Monthly Archives: December 2003

roleplaying in social software

Roleplaying in social software is not contained to just Friendster. I remember being quite humored to find that both Saddam and Dubya had LiveJournals during their tiff. This morning, i got a note from a fellow researcher, Anindita Basu, responding to my postings of Live Journal statistics:

oh, reminds me– i meant to respond to your post about lj stats. i’m not sure about this, but i don’t think they’re taking roleplayers into account in their stats, and they’re (or rather we’re) probably throwing numbers off. that’s what i’m looking at now, research-wise. blog-based roleplaying. communities appropriating online technologies to co-construct stories. there are a lot of young teenage girls who’ve set up blogs as harry potter characters, for instance, saying they were born on july 31, 1980 like harry potter and live in the UK. so male/female numbers are off as well as ages and locations. besides the whole harry potter community, there are a bunch of others, including buffy, lord of the rings and even pop icon based ones. i’m not sure how many are out there, if the numbers are significant enough to skew their stats out of their million users, but it’s something to take note of.

I have *no* idea how many roleplayers exist within the world of LJ, but i’d bet that it’s no small number. Yet, all too often, these subcultures go unnoticed by the larger tech world. This behavior is quite reminiscent of that vast community of fan fiction and slash fans. When i started working with Henry Jenkins, i was astonished to hear how many people produced fan fiction online. For those who don’t know what fan fiction/slash are, imagine watching a TV show (like Buffy) and then writing back stories about what is really happening behind the scenes. Using the characters from the show, people would produce thousands of subplots, stories of the characters when they were younger/older, etc. Slash is a particular subform of fan fiction where underlying homoerotic/sexual subplots are revealed. Before the net, people were using zines to write fan fiction. Now, fan fiction writers from all over the world are connected via the Internet.

Fan fiction is a fascinating form of participation in media consumption. The audience participates on a deeper level, engaging with the characters and building a community of like-minded folks who help each other with writing, personal struggles, etc. Not suprisingly, quite a lot of fan fiction is created by individuals trying to work out their own demons.

Of course, here’s where the lawyers have a field day (oh, Creative Commons…). The first issue is not surprising… Some have charged that this reappropriation of characters violates copyright/trademark. But, here’s a beaut…

Often, teens are using fan fiction to explore their sexuality. When 14-year olds write fiction about sex, is it child porn? Even worse, when 14-year olds write about imagined sexual encounters with teachers (i.e. in the context of Harry Potter), is it pedophelia? Henry is having a field day looking into these claims. But it certainly puts a nice twist into the process.

Btw, for those who find this topic fascinating, definitely read Textual Poachers by Henry Jenkins. Oh, and Henry blogs in collection at Technology Review.

developing digital and physical architecture

Bless Ross for pulling together all of the conversations that emerged from Cory’s 2004 wish. After pulling together the strands, he offers his own perspective and i particularly like his commentary on openness and control.

When we refer to the regulatory forces that include “code,” we’re almost always referring to Lessig and his book of that title. In it, he references code as the architecture of the digital world. It’s a great metaphor, but perhaps we should consider some of the physical issues that surround physical architecture. [If there are any architects out there, pipe in!]

When an architect designs a physical space, there is rarely iteration. I don’t mean to suggest that buildings don’t learn; of course they do. What becomes extensible about a physical architecture is how it can be repurposed. See, the designer, creator and constructor of a physical architecture usually turns over the creation to the users. This is not to say that there’s not a manger of physical architectures, but the manager is rarely the creator. At most, the manager calls upon the constructor to fix or alter something. Seriously, how many architects are there that obsessively design, fix, maintain and control a building?

The distribution of creation, control and use of physical architectures is a truly distributed process. Many architects are probably a bit horrified by how their constituents use their constructions, but they don’t play wack-a-mole with their users (although it is funny to imagine the ghosts of architects past coming out of the walls screaming that a painting is NOT supposed to be placed there). And users are certainly never fully pleased with the creators. I can’t tell you how many Media Lab students damned I.M. Pei and that darn artist who made it impossible to get light in the building or create a feeling of connectivity.

It’s funny because we don’t ask architects to iterate on their creations based on use, but we do ask that they create structures that allow for a variety of different uses. When they don’t, their creations become outdated and unusable. How much of this applies to code?

While the metaphor of code as architecture certainly makes some sense, there are lots of ways in which software architects are not similar to physical architects, both in how they treat their creation, its longevity, its users, etc. But perhaps there are some ways in which they could learn from one another…

Kuleshov effect and remix culture

One of the weirdest things about December and May is that my brain is always so full of academic concepts that they somehow manage to get integrated into many conversations. At the Creative Commons party, i found myself talking to lawyers about the Kuleshov effect and its relevance to remix culture. Or more accurately, the problems that emerge because of it…

Lev Kuleshov was a Russian filmmaker. Because of the political climate of Russia, he was left without access to actual film. Instead, he constructed films by splicing film and telling his story in a collage-esque manner. In addition to his style of film, he’s known for something called the Kuleshov Experiment. In this experiment, an image of a man’s face is shown juxtapositioned with various other images immediately following. Viewers thought that the man’s emotion changed even though it is exactly the same shot.

