Monthly Archives: June 2004

blogging is trapped in a metaphor

I’ve been trying to sit with some of my frustrations about sociable technologies lately. I’ve been trying to work through them in order to understand why Liz’s frustration with blogging research resonates and why i start twitching every time people put together panels that pit blogs against “big” journalism. I wanted to let go of my boiling anger over the fact that YASNS do not look like “real” social networks.

I realized that all of these concerns come from a common root. Sociable technologies are all built on metaphors. They are often an attempt to model a set of practices already known in everyday life. Yet, as models, the technologies are not the same as the metaphors on which they are based. The result is an entirely new form that encourages entirely new practices.

Metaphors are not new in the technological world. Email’s metaphor was built into its naming. Yet, today, when we talk about email, we can draw on the metaphor of mail, but we all know that email is something entirely different. It is a fundamentally new communication system, not simply an electronic form of its predecessor.

My frustration with academics, press and conference organizers exists because the primary way to handle these new technologies is to address them in metaphoric terms. This perspective comes from a distanced vantage point.

What is special (and magnificently more frustrating) about blogs is that they stem from many metaphors, including newspapers/magazines, journals/diaries, and log notebooks. No wonder people are up in arms screaming that it’s not like a newspaper, it’s like a diary! or vice versa. They’re both right and wrong. If you’re stuck in a metaphoric understanding of blogging, the conflicting metaphors are problematic and discount your approach to the system.

Now that most people are on email, it is rare to have to explain that form. But when people were starting up, it was confusing. My grandparents thought that i couldn’t write because my emails were strewn with spelling errors, lacked capitalization and were often fragments. Nowadays, they get it because they get that email is different than letters.

With blogging and YASNS, people haven’t “gotten it” yet. Even many of the people creating these technologies still think that they’re building out the metaphors. Of course, if they stay trapped in the metaphor, they’re doomed to failure. It is crucial to understand that YASNS and blogs are different than their metaphoric precursors.

This is precisely why it’s bloody hard to study/discuss these technologies without being a practitioner. Distance is valuable as a researcher, but it’s also limiting. You need to engage with the culture at a deep level in order to study it. Because digital technology cultures are so peculiar, you need to be involved at an intimate level. Being a lurker is just not the same. It is the practice of engaging with these technologies that makes you able to move beyond the metaphor.

mutants and superboys

My oldest public entry on this blog is simply called mutant. Since last fall, almost 300 comments have been posted to that thread by people who want to share their mutant powers and find common friends. Their comments make me smile.

Today, i read an article about a mutant DNA gene that makes a 5-year old baby exceptionally strong. It made me think of the mutants who visit here regularly so i thought i’d share it with them. To the mutants!

the technological (white) lie

I firmly believe that people do not actually want to have technological precision; they want their technology to be able to permit a certain level of deception. Perhaps you’ve been known to say “My spam filter must’ve eaten it” or “I’m going under a bridge so i might lose you” even though you know that these are (white) lies.

In For Liars and Loafers, Cellphones Offer an Alibi, a few mobile phone users have taken this to a new level. They’ve developed a network of people who aid each other in developing and maintaining deception via mobiles.

(tx Kevin)

spirtual perspective on community

“A community can represent many things and be directed toward a definite goal, but community itself is the focus of a spiritual science that inspires universality. Day-to-day living in a community fosters a very practical concept of existence. Community life represents the frontier between the macro and micro in terms of human organization, making it possible to experience all levels of human existence. The community is, therefore, a vast landscape for a material realization whenever each person enters into contract with the gifts, virtues, and shortcomings of its members. It is also the immense spiritual and psychic laboratory that enables our spirits to develop.”

-Alex Polari de Alverga
in Forest of Vision: Ayahuasca, Amazonian Spirituality and the Santa Daime Tradition

Friendster is desperate; viral marketing failed

Friendster realizes that it has lost the attention of its earliest adopters. This morning, Friendster sent a message to a select number of people that they labeled as “SuperFriends.” It’s a usability survey where they are asking for users’ advice on an email campaign. There are four different potential emails that they sent out as screen shots. Here’s a sample one:

Subject: Friendster Now

So you’re working. Who cares? You have a lifetime to work. What you’ll really regret coughing and wheezing on your deathbed is not looking up all the old high-school friends, college buddies, summer camp alums, Burning Man acquaintances and ex’es who are just hoping you reach out and find them. And discovering new hiking partners, book groups and jam band fans. And setting up that person you really would date yourself if you were single. There’s oh so much to do.

