Monday, October 11, 2010

The Fifth Dimension

Web developers have been expressing their excitement about HTML 5 for a while now and the possibility of creating interactive content easily without proprietary programs like Flash. Now the New York Times warns that this "New Web Code Draws Concern Over Privacy Risks" in a story that is now among its most e-mailed.

Most Web users are familiar with so-called cookies, which make it possible, for example, to log on to Web sites without having to retype user names and passwords, or to keep track of items placed in virtual shopping carts before they are bought.

The new Web language and its additional features present more tracking opportunities because the technology uses a process in which large amounts of data can be collected and stored on the user’s hard drive while online. Because of that process, advertisers and others could, experts say, see weeks or even months of personal data. That could include a user’s location, time zone, photographs, text from blogs, shopping cart contents, e-mails and a history of the Web pages visited.

The new Web language “gives trackers one more bucket to put tracking information into,” said Hakon Wium Lie, the chief technology officer at Opera, a browser company.

Or as Pam Dixon, the executive director of the World Privacy Forum in California, said: “HTML 5 opens Pandora’s box of tracking in the Internet.

It explains that the World Wide Web Consortium or W3C is conducting workshops on the issue, but offers little substantive on the policy front. Instead much of the story was devoted to "Everycookie" creator Samy Kamkar rather than to the complexities of technical specifications and the group deliberations of the W3C. Again, the lone hacker seems to make a better story.

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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Powers of Ten

In honor of 10/10/10 on the calendar today, the inheritors of the legacy of Powers of Ten creators Charles and Ray Eames have organized a number of events around the world. Of course, what kinds of scientific management are imagined by digital time? The sight of a decimal clock from the period of the French Revolution makes clear how strange these artifacts of revolutionary temporality look to us today.


Saturday, October 09, 2010

An Unfriend in Deed

A University of Colorado business school student, Christopher Sibona, announced the results of a study of over 1,500 Facebook about why they choose to "unfriend" others and delete them from their roster of friends on the popular social network site. According to Sibona, who conducted his research on Twitter with methods that might not merit as much attention as the study is receiving, "the number-one reason for unfriending is frequent, unimportant posts," which was followed by "posting about polarizing topics like religion and politics." Crude and racially offensive postings were ranked third as a reason to unfriend.

Perhaps the most interesting finding in Sibona's study was the fact that "57 percent of those surveyed unfriended for online reasons, while 26.9 percent did so for offline behavior." Although researchers on social network sites emphasize that it is not a purely virtual world and that face-to-face contacts and offline social relationships often shape how people choose friends and initiate social interactions on the site, online conduct seems to be what is judged when unfriending.


Friday, October 08, 2010

PowerPointing Things Out

Although PowerPoint is often associated with hierarchical office or military culture of command and control, its easy format for digital composition and remixing makes it an appealing tool of institutional subversion as well. This month the controversy has to do with a PowerPoint presentation created by recent Duke graduate Karen Owen, who created "An education beyond the classroom: excelling in the role of horizontal academics. As the New York Times explains in "Duke Winces as a Private Joke Slips out of Control," Owen created a "fake thesis" in the PowerPoint medium about her sexual conquests as an undergraduate, which included an analysis of the sexual endowment, prowess, and skill of thirteen student athletes, which was illustrated in her slideware presentation with bullet points and a bar chart. A gallery of the images from her original document is available online, although facial features and identifying information has been deleted. As someone who went to school with memoir writers like Elizabeth Wurtzel and Tad Friend who listed boudoir buddies in their literary works, I think about what this genre might say about this kind of catalogue. Does it indicate a degeneration of cultural production or does it indicate a lack of seriousness given to one's own drama more appropriate to the digital rhetoric of youth?

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Thursday, October 07, 2010


I was in the office supply store today looking at the aisles of paper-based materials and hard goods that I no longer use, and I found myself contemplating the rolodex as an object that was once used primarily to organize one's social network.

As a method for locating one's acquaintances it is remarkably egalitarian, because all possible contacts are equally ranked in its structure. Unlike the more hierarchical spreadsheet on which I tend to depend for managing large numbers of professional contacts the rolodex has no top or bottom. The rolodex is also fundamentally different in its structure from the selective invisibility of the social graph with which Facebook operates. On social network sites frequent status changers are much more visible. The site might remind us periodically that we have lost contact with Person X, with whom we can't imagine being spurred to spontaneous verbal interchanges by such messages, but those who are intermittent updaters and contacters tend to disappear.


Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Imitation, Improvisation, and Performance

The videos shown at this year's 24/7 DIY Video State of the Art screening at the Hammer Museum ended with a succession of video homages to YouTube's famed "JK Wedding Entrance Dance," including the "JK Divorce Entrance Dance" and the "MK Wedding Entrance Dance by Chippendales." This conclusion was meant to provide a feel-good montage of celebratory and irreverent YouTube videos to highlight the theme of this year's event: collective action.

After the lights came up at the end of the screening, Henry Jenkins gave a talk about "How YouTube Became OurTube." (USC's Jenkins was accurately characterized as a "commentator," "participator," and "icon" in fan remix culture in an introduction by Mimi Ito that gave audience members a sense of his importance in media studies and the study of popular culture.)

I'll try to summarize Jenkins' argument for how to understand 24/7 DIY video and then offer a few thoughts of my own, by using my own wedding dance example.

Jenkins and I have differed before, but our exchanges are always friendly, collegial, and supportive. After all, we both ground our arguments in our own community membership, and we both share loyalties to DML Central, scouting, K-12 education, and urban Los Angeles.

I'm interested in potential shortcomings in Jenkins' arguments because I want him to be right not because I want him to be wrong.

(Another person who has been similarly generous in our exchanges is John Palfrey, who opens the "Afterward" of the new edition of Born Digital with a very kind mention of my work.)

Although Jenkins began by reminding the audience that the Google-owned company was controlled by a "proprietary interest," he noted that the "you" of YouTube seemed to be both singular and plural, much as the "you" in "DIY" and "broadcast youself"could refer to both self-branding and collective engagement with community.

He then showed a slide that he often shows to praise the virtues of "participatory culture." Jenkins defines this kind of cultural production by its low barriers to entry, focus on sharing and informal mentoring, and merit-system of contribution and opinion. He also noted that the slide itself was a product of user-generated content, although he didn't cite its precise origin in this presentation.

Then Jenkins granted that "ninety-five percent" of what is on YouTube is "crap," but described such "crap" as "glorious," because people "need a place to be bad and get better." He also showed another slide by Gary Hayes that often appears in talks and blog postings about Web 2.0, although he quibbled with 1995 date for the launch of the web and reminded the audience that his own history of participatory culture goes back to "Web Negative 10" and his interest in toy printing presses used during the Civil War.

Next Jenkins talked about the many fan responses to the Saturday Night Live digital short "I'm on a Boat" that opened the 24/7 DIY video program, which included a capella versions like this and the riding of other kinds of vehicles like Harry Potter-inspired brooms and Yu-Gi-Oh! parodying blimps. (I was sorry not to see my favorite "I Want a Goat" video in the program.)

In introducing "spreadable media," the subject of his forthcoming book, Jenkins explained his own antipathy to the label of "viral ideas" by quoting from Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash and its explanation of the appeal of dehumanizing self-replicating information:

We are all susceptible to the pull of viral ideas. Like mass hysteria. Or a tune that gets into your head that you keep on humming all day until you spread it to someone else. Jokes. Urban legends. Crackpot religions. Marxism. No matter how smart we get, there is always this deep irrational part that makes us potential hosts for self-replicating information.

Jenkins similarly scoffed at using "memes" to describe these phenomena by citing the slavish imitation at work in how Richard Dawkins describes cultural ideas, symbols, or practices traveling from brain to brain. Overvaluing "fidelity," "fecundity," and "longevity" could cause critics to misunderstand the Internet events as they unfold onscreen and the potentially transformative power of seemingly trivial media-making in the moment. He referred members of the audience to Ethan Zuckerman's "Cute Cate Theory of Digital Activism" to support the thesis that "any medium sufficiently powerful to enable the distribution of cute cat pictures can also, under the right circumstances, be deployed to bring down a government."

In characterizing the line-up of videos, Jenkins insisted that they were less about individual expression and more about the collective ethos of participatory culture. After all, he asserted, even the hero of "Where the Hell is Matt" leaves the isolation of his early videos to become part of a gyrating crowd. (Creator Matt Harding was a no-show at the Hammer event, although organizers had hoped to shoot him dancing with audience members congregated around him on the stage.)

Online bystanders like this female vlogger collectively mourned the death of Derrion Albert and the urban violence that took his life with multiple response videos, and anti-homophobia activists generated "fuck you very much" collaborative videos like this one from France. Despite its slick information graphics and use of broadcast news video, Jenkins also thought that the citizen testimonies aggregated in "Why Would Anyone Stop You from Voting?" were also emblematic of this trend.

