a feminist technology blog

Month: March 2008

LJ Strike and the Limits of User Revolts

I’ve been following the Livejournal Content Strike with interest. For those of you who aren’t LJ nerds, LiveJournal was started by Brad Fitzpatrick, a computer science student at the University of Washington. It evolved into Danga, a small, independent company that (although a bit idealized now through the rose-colored glasses of time) remained committed to open-source software and user input. In 2005, Danga was sold to SixApart, who in late 2007 sold LJ to a Russian company called SUP.

There’s been an inherent tension all along among LJ users and the owners of LJ. Historically, LJ has depended on users for moderation, development, FAQs, and so forth. LJers also obviously provide all the content that makes the site appealing to advertisers and new users. Some of the major controversies on LJ:

1) SixApart adding advertising to the site, after Danga had promised no advertising – ever! on LJ
2) SixApart removing ~500 accounts for use of the terms “incest” or “non-con” in their user info. Many of these were fan fiction communities, targeted by anti-child-predator activist groups like “Warriors for Innocence.” (I recently presented a piece about the discourse around “child predators” on social networking sites and how it’s used to justify content regulation and misguided legislation; the LJ debacle is a good example.)
3) SixApart asking users to remove icons that depicted breastfeeding
4) SUP eliminating “basic” accounts (free, no advertising) for new users.

Each of these met with various degrees of user protest and backlash. #2, especially, caused a huge storm of controversy, largely because fandom is very well organized and networked. But it’s #4 that’s caused the current strike, and what I’m most interested in.

What’s interesting is that I don’t think it’s the policy itself that’s pissed everyone off; LJ users are obviously aware that SUP needs to make money, and although I think most people don’t like advertising online, AdBlock quickly fixes that. The problem lies in the way that SUP handled the change.

  • They didn’t run it by the “LJ Advisory Board” that includes well-known user advocates like danah boyd and Brad Fitzpatrick, after promising to use them as a resource for any major decisions
  • They claimed the choice to remove free accounts was to make the site easier to use, rather than as a revenue generation mechanism
  • They announced the change buried in a lengthy post on the LJ News community

LJ users began to organize two initiatives: a boycott of LJ advertisers, and a Content Strike on Friday, March 21 in which LJ users pledged not to update their journals.

That’s when the real shit hit the fan. SUP evangelist Anton Nossik gave a Russian-language interview in which he called the boycotts “blackmail” and stated:

I don’t know any of LJ posters familiar to me, those I have friended and commented, that would want to join said boycott. I honestly don’t know any people that would seriously take up that initiative. So I am presuming such an idea to be marginal at best. Something like calling all the advertisers in the American section of livejournal and calling on them to cancel their ads…Where would one find people stupid enough to call serious companies? It’s one thing to call a newspaper in hopes that it’ll make you famous on its pages. But a company… They’d just get asked: “Who are you? Why should I listen to you?”…. In a situation where people are trying to blackmail and intimidate us, threatening to destroy our business, there are business reasons not to reward this sort of behavior. This isn’t just the psychology of someone who becomes more stubborn the more they’re pushed. The issue is that at no point in the history of any successful business, success was not reached by bowing to aggressive, unfriendly force. No decision — even the most correct one — should be taken under duress.

There’s something refreshing about the candor with which Mr. Nossik approached his users, given the typical American company’s “we’re taking this very seriously” non-action. But calling LJ users “blackmailers” and “idiots” isn’t very good for public relations, and given that the tactic of boycotting is a time-honored protest technique with a history of success, not very accurate either.

I think one of the reasons Brad Fitzpatrick sold LJ in the first place was that LiveJournallers take LJ very seriously, and feel that the company has a responsibility to take them seriously. This isn’t bad, but it means that the users are EXTREMELY invested in the product (and I think Brad felt that he couldn’t spend the rest of his professional career being personally criticized on a micro-level for every change on the site). HOWEVER. I subscribe to a ton of marketing newsletters, left over from when I was working on marketing surveillance techniques like behavioral targeting. 99% of the content on these newsletters is “how to get customers to engage with your brand.” LJers are intensely emotionally connected to the brand. And given the obvious, that LiveJournal’s profit comes, directly or indirectly, from the users, it seems short-sighted and counterproductive not to take their concerns at face value and try to do something to appease them.

But we see this time and time again. Rather than actually appeasing user concerns, businesses get upset that they can’t control user engagement in the way that they want. Nossik seemed furious that users were organizing against a policy rather than passively accepting it, and has responded defensively and back-pedaled with spin. LiveJournal’s official PR people are a bit better at communicating in status quo business-newspeak but still haven’t actually suggested any improvements to the decision-making process.

