Monthly Archives: December 2005

tis holiday time…

I’m still not a big fan of Christmas because as best as i can tell, it’s just an excuse for mass consumption and gluttony. But still, i enjoy the family time and thus i’m headed to the east coast to spend time with relatives. I don’t know how much Internet access i will have between now and January 9. After family time, i will be running off to Hawaii for a mix of vacation (aka: reading time) and “conference” “attendance” (aka academic family outting).

In any case, i wish everyone the best in their consumption and celebratory efforts!

various conference bits

I wanted to share some exciting conference bits. First, i have four upcoming public conference speaking gigs that might be of interest to folks:

1. In January, at HICSS, i will be presenting a paper: “Profiles as Conversation: Networked Identity Performance on Friendster.”

2. In February, at AAAS, i will be speaking about digital youth alongside Henry Jenkins, Justine Cassell, Amanda Lehnart, and Dave Huffaker. The panel is called “It’s 10 pm: Do You Know Where Your Children Are . . . On-line!”

3. In March, i will be giving a talk at Etech. The talk is called “G/localization: When Global Information and Local Interaction Collide.” This will be a long talk, written explicitly for the Etech community, addressing the tensions between global and local that are emerging in social software. For all of you industry folks, this will be the most relevant talk i will give this season.

4. The next week in March, i will be organizing a panel at SXSW alongside Jane McGonigal, Irina Shklovski and Amanda Williams. SXSW will be full of many different fun panels and lots of good socialization.

In addition to my upcoming talks, i am also on the steering committee for BlogTalk Reloaded. The CFP was just released and is of particular relevance to many of you since the scope of the conference has expanded to think about social software more broadly. There are three separate tracks: academic, industry and practitioner. It’s a good opportunity to meet with all sorts of social technology minded folks.

gathering the troops

Folks in the media have definitely noticed one of the things i love most about Yahoo! – it’s invested in bringing together all of the smart folks and interesting companies under one roof. I’ve been working in Yahoo! Research Berkeley for four months now and in that time, i’ve watched as people throughout the company have become more and more aware of what it means to make and think about social media (from both top-down and bottom-up directions). There’s also been a huge push at rethinking how innovation happens. For example, there was hack day where folks from across the company came together and hacked up interesting and innovative projects in a matter of one day. Recently, the company has started releasing small mash-ups rather than waiting for things to be connected to full-blown projects. The weird thing is that i don’t even know a fraction of what gets released on a daily basis.

Yahoo! is going through a really strange transformation right now and it’s intriguing to be a part of it. It’s a big grown-up company full of “adults” who have been working in a structured form for quite some time. With all of the acquisitions and recent hirings, they’ve been bringing in an entirely new branch of folks – the “kids.” You can feel this around the campus. Walk into most cubes and people are quietly coding away. Walk into land-o-Flickr and there’s an explosion of energy, streaming commentary, and rapid-fire iteration (much to the dismay of their neighbors, i’m sure). The new “kids” swirling around Yahoo! are tasked with bringing in the innovative spirit, shaking up corporate culture, and marching to our own creative drumbeat. The grown-ups around Yahoo! are not quite sure what to do with many of us, but the energy we bring seems to be appreciated. Yet, meetings are often a bit peculiar as we try to find common language and process for working together. (And, just like good “kids”, i’ve noticed that many of us have a rather foul tongue that still shocks the “adults” on a regular basis.)

I often hear people talking about how Yahoo! is buying up Web2.0, but i don’t think it’s just that. It’s not only about tagging, social bookmarking, sharing, etc. It’s about rethinking the innovation process when handling social technologies. Take a look at some of the characters recently hired/acquired – Caterina Fake, Stewart Butterfield, Joshua Schachter, Andy Baio, Cameron Marlow, Chad Dickerson, Tom Coates… These aren’t even your typical Web2.0 crowd – these are creatives with attitude who have no problem telling corporate what they think and pushing for changes that they feel are essential.

Before mainstreamification, Yahoo! used to stand for the people who were rather quirky. It’s rather nice to see it moving back in that direction. And it’s quite fun to watch it from the inside and contribute to that effort. (And damn do i like the fact that so many of the folks i respect are landing there.)

should i participate in a government panel?

