a feminist technology blog

Month: August 2006 (Page 1 of 3)

links for 2006-08-31

Link roundup for August 29, 2006

lifehacker type quiz to determine whether you have your shit together, basically. I sort of do.

Awesome, totally insane block-by-block barebones HTML guide to Manhattan. Incredibly useful; not sure how up-to-date.

Link roundup for August 24, 2006

Terrific, lengthy SJMN article about search engine companies and how much personal data they collect and store about users (and then lie about later). Recommended.

Ah, a monetization strategy rears its corporate head. Wonder how the kids will react to this.

Counterpoint: Newsweek on Marriage

With all the talk in the blogosphere today about the reprehensible Forbes article, I thought I’d accentuate the positive for once and send kudos to Newsweek for its balanced and sensible revisiting of the famous 1986 article that contained the choice quote “women over 40 are more likely to be killed by a terrorist than get married”. That piece inspired Susan Faludi to write Backlash and became a symbol of how frequently mainstream press misconstrue academic studies (it also, unfortunately, became canon of the 80s: if you’re not married by 40, the conventional wisdom went, you’re SOL).

So great to see Newsweek revisiting that by examining the original study, looking at new studies, and re-interviewing the participants in the 1986 article. Their conclusions?

– Men and women are more likely to marry after 40 than they ever have been before
– College educated women actually have greater chances of getting married than non-college educated women (they do nicely identify that if marriage becomes a class privilege, it contributes to the rich-poor gap as marriage has many financial, child-rearing, etc. advantages, as all those denied that right by virtue of their sexual orientation would agree)
– Trying to predict future behavior based on past demography when you’re looking at rapidly changing social mores is difficult (before 1980, women really didn’t marry much past 40)
– There are plenty of fulfilling life paths for both men and women that don’t include obsessing over marriage

And finally, Newsweek admits to participating in the “trend-spotting and fearmongering that are too often the stock in trade of both journalists and academics”.

But I have to take umbrage with this:

Statistically, people who marry at much higher-than-average ages don’t have lower odds for divorce. But intuitively, some experts are starting to think that later-in-life marriages may have better chances of survival. “It makes sense—if you’re getting married at a later age … you’ll have gone through a lot of relationships, and you’ll know what you want [and] what you don’t,” says Elizabeth Gregory, director of the women’s studies program at the University of Houston and the author of “The New Later Motherhood,” to be published in 2007.

This is a common technique in mass media using social science: Statistically, this is not true. But we think it is, so we’re going to repeat it anyway. This is just a lazy way of repeating conventional wisdom rather than to bother exploring why it might be incorrect.

But otherwise a nice and balanced look at a social construct that we spend way too much time obsessing over to begin with. A great book on this is Stephanie Coontz’s “Marriage, a History”— she’s excellent at locating difference historically. Before one gets all up in arms about marrying career women, not marrying career women, working outside the home, not working outside the home, housework, day care, “soul mates”, marrying past 40, marrying before 40, domestic partnerships, gay marriage(*), and any other type of problem that can be analyzed, overanalyzed, and polemicized, let’s keep in mind that marriage is a constantly-changing institution that has meant an enormous array of things over the years. (Marrying for love is about a 200 year old concept, for one thing. And engagement rings were invented by the N.W. Ayer advertising agency working for DeBeers in the 1940s).

* Not to de-emphasize the importance of attaining equal marriage rights in the U.S.

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social media, advertising, and why Donna Bogatin needs a clue

I just delicious’d this NYT article about MS partnering with Facebook to sell ads. This struck me:

“It’s basically a consolation prize,’’ [e.g. not MySpace] Phil Leigh, president of Inside Digital Media, a market research firm specializing in digital media, said of the deal.But Facebook is also a legitimate test bed, a place where Microsoft can test new technology in a commercial context,’’ he said.

“What we’ll see is Microsoft attempt to do some fairly leading-edge type of things, involving banner ads, animation and interactivity,’’ he added. “Whatever technology they develop and use effectively in Facebook, they’ll be able to use it elsewhere.’’

I kind of actually like this idea, although it reminds me of some hearsay about TagWorld, a crappy MySpace clone stuffed full of low-budget Flash applets (sorry if you luv TagWorld 4-eva, I’m not a fan). According to my source, the SNS stuff on TagWorld is just a red herring. Really, they’re developing B2B apps that they test out using their large (1 mil or so), engaged user audience. They let the teens slam on the apps for a while, get feedback, etc., and then repackage them and sell them to enterprise customers.