Interestingly, I went to the Users are Revolting panel at SXSW (I also took copious notes, and left them all at home today, so forgive me as I vaguely paraphrase). Jessamyn West from Metafilter, a woman from Linden Labs, and one of the editors of Lifehacker talked about user protests oand rebellions and how they handled it. I was fascinated that Lifehacker’s big example was 12 people complaining about a banner ad that showed naked butts (they removed the ad). Metafilter’s recent crazy threads about sexism involved more people, but ultimately resulted in a lot of talking, and some high-profile female users quitting the site. West pointed out that Metafilter’s general response to speech they don’t like is more speech, trying to use discussion and dialogue to work through issues collaboratively. This is a far superior technique to either the usual Best Buy / Verizon / Wal-Mart corporate spin response or Nossik’s defensive reaction.

Ultimately, the switching cost for LJ is too high for most users to do a permanent boycott. But this ties into one of my main problems with Web 2.0: how can we idealize participatory technologies as “democratic” when they are all oligarchical corporate environments in which what the users want doesn’t necessarily have an effect on what policies are proposed? The built environment equivalent would be tearing down town halls and having all public meetings at the mall, where you can’t pass out flyers, wear politically controversial t-shirts, or congregate with teenagers en masse. User boycotts are a response to market forces, but they’re also predicated on a very old-school idea of participatory democracy in which citizens– not just consumers– deserve a say in their governing.

Link roundup for March 25, 2008

Terrific resource for the history of racial segregation, civil rights, and anti-Black caricatures.

links for 2008-03-24

links for 2008-03-21

Movie Reviews: The Bank Job & Girls Rock!

So I’ve decided that since I am getting a PhD in media studies, I should blog more about the media I actually consume. I read a lot, I watch two or three TV shows regularly at any one time and I’m a movie junkie and go to the movies every week. This week I saw two movies, so let’s start with those.

1. The Bank Job

Jason Statham has built a career on playing the Sexy Working Class British Thug, a tradition which he continues to fine effect in this by-the-numbers heist movie. It’s set in 1970’s London, with plenty of fun hairstyles, costumes, and low-tech skullduggery to add some interest to the somewhat overdone crime caper genre. Charming accents, protagonists to root for, and a fun, trashy conspiracy fueling the plotline.

My problem: the villain in this movie is a completely racist caricature of a black man. He’s a black power advocate who isn’t ACTUALLY Afrocentric and people-empowering; no, he’s actually a secret pimp, drug-smuggler and white-girl murdering sociopath. What I found particularly ideologically problematic about this is that the Black Power movement is misunderstood to begin with, and characterizing it as simple thuggery dressed up in manipulative race-baiting rhetoric ignores both the actual problems Black Power was rallying against and the good work that a lot of Black Power groups and activists did within their communities. Not to mention that groups like the Black Panthers were infiltrated by American law enforcement groups as part of the COINTELPRO effort against 1960s radicals in an attempt to discredit and weaken their efforts.

It’s always easy to set up the government as the good guys and the weird organizations people don’t know about as the bad guys, but when you’re manipulating misinformation about radical groups and using racial tropes in the laziest way possible (visuals of wealthy white girl having sex with black guy and then murdered, etc.; topless black women lying around on leopard-print sheets, etc.) it gets a big FAIL from me.

And again, boring subplot consisting of two hot women fighting over male protagonist.

Rated C for lazy racist stereotypes and tired sexist narratives (all that said, I did enjoy the movie. I would say that 99% of mainstream media I find politically objectionable, and if I evaluated it entirely based on that I couldn’t enjoy any of it and would have to confine my entertainment to reading material I buy at Bluestockings (currently: Typecasting by Ewen & Ewen). But I have this cheesy streak in me that deeply enjoys stupid popular culture like American Idol and Gossip Girl. So I save the D and F ratings for truly objectionable trash like Forrest Gump.)

2. Girls Rock

A charming documentary on the Rock and Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, OR. Now, I was somewhat of a fanatic about female-fronted punk rock in my day. I hosted a radio show for three years about girl punk rock, I collected every 7″ by Kill Rock Stars, Chainsaw, Candy Ass, and K that featured girls with guitars, and I saw Sleater-Kinney 16 times in the years between 1996 and 2003. I also lived in Seattle for 8 years and went to the first Ladyfest in Olympia and the second one in Chicago. So the Pacific Northwest feminist/lesbian punk scene is very dear to my heart. It was lovely to see such musical luminaries as STS, Carrie Brownstein, and Beth Ditto make cameo appearances as camp counselors and music teachers.