This creates an interesting dilemma for remix culture. What happens when an artist’s construction is repurposed to convey something different than intended? Does an artist have control over the context in which their material is used? How might this affect how people are willing to distribute their material?

social norms are not behind other points of regulation

In weaving a response to me, Joi connected my arguments with Wendy Seltzer’s commentary on the norms of publicity.

In reading her argument, i found that i take issue with some of her assumptions so i’m putting them here for discussion.

We early adopters know how referer logs work… We know how to write .htaccess files, or at least whom to ask for something similar, if we want better (though still not total) privacy. We’ve internalized the norm that conduct not marked private is public.

There is no doubt in my mind that the self-referential “A-List” blogger knows this and WANTS their conduct to be public, but there is a second form of early adopter that is getting swept away by the blogging phenomenon. Live Journalers and other pseudo-private bloggers were also part of this. Many of them do not know how to work an .htaccess file or even manage the LJ Friends lists. Over and over again, i run into people who are outright shocked that their material is on Google. For them, their website is not public; Google is public. And they don’t understand how their private ramblings ended up on Google.

As technologists, we have a tendency to mock this population, arguing that it’s their own fault for being stupid. Well, this is foolish. The technology is not being devised by them or for them. They are getting swept away by decisions in many ways propagated by the A-List blogger-esque community that WANTS to be public, seen and heard. Furthermore, when they do realize things are public, they often don’t care so long as it doesn’t affect them locally. This is not because they are stupid but because the mass populous does not fear Big Brother and that is their conception of why they should care about privacy. In many ways, us technologists do a disservice to the population when we ask them to rebel against these technologies because of how institutions might treat them. They WANT to sell their data for the chance of winning a Porsche. They WANT the Easy Pass because they don’t think that the government cares; they’re law-abiding, right? People care about local vulnerability… things that will affect them personally. That’s what Garfinkel and others have noticed that people perk up when their identity is stolen or when their boss finds out about their digital behavior. People don’t think about how the technology is evolving because it’s not evolving in a direction that meets their needs. Thus, it is unfathomable.

I wondered at first if privacy tensions would ease as more people became more technically sophisticated, but I’m inclined to think that gaps in understanding will just move with the tech, and social norms will follow still further behind.

I think it is quite dangerous to believe that social norms are “falling behind.” Social norms aren’t behind; they’re baffled at the direction in which things are going. They’re pushing for a different direction and they aren’t being heard. People are using technology to meet their needs, but they are not prepared for how the architecture is pulling them in a different direction.

Arguing that social norms can fall behind suggests that there is a hierarchy to the four points of regulation. Those points are valuable in discussion because they provide tensions. Social norms pull in different directions than the market, the law or the technology. This does not mean that it is behind. Quite often, social norms leapfrog everyone else. For example, social norms pushed Napster into creating an architecture that challenged the market and the law. It wasn’t that the market was behind, but that it was pulling in a different direction and with a new tension, things need to be worked out.

Thus, rather than thinking about how social norms are behind, i truly believe that we should be understanding why social norms are pulling in a different direction. What does this say about the population being served by the technology?

The Year in Phrases: Friendster

While i don’t have a lot of respect for Fox News, i’m quite humored that they included metrosexuals and Friendster in their year in phrases:

Friendster: Like an online dating site … but for friends. The site allows people to form networks with their friends, their friends’ friends and so on, and is largely used as a hook-up vehicle for single, urban 20-somethings. Several celebrities have confessed to being Friendster addicts, and the site was so popular this year that it was often impossible to sign on.

competition vs. collaboration: events, people & ideas

An old lover of mine once told me that there are people who talk about events, people who talk about people and people who talk about ideas. Combine this with collaboration vs. competition and here is another set of axes along which we can consider bloggers.

A friend of mine conveyed a story to me of an incident when he and another pundit blogger were talking about a concept. Suddenly, they both had a look in their eyes, read clearly by each other as a battle cry to see who could blog about it first. Time and trackbacks are the classic weapons used by pundit idea bloggers. They want to get their ideas out there, validated and linked to. The pundit blogger is competing for attention, for validation, for uniqueness.

The sociable blogger talking about life is not in a race against time or for greater trackbacks. S/he knows that there are a million different perspectives, all of which are valuable. There is no one truth, only opinions. What makes an event or a person or an idea more valuable in this community is that variety of different opinions on the matter, the variety of different perspectives. Together, as a community, this brings life to something.

There are two different ways to talk about events, people and ideas and you see this played out by bloggers. Some events are discussed because each parrt of the community wants to bring life to their perspective on the matter. Nowhere is this more true than something that affects everyone differently. Take 9/11. Everyone blogged/journaled about it, each with their own voice. What was powerful was to get a fleshed out view of the event from so many different perspectives. Some events are published in competition. How many bloggers do you know who speak of a private event to prove that they were there, to draw attention to their status?