I’m torn and i need some advice. I was asked to be on a panel at an upcoming CIA conference “with the objective of providing extensive insight into how terrorists can and likely will use cyberspace for influence purposes.” They want to understand how blogs and Friendster work. They seem to be running a series of conferences, including a cyber one, one with religious and non-profit groups, one with advertising and PR groups, and one with entertainment and gaming folks… all to get “insight” from experts to understand the terrorist schtuff.

My first inclination is to object on moral grounds. I am violently opposed to PATRIOT and how the government and military are using technology to track civilians under the umbrella of finding terrorists. I object to the culture of fear being perpetuated and the “if you aren’t with us, you’re against us” attitude. I have major systemic issues with our government and its exploitation of power. Major issues.

Of course, part of me wonders if i can learn from these folks and use this platform to change people’s minds (or maybe be a little bit subversive). The audience is purportedly “group of between 40 and 50 high level intelligence managers and policy analysts from the Central Intelligence Agency, U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of Defense, Defense Intelligence Agency, U.S. Strategic Command, U.S. Special Operations Command, Office of Naval Intelligence, and various other unified military commands.”

I’m also worried because the terrorists make sense to me in the same way that punks who steal and kids who blow up schools make sense. These groups feel as though they will never have agency within the system because the systemic hegemony is too oppressive. They seek to overthrow the oppressor through brute force, to disrupt the system from its core and rattle the foundations that blind everyone to the problems of the system. Of course, in every case, the system does a good job in keeping the mainstream blinders on so that these acts are only ever seen as wrong instead of as attempts to wake up the mass zombie culture. I don’t support these groups’ violence and i think machismo clouds the efforts to make change. But it’s the same attitudes that make Fakesters and goths utterly lovable to me – same concept, no violence.

Given this perspective, i’m worried that there’s no way that i could ever change the minds of military folks because the core values are so different. I’m worried that my efforts to influence will simply be repurposed and manipulated, no matter what i do. I’m worried that i will become a tool of the kinds of oppression that i loathe and the lack of understanding that angers me. I don’t want to eliminate terrorism by force; i want to see a cultural change that makes it unnecessary and unvalued. But is there any way that i can do that by participating? I’m not sure…

Anyhow, i’m torn. Thoughts? Perspectives?

It’s funny… i sat in traffic on the Bay Bridge for an hour last night and i kept reading the bumper sticker in front of me. “Join the army and go to exotic distant lands so you can meet exciting new people and then kill them.” ::sigh:: I don’t want to be that anthropologist that helps the colonial empire destroy the world and abuse its privileges.

Wikipedia, academia and Seigenthaler

For the last couple of weeks, i’ve been watching the Wikipedia bru-ha-ha. As folks probably know, i got really upset a while back when folks were talking about Wikipedia being the essential collection of knowledge, meant to replace school books and other refereed knowledge containers. I still strongly believe that Wikipedia will not be that. But Jimmy Wales reminded me that Wikipedia is meant to be an encyclopedia, not a library replacement. It should be the first source of information, not the last. It should be a site for information exploration, not the definitive source of facts. This convinced me and i developed a great deal of respect for the project and its intentions. Of course, i still get annoyed with Wikipedia obsessives who promote it as the panacea to all knowledge problems.

So, when i heard about Seigenthaler, i rolled my eyes. Welcome to being a public figure – people will say mean things about you on the web. None of it is guaranteed to be true – it’s the web. (Of course, my view probably stems from being a native web kid – no one likes the meannies but we’ve gotten used to it.) Wikipedia is better than most of the web because YOU CAN CHANGE IT. And if you inform them that someone is acting in a malicious way, Wikipedians will actually track it to keep it neutral. Can you even imagine Google doing that for every webpage out there? Ha ha ha ha ha. Try getting an article that is libelous removed from the Google index, like a mean-spirited blog entry. Not going to happen (unless you’re Scientology).

Seigenthaler had a very reasonable conversation with Wikipedia, telling them of the troubles. Wikipedia, in Wikipedia-form, acted immediately to remedy the situation, even volunteering to remove the history. I applauded them. And then Seigenthaler wrote a rather mean-spirited, anti-Wikipedia opinion piece in the USA Today. He went around calling for the end to Wikipedia. Uncool. I was outraged.