Jenkins lauded his mentor in the study of popular culture, John Fiske, the subject of a recent conference about his influence on cultural studies, but argued that his ideas about "cultural resources" were born out by Internet practices that he probably couldn't have forseen. At this point, Jenkins cited a few non-YouTube examples, such as the use of altered images of Dora the Explorer in the debate about immigration or depictions of superheroes doing jobs generally done by illegal aliens.

Having interviewed Jenkins in a discussion about the analogy between the online practices and democracy (and the limitations of that analogy), it was interesting to see the theme of "pluralism" being so central to his thought about civic participation. The videorecorded commentary I shot over a year ago mostly focused on the theme of "access."

It was also interesting to see Jenkins looking to film history in a way that he rarely does in his highly accessible public lectures. He noted that Eisenstein was interested in juxtaposition within shots as well as between shots and that fan vidders in the "Deconstructing Our Icons" portion of the program used similar techniques.

Over the course of what he described as thirty years of research on vidding, Jenkins said he had observed how political remix content-creators and fans were learning from each other. He did, however, express concern about the "flow of content," when video of Obama's pastor created for one purpose and audience migrate to use by oppositional camps. Yet in the era of "tactical consumption" Jenkins saw a more global participatory culture for whom the "hallmark is Iran." Even if calling Iranian online activism a "Twitter revolution" is a misnomer that omits certain facts about the role of other technologies and forms of political organization, he credited a culture highly literate in blogging and other diasporic forms of Internet communication.

In understanding what he called "new kinds of political speech" that include Avatar protests on the West Bank by Palestinian activist fans and the latest Glenn Beck Donald Duck mash-up.

Jenkins also used the work of Bolter and Grusin on "remediation" to point out forms of "hypermediation" at work in the DIY 24/7 program, whether it be created with Autotune or multiple windows. Such forms of software use "demystify broadcast media," according to Jenkins, even if the subjects of such videos may seem lowbrow icons like "drama hamster" and "keyboard kat."

Enter "lip dubs" or "lipdubs" into the YouTube search box and Jenkins argued that you would soon find hundreds of examples of "collective joy and mutual performance." With these one-take videos that can be almost as ambitious as the one-shot film Russian Ark, "every environment can become a performance space." (I have embedded a video that wasn't in the DIY 24/7 line-up.)

Jenkins pointed out that the changes wrought by this "OurTube" weren't just about user-generated content. As an example of "grassroots media circulation" of professionally produced broadcast media content, he pointed to Susan Boyle's performance in the same week of the finale of American Idol, which only garnered 40 million views in comparison to the 200 million who watched Boyle's performance on a similar English show online.

As "people sort through a sea" of cultural content, the battle over cultural resources could become complex. Jenkins emphasized two fundamental problems: 1) digital rights and 2) digital inclusion. For example, he noted the imitators of "Limelight" by Rush who jockeyed to get their fingering good enough to lead to an automated YouTube takedown by its matching algorithm until they became involved in a battle over copyright led by Kevin Driscoll (from whom it seems I have less than six degrees of separation) called "Tribute Is Not Theft." Jenkins also raised the question of what's not on YouTube in his conclusion and left the audience to think about a "participation gap" that results in "ideas and diversity we don't see" much like the "systemic bias" in Wikipedia articles where some topics get more digital print than others.

In the question-and-answer session afterward, he reiterated a narrative about the twentieth-century assault on folk culture, which is also familiar to readers of Lawrence Lessig. As Jenkins put it, "my grandmother was a remixer," because she was a quilter who actively participated in a folk culture of reuse and reappropriation. During the twentieth century he charactered fan cultures as "pockets of resistance." He also argued that because Latin America preserved its folk culture in samba schools and carnival traditions, they might embrace "different forms of digital creation" as they go online. He argued that "most artists" were "building on other people's stories" throughout literary history, and that the century which just passed was the exception rather than the rule.

There were also a number of questions about current events and upcoming policy decisions involving cameras in courtroom and net neutrality, which Jenkins saw as critical in "struggles over rights and liberties" that were central to his civic concerns. However, he argued that free and open access to video wasn't always desirable as Sam Gregory of WITNESS has pointed out when the pain of a victim becomes "comedy" or "pornography."

The last word went to a question about remixes out of China and highly coded or indirect forms of political speech that involve Kung Fu Panda material.

