Monthly Archives: March 2006

tonite on O’Reilly Factor

I just finished taping a segment for tonight’s O’Reilly Factor talking about MySpace. I am actually surprised at how calm the conversation was. Relatively controversy free. Of course, it’s still about the scary side, but i think it came out OK. O’Reilly even introduced the town square metaphor for me, helping me explain that teens are doing what they’ve always done in public spaces.

Anyhow, if anyone watches it, tell me how it came out since i won’t get a chance to see it live.


I still haven’t seen the show, but some folks took pictures and put them up on Flickr which lets me at least see what i looked like (cuz i didn’t get to see anything during filming). Apparently i’m a cultural anthropologist! I don’t quite know how i got that label, but it is indeed an ist! Anyhow, i’m really rather humored by all of this. My mother, brother, aunt and grandparents are equally humored. I managed to survive one of the most conservative and controversial TV figures unscathed. Who would’ve guessed?

Update 2: I just put a copy of my segment up on You Tube. Enjoy!

the problem with firehoses

In a bulletin on MySpace, Tom Anderson wrote a very simple message:

it’s interesting to see how people are using myspace to organize for political causes. 🙂
there was a report on NPR about it today

He pointed the flood to NPR. Two minutes later: is currently unavailable due to technical difficulties, but we are currently working to restore service.

I feel bad for the tech admins over at NPR. But i have to admit that it’s kinda funny how fast a MySpace link can destroy a big website.

MySpace, HR 4437 and youth activism

For good reason, many Americans are outraged by HR 4437, a House bill that will stiffen the penalties around illegal immigration. Over the weekend, protests began with over 500,000 people taking to the streets on Saturday. Online, teens wrote bulletin board posts on MySpace, encouraging their peers to speak out against the bill. On Monday, instigated through MySpace postings, thousands of teens across the country walked out of school and marched in protest. In Los Angeles alone, 36,000 students walked out and took to the streets. Throughout the country, thousands of teens walked out in protest.

I am in awe of what these students did. As a population, teens are silenced by society, ineligible to vote. And yet, they took to the streets to stand up for what they believe in. They used the digital public to rally each other, to spread information and encouragement even though most knew they faced disapproving schools. They stood in solidarity, speaking out for an oppressed population that resides in this country. How amazing is that?

What disappoints me the most is how school officials, law enforcement and the press handled the situation. We bitch about how young people are not politically engaged, but when they speak out for something that hegemonic society disapproves of, they are slapped down. Ah, the irony.

Public officials and school administrators spoke out against the students’ actions. Quoting these figures, the press gave the impression that administrators were concerned for the safety of their students. The discussions on MySpace painted a different picture as students discussed how schools would be docked $50 for each student who did not attend. In admonishing the students, administrators told the press that kids should return to school where they can have conversations about immigration in a “productive” way. The tone was quite condescending, arguing that a school day is more important than this political act. When LA Mayor Villaraigosa spoke to the young protesters, he said: “You’ve come today, you registered your commitment to your families, your opposition to the Sensenbrenner legislation, but it’s time to go back to school.” I am particularly bothered by Villaraigosa’s statements given his activist history and stance on immigrants.

In some towns, teens were charged with truancy for participating in the protest. Many students are faced with detentions and other punishments for their participation.

And people wonder why teens don’t engage politically…..

Of course, what is most depressing is how the press covered the story. The first coverage i heard was from NPR where they had soundbytes of youth stumbling, trying to explain why they were protesting. The coverage made them look stupid and naive and the commentator talked about how the youth were uninformed.

Now, not all of the protesting youth fully understood what they were speaking out against. Yet, most did. At the very least, they understood that something was gravely wrong about the bill. Yet, many students were quite informed. Articulate students spoke about how the bill represented a form of racist oppression that would permit racial profiling. Other spoke about the fundamental problems with the economic system, about how Mexicans are a critical labor force that is systematically oppressed. Other kids talked about how their parents came to this country to give them a chance. They crafted banners and posters, brought flags to signify the diversity of cultures that people came from, chanted about Cesar Chavez and human rights.

And still, the press talked about how the students were just looking for a day off school. Almost every story covered that aspect. There is no doubt that some students were looking for exactly that. Then again, there were plenty of adults protesting the war so that they didn’t have to go to work. Yet, the news never talked about truant adults.