What pissed me off more was how the academic community pointed to this case and went “See! See! Wikipedia is terrible! We must protest it and stop it! It’s ruining our schools!” All of a sudden, i found myself defending Wikipedia to academics instead of reminding the pro-Wikipedians of its limitations in academia. I kept pointing out that they wouldn’t let students cite from encyclopedias either. I reminded folks that the answer is not to protest it, but to teach students how to read it and to understand its strengths and limitations. To actually TEACH students to interpret web material. I reminded academics that Wikipedia provides information to people who don’t have access to books and that mostly-good information is far better than none. Most importantly, i reminded academics that the vast majority of articles on Wikipedia are super solid and if they had a problem with them, they could fix them. Academics have a lot of knowledge, but all too often they forget that they are teachers and that there is great value in teaching the masses, not just the small number of students who will help their careers progress. Alas, public education has been devalued and information elitism is rampant in an age where we finally have the tools to make knowledge more accessible. Sad. (And one of the many things that is making me disillusioned with academia these days.) I found myself being the Wikipedia promoter because i found the extreme academic viewpoint to be just as egregious as the extreme Wikipedia viewpoint.

And then, as if i couldn’t be more cranky, i watched Internet Researchers take up the same anti-Wikipedia argument. I was floored. These aren’t just academics, they’re the academics who study the web. The academics who should know better. But they felt as though it was a problem that Wikipedia would allow for a man to be defamed. As the conversation progressed, someone pointed out that Wikipedia’s policies and platform supports Seigenthaler’s concern that “irresponsible vandals [can] write anything they want about anybody.” Much to my complete and utter joy, Jimmy Wales responded with a fantastic structural comparison that i felt should be surfaced from the mailing list and shared to the world at large:

Imagine that we are designing a restaurant. This restuarant will serve steak. Because we are going to be serving steak, we will have steak knives for the customers. Because the customers will have steak knives, they might stab each other. Therefore, we conclude, we need to put each table into separate metal cages, to prevent the possibility of people stabbing each other.

What would such an approach do to our civil society? What does it do to human kindness, benevolence, and a positive sense of community?

When we reject this design for restaurants, and then when, inevitably, someone does get stabbed in a restaurant (it does happen), do we write long editorials to the papers complaining that “The steakhouse is inviting it by not only allowing irresponsible vandals to stab anyone they please, but by also providing the weapons”?

No, instead we acknowledge that the verb “to allow” does not apply in such a situation. A restaurant is not _allowing_ something just because they haven’t taken measures to _forcibly prevent it_ a priori. It is surely against the rules of the restaurant, and of course against the laws of society. Just. Like. Libel. If someone starts doing bad things in a restuarant, they are forcibly kicked out and, if it’s particularly bad, the law can be called. Just. Like. Wikipedia.

I do not accept the spin that Wikipedia “allows anyone to write anything” just because we do not metaphysically prevent it by putting authors in cages.

All too often we blame the technology for problematic human behaviors. We fail to recognize that technology makes them more visible but the human behaviors are rooted in larger issues. In turn, we treat the symptoms rather than the disease. The solution is not to bandaid the problems by taking away or limiting the technologies, but to make the world a better place from the inside out.

I am worried about how academics are treating Wikipedia and i think that it comes from a point of naivety. Wikipedia should never be the sole source for information. It will never have the depth of original sources. It will also always contain bias because society is inherently biased, although its efforts towards neutrality are commendable. These are just realizations we must acknowledge and support. But what it does have is a huge repository of information that is the most accessible for most people. Most of the information is more accurate than found in a typical encyclopedia and yet, we value encyclopedias as a initial point of information gathering. It is also more updated, more inclusive and more in-depth. Plus, it’s searchable and in the hands of everyone with digital access (a much larger population than those with encyclopedias in their homes). It also exists in hundreds of languages and is available to populations who can’t even imagine what a library looks like. Yes, it is open. This means that people can contribute what they do know and that others who know something about that area will try to improve it. Over time, articles with a lot of attention begin to be inclusive and approximating neutral. The more people who contribute, the stronger and more valuable the resource. Boycotting Wikipedia doesn’t make it go away, but it doesn’t make it any better either.

I will be truly sad if academics don’t support the project, don’t contribute knowledge. I will be outraged if academics continue to talk about having Wikipedia eliminated as a tool for information dispersal. Sure, students shouldn’t be citing from Wikipedia instead of the primary texts they were supposed to have read. But Wikipedia is a stunning supplement to most texts and often provides pointers to other relevant material that one didn’t know existed. We should be teaching our students how to interpret the materials they get on the web, not banning them from it. We should be correcting inaccuracies that we find rather than protesting the system. We have the knowledge to be able to do this, but all too often, we’re acting like elitist children. In this way, i believe academics are more likely to lose credibility than Wikipedia.

favorite non-profits/foundations?