There was a video camera recording events at my own wedding, as The Del Rubio Triplets and King Cotton played live music, but the moving images were never digitized much less put online.

I'm a fan of the vast human archive of vernacular dancing on YouTube, but I wonder what it might mean for our celebrations and rituals if everything is to be choreographed for display and replay on the web.

Perhaps there are cautionary tales in both Ondi Timoner's "We Live in Public" and Ian Bogost's "We Think in Public."

The people dancing with me in this photograph are not looking at the camera; the action is meaningful because it is not synchronized; they don't need to be part of a collective. What possibilities for interaction and intimacy would have been foreclosed by enforcing an elaborate choreographed routine? What romance and wistfulness would have been refused?

What if those lip dubs aren't always just about "collective joy and mutual performance"? In what ways are interactions in call centers, chain stores, hospitals, laboratories, schools, military bases and prisons constrained by the rules of neoliberalism and the membership economy and new schemes for scientific management?

For more about Henry Jenkins on this blog and his sparring with Virtualpolitik friend Bogost, see "Who Will Be Voted Off the Island?" For more about the conference in 2008, go here and scroll down.

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Saturday, October 02, 2010

Facebook Showdown

As someone who writes about gender and technology, of course I had to be in the audience for the film The Social Network this weekend.

Luckily the movie was a little more sophisticated than the overly simple explanation in the plot line in which Mark Zuckerberg launches his famous Internet start-up to impress a girl who dumps him and to compensate for not being part of the final club scene at Harvard.

There were certain hackneyed generalizations about dystopia (social network sites being addictive) and utopia (the ecstasy of real-time experience bridging two countries) in the film. And women tended to be the prototypical users of software (a Stanford girl, an Oxford girl, etc.) while men are depicted as its creators. Also annoying were the "Eureka" moments on screen: our hero invents relationship status and the Facebook wall as we watch.

In general, the gender politics depended too much on clichés about women abused by distant men who could exploit their anonymity and indulge in the voyeuristic desire to surveil.

Fortunately, Justin Timberlake was there to steal the show as the co-founder of Napster and to define the parameters of Silicon Valley/South of Market cool. And the premise of presenting the story essentially as a courtroom drama (okay, a deposition drama) was somewhat interesting.

I just wish that all the onscreen action about Facebook lawyering could have been about the company's user agreements not the contract disputes between the many alleged founders of the site.

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Friday, October 01, 2010

Theory as Storytelling

The closing talk at the conference for the Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion on "The impact of M-PESA: results from a panel survey of Kenyan households"
was delivered by Billy Jack, who described the rapid adoption of the popular cell-phone based mobile money service by eight million people in country of thirty million, which was accompanied by a growth of M-PESA agents in a place in the developing world with better cell phone coverage than Westchester county.

Jack described how a number of indicators about customers unable to withdraw money, unable to deposit money, not being asked by agent to show ID, or not trusting agent had been steadily improving. Unlike some cyber-utopians, he also explained that the focus of his research was not on "getting rich" but on a potential "gain in insurance" that could be important for "smoothing shocks." He described how M-PESA was "not the bank for the unbanked" exclusively, because many different populations -- rural, urban, unbanked, and banked -- all showed growth in using M-PESA, although the service was definitely expanding to those not as well off.

He also asked a fundamental question often not asked in mobile money circles: "Is sending money important?" He noted that users are more likely to send and receive money but that economists should be careful not to see causation in correlation. Among so-called "early adopters" Jack observed that there was not much change between sending and receiving money, but late adopters did change remittance behavior. (Most people in Kenya are paid monthly, so that was a particularly important unit of use.)

Kenyans still used traditional means of storing money among the unbanked, according to one of Jack's bar graphs. In fact, mattresses beats out M-PESA among Kenyans. Like others with an economics background at the conference he spent little time on formulae. When skipping over regression results, Jack said, "we’re at a beach after all."

Although Jack said that "theory is just storytelling," he argued that the data showed that M-PESA users were better at smoothing positive and negative shocks. However, he was also cautious about these results, particularly since the effects of M-KESHO were still unknown. He was also wary of claiming too much about macro-economic effects and monetary policy, particularly since M-PESA actually causes there to be less money out in the system. At the level of everyday life it also creates challenges for users in a culture that expects contributions. Furthermore, he noted that M-PESA's parent company Safaricom was a monopology.

