global warming is a serious concern. However, as a journalist I have to provide a “balanced” view. So I drag out some crackpot petroleum-funded scientitian to give the “other side”, which represents about 2% of the actual debate, but 50% of the coverage. So an issue that is for all intents and purposes settled becomes a debate. This happens all the time. Don’t get me started that “sources” are like 75% of the time people in government, politics, or law enforcement, when there are plenty of issues that regular people are concerned about that most people in government, politics, or law enforcement are not going to talk about on television or in the newspaper.

Related links:

Gender Switchin’ Beauty & the Geek 3

I mini-marathoned all six aired so far eps of Beauty & the Geek 2, the show exec produced by Ashton Kutcher which pairs supposedly “hot” (skinny and heavily made up) girls with geeky (smart, socially awkward) guys. The guys learn about fashion and grooming, the girls learn there’s more to life than shoes and gossip magazines, and at least one pair hooks up. Game over.

It’s actually a pretty entertaining show. They’re clearly casting for personalities, since pretty much any bimboid girl would fit the “hot” archetype. The geeks are a bit trickier, but they have a bunch of programmers, MIT grad students, yada yada, what you’d expect. All these kids are really young, undergraduate age, and there are some fairly touching moments when the girls actually start believing they have more to offer the world than their looks, or when the guys realize they can participate in normal college-ish activities without being permanently shunned.

But it’s so predicated on predictable, sexist stereotypes. I’ve spent the last few days musing over how they could flip the casting for Beauty & the Geek 3: geeky girls and hot guys. It’s really difficult to figure out how this could work and not be insanely subversive, since so much of the “hot girl” / “geeky guy” dichotomy depends on really gender-specific things:

  • The girls have to be nurturing and willing to gently teach the guys stuff and help them open up.
  • The idea that a dorky or overweight guy could be a sex object is not completely out of the realm of possibility on television.
  • The girls have to be superficial, but not mean.

OK: Flip to socially awkward, supersmart girls and himbo, A&F chest-waxing dudes. The assumption is that the “hot” guys are just going to be complete assholes to the “dorky” girls. The idea that a woman might have something to offer the world other than her looks just goes against every single presupposition of reality television, not to mention consumer culture overall.

There really isn’t a way to make the relationship between a conventionally attractive man and a conventionally unattractive woman who’s smarter than the guy palatable to the majority discourse on television. We just don’t see that. We don’t see that many smart women, period, and we certainly don’t see them if they’re not perfectly coiffed, shaved, toned, plucked, and manicured. Imagine some hypernerd tough chick programmer who lifts weights and reads sci-fi and goes to LOTR conventions. Can we really imagine her neutering herself into a well-spoken, polite bimbo? “Geekiness” for women can sometimes be an extremely powerful form of opting out of mainstream beauty culture in a very effective, self-aware way.

Maybe I’m not giving the hot guys of the world enough credit, but from my experience with narcissistic men who don’t have much going on upstairs, they generally aren’t really into seeing women as people. Women are ranked on their looks and fit into very specific, sexist types, and if they don’t fit those types, they’re not sexual objects, and so they’re non-people. Television generally doesn’t have much time for women who aren’t “hot”, and the idea that a fat girl, or a girl who doesn’t wear makeup, or a girl who doesn’t dress trendily could be “hot” isn’t very common either.

I’m not saying this doesn’t happen in real life. But I am saying that on television targeted towards teenagers, switching the roles on this show would require a great deal of backpedaling and shifting in order to create something that would be acceptable to advertisers, etc. Seeing “hot” girls learning BASIC FACTS (Who is John Kerry?) isn’t threatening. Seeing a whipsmart, weird, awkward girl gaining confidence in herself and being constantly validated is. I really hope I’m wrong because I am DYING to see this show.

(Gossip: Wes from B&G2 is total slimeball! Check out the MySpace group: http://groups.myspace.com/wesislame. He’s a faker, dude, totally recruited by Ashton to geek out so he could be hottied up. And he cheated on his “real” girlfriend and his TV girlfriend. OH SNAP, you are so busted Wes!)

SNL: Don’t Give Us Free Advertising

Sort of an old story: NBC freaks out over Lazy Sunday meme. Dude, COME ON. That was the first thing I’d seen off SNL besides Ashlee Simpson’s jig (and the Goth Talk sketch featuring Sarah Michelle Gellar, which is hilarious) in like five years. NBC should be stoked that anyone is even talking about SNL at all, and they should be doing everything they can to facilitate that.

Two things here:

1. YouTube has reached critical mass really, really quickly. Like twenty times quicker than any other site I can remember recently. It’s because it works, and because the users have been uploading a storm of pirated, rare, old, and interesting content. It’s also a sea of some of the stupider memes I’ve seen lately. Browse the top videos and you’ll see stuff that looks like a 15 year old in Montecito filmed something on their desk with their phone’s camcorder. Because they did. Anything on the front page is guaranteed to sit there for at least a day or so, because popularity begats popularity.

(Favorite current YouTube video: Prince on American Bandstand, 1980. Thanks Salah!)

2. This is sort of an endless discourse, isn’t it? In this corner, we have true viral marketing, which isn’t designed by hipster boutique agencies, doesn’t have built-in DRM and isn’t easily trackable or controllable. In the other corner, we have Big Media, sweating and shaking that they might not be able to wring every single cent out of one of their tired “content properties.”

You can’t have both, dudes: either lock down your “marketing” and take every snippet of fun out of it (have you seen how shitty iTunes video is on most machines?), or have a successful marketing campaign. Users don’t send each other jittery, shuddering video wrapped in crippleware, and they don’t pay $2 for a 2 minute clip.

(Speaking of, I bought the whole second season of My Super Sweet 16 (SHUT UP) on iTunes and whoa, was that a waste of cash. The video is unwatchable on my machine, my iPod is a 3G (it doesn’t play video) and I can’t find any sort of shareware or opensource app that will play the bizarre m4v iTunes standard. The one time I pay for something rather than torrenting it and it doesn’t work. Back to downloading episodes of Beauty and the Geek. AGAIN: PAYING FOR CONTENT HAS TO BE MORE COMPELLING THAN DOWNLOADING IT FOR FREE. I am not sure why this is such a bitter pill to swallow.

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