What both of these deals show is that what users actually do on social networking sites is totally, totally, totally irrelevant to social networking companies. Facebook could care less what its users are actually doing, as long as they’re on the site (eyeballs) and staying on the site (sticky time). I’m sure there are plenty of great UI, dev, and product planners at all these companies working on cool features that they actually think will do some good (or something). But it’s just like television shows. The content is totally irrelevant– it could be Six Feet Under or it could be Are You Hot?— as long as an audience can be delivered to an advertiser.

Social media like YouTube and MySpace are great for advertisers because they’re cheap ad buys and give them the ability to experiment with wacky things and see what sticks. Stuff like the Suzanne Vega concert in Second Life maybe reaches 200 people directly, but it gets tons of PR and gives Vega a relevance to a younger audience she hasn’t had since the DNA remix of “Tom’s Diner”. Making a viral video or some stupid wallpaper generator costs nothing compared to physical, RW creative (a bus ad, a magazine buy) and allows for a lot more edge and sass than can be shown on, say, VH1.

Oh, and my least favorite ZDNet writer, Donna Bogatin, uses this news as an opportunity to write another squawky column about why Web 2.0 sites should handle all their own advertising. I find this really curious. Does she think that Coca-Cola or Ford should do all their advertising in-house? Facebook isn’t an advertising company. MySpace isn’t a search company. Why shouldn’t they outsource stuff outside their core competency?! This seems like basic business sense to me.

But this is the same writer who thinks Web 2.0 users (who, again, are providing content AND personal information to for-profit companies for free) are greedy and selfish. Her reasoning is that by prioritizing user experience over plastering advertising on every surface of every site, Web 2.0 sites are indulging their users too much. I can’t emphasize enough how much I disagree with this statement.

1. If you plaster your site with advertising and fuck up the UE, you will lose your users to another site unless your content is so compelling that they can’t find it elsewhere. Right now, there are very few sites that are that compelling.

2. The ONLY REASON Web2.0 sites EXIST is because users give them content FOR FREE.

3. The only reason Web 2.0 sites CAN sell advertising is because users give them personal information that they can use to generate demographic profiles for ad buys.

4. The only reasons sites get traction from day one is because they have a good user experience. Turning around and changing that as soon as you get a user base is sleazy and shows how little you care about your customers.

Like it or not, we are in an era where users expect a greater degree of interaction with companies. I could write an entire book about this, but suffice to say that the companies that will survive the shakedown are those with positive relationships with their users (or cable/cellphone companies with monopolies). If you treat your users like disposable cattle, they will disappear (hello, FRIENDSTER). Although a user base of dippy edge case technocrat fans isn’t enough to sustain an entire company, it’s much much much much better than an angry, organized mob of former users who aim to take your company down (exhibit two: TextAmerica), which often happens when you prioritize a quick cash grab over sustaining a user base over time.

In summary: Donna Bogatin needs to chill out, calm down, and stop blaming the users for poor business model decisions by companies that she doesn’t even work at (although as I said, I don’t think this Facebook/MS deal is a bad move). She could definitely use an HCI or CMC class as well. But what do you expect from a former investment banker?

I apologize for misspelling her name in the first draft of this article.

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links for 2006-08-23

fun with google music metrics

Robin sent me a link to Google Labs Music Trends. It tracks what Google Talk users are listening to.

First, consider a few points:

1. Google Talk currently has a whopping 1% of the IM market with 44,000 users of the client in June and 3.4 million unique users overall in May (Google Talk standalone client is different from the Talk integrated into Gmail).

2. You can only report Music Status through the standalone client, not the Gmail version.

3. Music Status doesn’t automatically update this chart. Rather, you have to opt-in to share data. From a privacy perspective (not to mention PR), I fully applaud this decision. From a data-gathering decision, this means that Music Trends is measuring some absurdly small percentage of 44,000 users.

Which is why you get stuff like this (apologies for image width)

For those of you who don’t remember your hott 80’s hits, “Shattered Dreams” was a one-hit wonder by Johnny Hates Jazz (“You’re giving me, giving me/ nothing but shattered dreams, shattered dreams”) which isn’t likely to have a resurgence any time soon, let alone in the new hot “Gym” remix format.