Call it tithing or call it tax-savings, i’m a strong believer that privileged people should give a portion of their income to support causes that make the world a better place. For this reason, i can’t help but smile at 10 over 100 which asks people to promise to give 10% of what they make over $100K. (Of course, personally, i think that those who make over $100K should be giving a percentage of their total income, not just what they make over $100K. And i think that many of us who don’t make $100K should still be giving back. Also, i prefer to make a promise to myself than promise a website. But still, it’s a good idea and one that i support.)

In my donation, i always ask not to receive any newsletters or other junk mail and i ask not to have my name sold. Email is fine, but i don’t want to be supporting the postal service or the paper mills with my donation. Of course, few organizations listen. At the end of each year, i re-evaluate the organizations i give to and donate again to those who sent me nothing over the year and send nothing to those who sent me stamps, packets, or other crap.

I am looking for some new organizations (and particularly foundations) that i should be considering. I am looking for 501(c)3 organizations that will not send me junk mail. I am particularly fond of organizations/foundations that work on both local and global scales, feminist and anti-racism organizations, youth-positive organizations, and environmental organizations. I am not interested in supporting religious organizations or any organization that permits discrimination of any kind (most notably on the basis of gender identity or sexuality). Do you have any that you recommend?

Already on my list of awesome organizations are:
Goma Student Fund
City at Peace

dear principal

Dear Principal,

Please excuse danah from school and all activities for a few days. She seems to have contracted the deth flu and is working on building an intimate bond with the white porcelain bowl. Don’t worry – she has made the tub a cozy bed and is very thankful that her landlord put a heating vent in the bathroom. I am watching out for her, keeping her clean and cuddled. I will meow loudly if there are any problems. Please be patient with her as she’s a bit on the delusional end of things.


first impressions based on tag clouds

The other day, someone pointed me to LJ Tags which shows the top tags on LiveJournal. I was really startled at how much this reflects the cultural difference between LJ and other blogging tools. Where else do you see meme as the top tag and life, school, work and music as the other key ones? And how cool is it that rl, fanfic, harry potter, and a bunch of russian terms are on there? Take a look at the following tag clouds:

Live Journal:

Technorati (a fraction of English tags):

Visually, they look awfully similar but the actual words included say such dramatically different things about their communities. Fascinating fascinating…

video games perpetuate A Clockwork Orange

Did you know that teenage video game players are the 21st century version of the droogie gangs depicted in the novel, ‘A Clockwork Orange’? Yes, that’s right – video games are forcing kids into an evil lair where their minds are dreadfully manipulated and they’re learning terrible lessons.

Of course, my favorite part of this article is:

In this connection, we recall the horror of Columbine High School in Colorado. Both Columbine shooters were drenched in the play of ultraviolent video games. At the time, the murders caused a backlash against violent video games, but nowadays, the old ultraviolence has returned like an old friend.

I guess no one informed the authors of this article that it was pretty well shown that Columbine had NOTHING TO DO WITH VIDEO GAMES (or goths or industrial kids). It had everything to do with alienation though. But fear of violence sells newspapers. Just as fear of our kids does. And thus, here we are, another completely inaccurate portrayal of youth and technology.

Here’s another great quote:

Moreover, the addictive quality of video games also encourages kids to stay inside and play in virtual reality. But kids need to be out in the world to become socially capable as well as physically fit. How many of our youth have become emotionally stunted from years of seclusion, unable to relate in normal fashion to the demands of ordinary social relationships?

How many parents allow their kids to go out and play? I live in San Francisco – do i ever see kids on the streets? No. Why? Because parents are afraid. They’re only allowed to go out under supervision, only allowed to play in very specific ways, in formalized activities, in community centers. They can’t hang out on their stoop, play on their streets, play in the park. They can’t socialize because parents won’t let them. Video games let them go into a world that is not controlled by adults, a fantasy world where creativity and exploration are allowed. It is quite common for youth to play with their friends, to have a fantasy world to share. Who wouldn’t prefer the fantasy world to the surveillance world? What would happen if we allowed fantasy to come back to the physical interactions for youth? What if kids could go on adventures outdoors like we used to? Until we deal with our culture of fear, video games are going to be *much* more appealing than everyday space. Not because they are addictive, but because they are simply more fun.