But let me back up: the RNRCFG is a camp, for girls ages 8-18, where they come together for five days, learn to play an instrument, form a band, write a song, and perform it. This is a radical act and I think this camp constitutes a radically feminist act. It’s about teaching girls to take up space, to not apologize for their lack of skills, to find a creative voice, and to perceive themselves as talented individuals rather than bodies. The doc is peppered with statistics about the disparities between boys and girls in terms of dieting, school achievement, self-esteem, and the like which is truly depressing. It’s also depressing to see the lack of young girls in the rock and roll landscape, and how bleak the rock and roll landscape (ESPECIALLY the “indie” hipster scene, which mostly allows girls in as coat-holders and fashion plates these days) has become.

But the girls in this documentary are great. It follows four: Misty, a survivor of group homes and fucked-up parental situations, who starts out saying it’s ridiculous for her to be there but ends up loving the bass; Palace, a very young girl already indoctrinated into well-worn patterns of perfectionism and anger; Am, a free-spirited nutjob 8 year old deeply inspired by Sonic Youth and her family’s chihuahua; and Laura, my favorite, a super-talented death-metal vocalist who feels like an outcast as a punk, feminist Korean girl in Oklahoma City. Each of the girls’ stories is interwoven with the narrative of five days at camp and the slow but steady formations of the bands. It’s very sweet and inspiring and feminist, and also very funny because kids are so weird (Band name for Am’s band: PLAID: People Lying Around In Dirt).

What I took away from it is how limiting our day-to-day lives are when compared to the amazing potential of non-sexist worlds. I feel consistently lucky to have spent four years at Wellesley as an undergraduate where sexism was removed from my life completely. The Rock and Roll Camp for Girls is a similar space, and I think it’s terrific that there’s so much support for such a cool project that is so totally needed to help little girls navigate the mysterious and often horrifying expectations placed upon them.

(Besides the original camp in Portland, there are girls’ rock camps in Memphis, the UK, Brooklyn, Philly, Sweden, DC, Austin, and more in the works. My local chapter, the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, has a Ladies Rock Camp for women over 19!!! that I would totally go to this summer if I wasn’t already going to be traveling hither and thither, and then moving to San Francisco).

Rating: A! But it’s probably not playing anywhere near you. One for the future Netflix queue.

SXSW post-partum

I had a terrific time at SXSW this year. Thanks to all the awesome people who came to my conversation: “I’m Internet Famous: Status in Social Media.” I learned that LOTS of people want to talk about internet celebrity, especially internet celebrities themselves!

Some perspectives I hadn’t thought about going in, but that my conversation-ees brought up:
1) How do you become internet famous?
2) If you are internet famous, how can you deal with it?

Obviously, these aren’t the focus of my research. I’m not interested in telling marketers how to create an “internet celebrity” and although I sort of feel for people who became unknowing internet celebrities, there’s a big difference between a self-promoting blogger and a total random like the Tron Guy. What I really wanted to talk about was elitism and how the “internet celebrity” functions in the tech world – is Anil Dash internet famous? Scoble certainly is. There’s a big difference between someone like Michael Arrington and the Tron Guy. I do think that there’s a ton of insider elitism in Web 2.0 and the focus of my dissertation is exploring this and how it affects application development and concepts of the normative user.

Here’s a brief interview with me about the basics of internet celebrity. This is the first video interview of me I’ve seen and it’s somewhat horrifying seeing yourself on film. I am happy I didn’t say “like, y’know, um” too often.

More coverage of my panel at the Official Dell Blog, LA Times, and Valleywag.

I am KEYNOTING on this subject at ROFLcon in April. I plan to focus more on microcelebrity in internet pop culture, drawing substantially from the ideas of Dr. Terri Senft. I’m also going to be spending a lot of time in the media studies literature looking at the work that already exists on celebrity. It’s quite complicated to theorize since one of the basic ideas of regular celebrity is that you know them, but they don’t know you; which isn’t always the case in small-scale internet worlds.

Link roundup for March 6, 2008

contributory vs. vicarious vs. inducement

Link roundup for March 5, 2008

Very simple post about de-cluttering life, goals, to-do lists, etc.

Link roundup for March 3, 2008

From “Toxic Sludge is Good for You”; how public relations firms used video news releases and “hook” stories to justify the first Persian Gulf War

How the Pentagon and the President skillfully manipulated mainstream media sources during the first Gulf War, and how complete fictions were used to justify the war to the American public.

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