There are a variety of reasons for which bloggers talk about people. Bloggers show their respect and adoration through links to other people (or their ideas). Bloggers compete with others through similar mechanisms. In some cases, bloggers mock others to prove their self-importance, to increase their stature. The list can go on and is awefully similar to RL. Just as we name-drop in RL, we name drop on blogs.

Then there are ideas…. Blogs are a public forum. For some, they are a publishing forum. As such, people want their ideas to be unique and first. For others, it is a space to flesh out ideas and thus they put their ideas out there to be discussed, improved upon and dissected. Others put their ideas out there to help shape other known theories. The latter two approaches are collaborative while the first is very much competitive.

Anyhow, cross collaboration vs. competition with events, people and ideas and you have an interesting lens through which to consider different blog posts. Of course, most bloggers cannot be simply labeled as competitive or collaborative, but a combination of both. Still, there are trends, and this helps explain some blogging habits.

die puny technologists

On Die Puny Humans, a selection of folks have created statements for 2004. I was pleasantly surprised to read Cory Doctorow’s call to the toolmakers of 2004:

Stop making tools that magnify and multilply awkward social situations (“A total stranger asserts that he is your friend: click here to tell a reassuring lie; click here to break his heart!”) (“Someone you don’t know very well has invited you to a party: click here to advertise whether or not you’ll be there!”) (“A ‘friend’ has exposed your location, down to the meter, on a map of people in his social network, using this keen new location-description protocol — on the same day that you announced that you were leaving town for a week!”). I don’t need more “tools” like that, thank you very much.

Now, i don’t know much about science fiction, but i read it once in a while to understand the models that technologists are trying to mimic. When i asked Cory about the relationship between scifi and technology, he told me that scifi is not supposed to be prescriptive. Scifi is modeled after what exists today and is not a representation of the future. Quite often, very little in the way of technology is fully fleshed out. In this regard, he’s quite accurate. Even his own Whuffie (which i hear about in way too many meetings on reputation) is barely detailed in “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.” Still, while scifi shouldn’t be prescriptive, many technologists interpolate the ideas presented and flesh it out to be beyond problematic. Often, they have the nerve to refer to the fiction books as their model for why it is a good idea.

Given his role as a science fiction writer, i’m quite pleased to see him call out to technologists. All too often, the omniscient technologies that appear in the science fiction novels are not representations of good things, but embedded in a discussion of the pros/cons of changing social interaction through technology. Take Cory’s Whuffie and his examples of people scorning others because they are not worthy enough of interaction. C’mon now. All of us geeks have experienced a form of that, being chastised for not being cool enough, good looking enough, whatever enough. Why on earth would we want to develop a technology that encourages that? Oh, right, because if _we_ build it, we can be the ones in power, right? Hrmfpt. Seriously now, such a creation creates a whole new level of social awkwardness, new hierarchies that constrain us. Just because it’s an idea for a novel does not make it an idea for life.

So, in fleshing out Cory’s call to technologists, i’d ask all technologists to consider not only what problems a technology solves, but what new ones could emerge. Start thinking like a writer or an abuser of technology. Imagine how people could misuse a technology to hurt others. Consider who gains and loses power from such technology. It’s a fascinating exercise and far more fulfilling than just thinking about who benefits from something. And besides, then you won’t always be thinking “but the users shouldn’t do THAT with this technology.”

inappropriate blogging

As i meet more and more of the uber-bloggers, i continue to get more horrified as they play out their catty games in a public forum. It’s one thing to critique a product, an idea, someone’s politics and philosophies. It’s another thing to pull up private matters into a public forum or to mock people’s struggles to overcome their own self-defeating habits. What’s worse is that i watch bloggers write this material to elevate their own position in the eyes of the person they are mocking. So counterproductive and insulting.

I’ve been trying to tease apart the difference between LJ folks and the uber bloggers (particularly those who blog about people, not simply ideas/links). At first, i thought it had to do with content, but the more i think about it, the more i think it has to do with audience. At this point, i expect journalers to talk about their STDs, their cheating, their love life and all other made-for-Jerry-Springer content. But i expected public bloggers who make a name out of blogging to be a bit more sophisticated. Unfortunately, their content is often just as catty, only its self-importance tries to make it seem otherwise. The bloggers want the whole world to see their opinion of other bloggers… so that the hierarchy is created publicly. Thus, rather than just creating personal content for friends, the bloggers are going for others’ public throats.

Erg. I’m a bit too cranky from reading my RSS feed this morning. Of course, here i am, feeding into the flurry by talking about what i observed in a meta-fashion. I just don’t feel right directly pointing at people. But seriously, if you read this and you write about other people, think about it for a moment. Get out of the “this is truth” mentality and really question how others might read what you just said. Is it really necessary to lambast people’s personal shit on a blog meant for the world to see? It makes me cringe and it’s not even about me!