Seriously, you should go to Burning Man. It’s pretty cool. The jam band stuff we understand if you’re not into. We just needed an example there.


Oh, to make sure you keep getting these vaguely sarcastic emails, please add Friendster to your email address book now. If for no other reason than it will look cool to have Friendster in your address book.

The tone of these messages is desperate, begging for attention of the original early adopters – the ones that Abrams told me were ruining his system. One focuses on Burning Man types; one mocks the old Power Point COO; one charges non-users with harming children; one is a desperate love poem. They’re hyper American-centric, SF-centric, white collar, wannabee hipster, intentionally attempting sarcasm (and clarifying that below) and complete with 80s references.

I guess Friendster isn’t happy with the majority of its users being young and from Asia. Does this mean that Friendster has its tail between its legs about its early egotistical behavior? Apparently, viral marketing isn’t working well enough anymore.

Anyhow, you *have* to read the full message that these SuperFriends got (included in the full message). It has had me ROFL for hours.

Continue reading

Autistic Social Software

At Supernova, i gave a talk entitled “Autistic Social Software.” For those who couldn’t attend, i uploaded a crib of my talk. The premise of this talk emerged from my post from MPD to Asperger’s.

I reflected on the connection between sociable media, science fiction’s human psychology and the mainstream media discussion around mental illness. I also discuss why it is essential for developers to understand what their (potential) users do. Finally, i channel Douglas Adams’ How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet.

It’s an imperfect talk, but i’d love feedback.

Ani DiFranco: Official Bootleg Series

I first heard of Ani through tape recordings of shows back in the day. I had this 1991 Jazzberry’s tape that i literally wore through. After a series of dreadful events (including a few break-ins and a car fire), i lost almost all of my early boots. Of course, so many of them are burnt into my head that i can recall them without the recording. ::laugh::

This week, Ani announced that she will be putting out an official bootleg series for folks like me who have always appreciated the raw energy of concerts. Every six weeks or so, she will release a new raw concert boot. This is absolutely fantastic!

For the readers here who are not familiar with Ani, you should read her lyrics. She has been one of my biggest inspirations, always reminding me that there is value in fighting the system. Her work is very political and she is one of the strongest independent artists out there, refusing to sell out to the music industry in any form. (All of you EFF-loving readers, you’d love Ani’s political efforts against the music industry. For example, Million You Never Made is an ode to that system.)

Asimov, reductionist approach to human interaction and YASNS

Yet Asimov’s reductionist approach to human interaction may be his most lasting influence. His thinking is alive and well and likely filling your inbox at this moment with come-ons asking you to identify your friends and rate their “sexiness” on a scale of one to three. Today’s social networking services like Friendster and Orkut collapse the subtle continuum of friendship and trust into a blunt equation that says, “So-and-so is indeed my friend,” and “I trust so-and-so to see all my other ‘friends.'” These systems demand that users configure their relationships in a way that’s easily modeled in software. It reflects a mechanistic view of human interaction: “If Ann likes Bob and Bob hates Cindy, then Ann hates Cindy.” The idea that we can take our social interactions and code them with an Asimovian algorithm (“allow no harm, obey all orders, protect yourself”) is at odds with the messy, unpredictable world. The Internet succeeds because it is nondeterministic and unpredictable: The Net’s underlying TCP/IP protocol makes no quality of service guarantees and promises nothing about the route a message will take or whether it will arrive.

This need for people to behave in a predictable, rational, measurable way recalls Mr. Spock’s autistic inability to understand human emotion without counting dimples to discern happiness or frown lines to identify sorrow. It’s likewise reminiscent of scientology, which uses quantitative charts of personality traits, such as “lack of accord” and “certainty,” to help people become 100 percent happy, composed, and so on.

[From Cory Doctorow’s Rise of the Machines in the current Wired magazine.]

With iRobot about to hit the theatres, Cory’s article addresses how Asimov “turned androids into pop culture icons – and invented the science of robotics in the process.” His account is pretty critical and insightful, reminding me that the science fiction literature that i love should not be considered a complete prescriptive tool because the stories written often fail to address the complexities that exist in everyday life.