If one person’s mistagged Shattered Dreams can get to #8 on the Google chart, how hard can it be to skew it? I downloaded Google Talk, opted in, and have been playing MSTRKFT all afternoon in an attempt to thwart its careful collection of analytics. I urge you to do the same.

The chart apparently updates once a day, so tune in the next few days to see if this did anything.

(For a decent collection of online listening analytics, I recommend Last.fm’s charts; although these are similarly skewed towards highly technical, highly dorky, highly OCD internerds, who appear to listen to middle-of-the-road soft alternative rock.)

links for 2006-08-22

studying the culture of marketing

As any regular reader of this blog knows, I’m fascinated by marketing, particularly online marketing. One of the many and endless fields that I affiliate myself with is “surveillance studies”, and my focus within that is on the ethics of marketing practices like behavioral tracking and targeting, astroturf, fake street team and guerilla campaigns, etc. (I may be speaking on this at SXSW this spring. I’ll keep you posted). My interests in participatory culture, fandom, social networks, and Web2.0 all overlap with marketing as well.

Very few academics work on “the culture of marketing”. One of the few who does is Boston College sociologist Juliet Schor, who wrote a brilliant book called Born to Buy about marketing to children. Arlene Davila, a cultural anthropologist, wrote Latinos Inc. about the strategic creation of “Latinos” as an identity closely tied to a lucrative demographic-cum-consumer group.

Of course, in the non-academic realm there are plenty of resources. I tend to find Adbusters a bit polemic and over-the-top, not to mention not always well-researched, but I really love Stay Free, an NYC-based zine about marketing, culture, and advertising.

Now, I’m in an interesting position because I’ve worked in marketing for years, and lots of my friends work in marketing. The academic viewpoint on this tends to be “marketing is evil, capitalism is evil, marketers are evil and they have no self-awareness.” Let’s break this down:

1. Regardless of what you think about American capitalism, it’s not going anywhere any time soon.

2. Likewise marketing.

3. Therefore, doesn’t it make more sense to try to work towards ethical marketing, or at least elimination of the more shady/egregious examples of the field, rather than eliminating it all?

4. And honestly, while there are plenty of rah-rah cheerleader marketroids in the field, there are plenty of people who are thoughtful, highly intelligent and introspective about their field.

Two blogs that come to mind are The Black Fox Blog, which covers marketing and technology. Market My Monkey is a similar blog, but more focused on the entertainment industry.

Why read this type of thing? Well, first, it is impossible to study online anything without paying attention to commercial and consumer-driven uses of the internet. Even if you’re looking at open source, Wikipedia, or “Progressive NetRoots” (yargh), it’s really crucial to look at how for-profit sites interact with other types of sites, how they share techniques or stand in opposition to each other, how they feed off for-profit sites, etc. Second, I hate to say it, but marketing, like pr0n, is becoming an indicator of successful social technology. It often hits weird, emergent behaviors dead-on. Out-there online campaigns might be more edge than early adopter, but they can still be useful to think with. Finally, if you’re interested in media studies at all, you have to look at marketing (or, overall, “the political economy of media”) in order to make sense of the overall media ecosystem (e.g. what gets funded, how does it make money, why is X chosen over Y, how does media consolidation affect things, etc.).

I have a lot of marketing / industry resources in the sidebar for anyone curious.

social networking and music

Music has been an enormous part of my social life for as long as I can remember. In high school, my friends and I spent a lot of time refining our musical preferences until they accurately reflected who we wanted to be (goodbye, INXS and Billy Joel; hello, Ministry, Tori Amos, Concrete Blonde). In college, I was the music director of my college radio station and spent a huge amount of time being a snot about bands on major labels, shopping for 7″s, and going to shows every week for free with my co-DJ Kara Flyg. Post-college, I moved to Seattle at least partially due to the music scene and immediately became part of the ecosystem of bands, DJs, promoters and club owners that permeates the social structure there. Anyway, the point is that music plays a really important part in social networks for young people; it provides a hook for identity (I listen to hip hop vs. I listen to underground hip hop vs. I listen to new bay hip hop / hyphy), it provides a commonality for friendship, and it provides social capital in the form of knowledge.

We’ve all had the cool friends who introduced us to the cool music. In high school it was my friend Arielle, via her older sister. In college it was my friend Chrissy, who knew all about the Olympia music scene. Post-college it was usually various boyfriends. Nowadays, music blogs fulfill that role for many people, and then the people who read the music blogs fulfill that role for their friends. But even among the bloggers, the person who first writes or breaks a particular band is going to be considered way more important than a me-too writer.