What are the lessons learned? For Jack, M-PESA is a story about "not designing for the poor" and the value of thinking about financial inclusion inclusively. When people in the audience asked why bother researching something that was a success, Jack joked about the Microsoft analogy but defended the nuanced picture that he was presenting.

In closing the proceedings, organizer Bill Maurer argued that designers had been urging him and other conference participants to get "less noun-y and more verb-y" in two days of research that was more about "moneying" than "money" in asking "what's the user interface for money?" and "what is money if it would be more democratizing?" And then what he described as a conference about "tearing," "throwing," "converting," "hiding," "interring," "celebrating," "securing," "exploiting," and "trusting" came to an end.

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Placing Trust in Kiva

Digital rhetoric is not exclusively the domain of rhetoricians. Seminal work in digital rhetoric is appearing all the time from scholars in communication, linguistics, informatics, sociology, and anthropology.

For example, yesterday, as the annual conference for the Institute for Money, Technology, and Financial Inclusion began to wrap-up, Anke Schwittay and Paul Braund of the Rios Institute presented an interesting rhetorical analysis of the appeals of a popular microloan service in "'Democratizing Capital:' Digital Lending Networks, Mobile Technologies and Women’s Solidarity Groups in Chiapas, Mexico and Guatemala."

As investigators, Schwittay and Braund explained that they were initially interested in the difference between what they saw as the commercialization of microfinance in Latin America and the so-called Grameen model represented in the "Bangladesh Consensus." Soon, however, they drilled down to find complex issues of trust at work and found themselves also working with meta-theories about trust from Amartya Sen, Anthony Giddens, Niklas Luhmann, and Lynne Zucker.

Case study research, netography, and ethnography were all parts of their analysis of Kiva, the online loan service for Americans who are interested in microfinance rather than charity in the developing world. They noted the importance of prominently placed faces on the website, minimal and clean on-screen presentation, and plug-ins for social network sites like Facebook as ways to engender trusts and foster a P2P illusion. They observed that the arrows connecting lender to the borrower on the Kiva web page didn't adequately represent the indirect nature of the transactions. An exposé in the New York Times that showed that Kiva was not all that it seemed, "Confusion on Where Money Lent via Kiva Goes," indicated that there was considerable backfilling of loans from MFIs and that the simplicity presented on the website masked considerable complexity.

In examining issues of representation and how Kiva is represented as an agency handling 120 MFIs in 52 countries, Schwittay and Braund also considered how their public database was structured and how it offered a way to think about credibility in the case of a "mobile credit bureau." Apparently Kiva uses a star-rating as risk-rating system to engender trust and played off familiar tropes rooted in the technology and entrepreneurship culture of Silicon Valley. The researchers gave them credit for thinking about the connection between the "back end" and the "legal end" in creating a system with 38 indicators in 10 different categories, which Kiva's Matt Flannery compared to an E-bay credibility score

Researchers studied AlSol in Chiapas, a Grameen partner that stopped being a Kiva partner because of Kiva's onerous reporting requirements in a time when revenues from artisans' embroidery were already cut by a decline in tourism during a period marked by swine flu and narcotrafficking in Mexico. Although they found interest in mobile phones as a way to cut interest rates, they discovered no awareness of Kiva among its former borrowers. Their research also raised significant issues about the privacy, given the seeming one-way nature of the interchange.

They also sought out an Kiva partner in Blimbingsari, a Christian area of Bali, which was called MUK. This Christian NGO on a Hindu island in a nation with a largely Muslim population functioned in a system of multiply contradictions in basic jurisdiction. The success that was had was credited by Schwittay and Braund to the Kiva Fellows, a group of over 600 volunteers, assigned at a rate of thirty fellows every three months, from a professional corps of Westerners with technology, finance or business backgrounds who also spurred regular media production activities showing successful loan results with blogs, pictures, and videos. Yet these borrowers engaged in raising pigs, making bricks, selling religious items, or pursuing other trades also weren't aware of Kiva's role. MUK feared that if the women knew the money was coming from abroad they would feel less obligation to pay back. Furthermore, the client waver that women signed surrendered many aspects of their privacy, because they were more concerned that their immediate neighbors not know about their financial transactions than strangers on the Internet.

Schwittay and Braund described how pressure to produce success stories about "happy entrepreneurs" generated odd discrepancies, in which women shown as busy and productive online might actually be ill or overwhelmed with problems. Stores that were shuttered were presented as open for business on the Internet. And garbage dumps that didn't match the clean image presented on Kiva were carefully omitted from the scene.

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