For bands, this is great because it means that there’s a vested interest for lots of people in finding out about relatively unknown bands and promoting them. And, unlike in 1993, nowadays that process goes on via digital publics rather than via offline networks of mix tapes, listening to tracks on car stereos, reading about bands in zines, and watching opening bands.

There are a host of services that have grown up around the social aspects of music. (Everyone reading this knows Pandora and Last already, so I’m not going to bother going into functionality specifics, just social practice).

last.fm lets you track all the artists you listen to and generates charts based on the data. It also has lots of community/friend features that facilitate recommendations. Last will recommend stuff to you based on your preferences, and you can send your friends recs for things you think they’d like. In a lot of ways, Last’s charts (which people display on their MySpace profile or blog – see sidebar) function in the same ways as “now playing” on LJ or My Favorites on MySpace: as a way to show off your musical taste, therefore your identity or simply how cool you are (and of course, more underground = more cool. I’m not sure how my love for Kelly Clarkson works in this model). I really don’t bother using the friends feature on Last because, well, whether or not I’m friends with someone has very little to do with whether I’m going to like the same music as them or not.

Pandora is more effective at recommendations since it generates streaming radio of artist suggestions based on songs or bands that you input. There’s a nice little hack that feeds your Pandora listens into Last so you can keep track of what you’ve heard, which points to the fact that Pandora has no way to broadcast or otherwise announce your preferences to the world. If you listen to some super cool, super obscure, super amazing artist before all your friends but none of them know about it, does that diminish the value?

Mog is a music blogging network. I have no desire to blog about music and I find Mog’s little audio tracker (which works in the same way that last.fm does) very intrusive, but I can say that Mog is a nicely designed site with some nifty 2.0 features. It’s highly community based, and rather than friending your RL friends, Mog emphasizes meeting new people with similar tastes. This is very smart, as I’d rather get recommendations from a hard core music junkie who I trust but have never me than some random college friend of mine on Friendster (must start using that as an example again now it got 10mil in new VC.. must be that there patent!).

SonicLiving is a music calendar app that mines your iTunes , Last and Pandora logins, creates a database of your preferred artists, and lets you know when and where they’re playing. This is a very beta site, so don’t expect perfection, especially if you don’t live in SF or NY. But the idea is great. Particularly when artists are having to come up with new monetization strategies that aren’t “sell albums” or “get on MTV” (see my last post on this). Since going to shows is an inherently social activity, and finding out about shows takes quite a bit of effort sometimes (esp. living in a giant, music-heavy city like NYC), this is a genius idea. It’s not quite there technologically, but the guy running the site is super responsive. Definitely one to watch.

(Another interesting site to watch is pocketfuzz, which is basically a peer production marketplace around mobile content. Pocketfuzz partners directly with artists (5000 of them!) who create ringtones of their own music and sell through the site. Disclaimer: my friend Danny is one of the creators of this site).

Finally, we have MySpace, which I’ve already talked about in some detail with regard to the changes it’s made in fan-band interaction. Expect to see lots of auxiliary market sites popping up that provide tools for bands to use to promote themselves on MySpace; the basic feature set for band pages is super low (music player really being the only differentiation from the regular user pages) and a smart young company could definitely find a niche there.

On the other hand, all the zillions of MySpace multimedia player companies should probably find a different model unless they are taking advantage of the network features of the site. Why have music information on a social networking site unless it taps into the network in some way? What are my friends listening to? Who’s changed the song embedded in their profile? What’s popular in my network? What’s new? What’s hot on MySpace? MySpace has such crap functionality compared to the other sites I’ve written about in this post that it’s almost laughable– unlike Last or SonicLiving, MySpace has no way to tell what you’re listening to, and the only ways you can update your profile music-wise is by changing the single song you’re allowed, or by changing your “My Favorites” music manually. If MySpace had better, cooler, more automated music tracking tools, it could really be useful for finding out about music, promoting music, and tracking music. Right now, though, the big advantage MySpace has, music-wise, is that lots of bands use it. That’s it.

Expect to see a lot more in this market space. The cool thing about social music software is that it tends to be written by people who are really super passionate about music– Mog and Pandora reflect this especially– which makes it more interesting than contenders in the, for example, YAVVS (Yet Another Viral Video Site) space, most of which look generic, boring, and desperate to grab YouTube ad dollars. I’m looking forward to watching these sites as they mature.

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