By trivializing the youths’ participation, the press failed to capture the significance of this political act. How long has it been since so many students took a public stance? Has it been since Vietnam?

What is gained by belittling the students, punishing their act, and pooh-poohing their engagement with the public sphere? Sadly, this is yet-another act of ageist oppression meant to silence the youth when they stand for something that contradicts hegemonic values.


One of the things that really bothers me about how this story played out concerns the issue of race and class. I wonder how a protest would be handled if privileged white kids all took to the streets backed by their parents. By listening to these teens speak out, it is clear that anti-Mexican sentiments are running high in this country.

The issue of illegal immigrants is raw with racism and injustice. On one hand, we are a land of immigrants (who decimated the native population). On the other, we have a fucked-up attitude about who has the right to be here. And that does not include people who come to do manual labor or people who speak a language that threatens English dominance.

To complicate matters, a huge portion of the economy of the southwest and California depends on illegal immigrants. Who picks the strawberries that you eat? Who works in the meat factories? Who cleans the toilets? How often do officials look the other way during harvest only to violently deport the immigrants once they are no longer needed? I often hear people bitch about how illegal immigrants take jobs away from Americans and use up our precious tax money. Of course, these people fail to recognize that most Americans refuse to do the jobs that illegal immigrants do and that this population deserves some dignity and access to resources for what they contribute to this society.

I’m quite curious what will happen to privileged society if all illegal immigrants are deported. Will there be a food shortage? How much will the cost of everything rise?

Unfortunately, i doubt that this bill will do anything to help the people who are the backbone of American manual labor. I doubt it will improve labor conditions and it certainly won’t improve race relations. This is quite unfortunate, because i definitely don’t think that the current approach to immigrants is just. Where is Cesar Chavez when you need him?


Update: NPR has a great short piece on the issue of students walking out.

It’s actually really good to hear the principal in this segment talk about her conflicted feelings – she makes it very clear that she needs to keep the students in school for the money (Fresno loses $30 a day for each absent student). What adminstrators are offering students as an alternative (write letters to your representatives) is not nearly as empowering as walking out. IMHO, the students aren’t stupid – they know that walking out of school will get the press attention and make the issue far more visible than writing letters. They also know that doing it on a school day instead of on a weekend will make it very clear that youth care and that they aren’t just there because of their parents. They were written out of the stories of Saturday’s protests (even though they were very present). By making their own, they are saying loud and clear that this isn’t acceptable to the younger generation.

super publics

I used the phrase “super publics” in my essay last night. I hadn’t introduced it before, although you’ll probably see me use it more and more as my dissertation emerges because i crafted it to help me work through a few things theoretically. I was asked about this term in various emails and i realized that i should probably do some explaining. I’d give a proper definition, but it’s still a work in progress, so instead, bear with me as i take a stab at what i’m going for.

Historically, we have talked about the public, as in the public sphere (Habermas). Implicated in this singular is the idea that there is a coherent entity that one could address or visit. More recently, academics have talked about publics, recognizing that there is no coherent public, but a collection of intertwined publics. In other words, a public in London is not the same as a public in Hong Kong. “The notion of a public enables a reflexivity in the circulation of texts among strangers who become, by virtue of their reflexively circulating discourse, a social entity” (Warner). Translation: publics are made up of strangers who are connected by information and, thus, share a coherent position as receivers of that information. For example, when Mayor Bloomberg speaks of addressing the public, he means all of New York. If he uses his “local” paper (the New York Times) to address his public, the audience who is part of Bloomberg’s public is arguably much larger (especially given the number of folks who see themselves to be New Yorkers). Yet, Bloomberg cannot speak of addressing the public in a global sense because he is not addressing the poor farmer in Kenya. Likewise, that Kenyan’s notion of a public doesn’t include New Yorkers when he speaks in his town’s public square.

Public is also used as an adjective. When it references government (“public services”), it is explicitly limited in scope by the scope of the relevant government – there is no universal public service. As an adjective, it can also connote qualities of exposure typically attributed to addressing an audience of strangers. For example, a public act is one that is visible to an audience of strangers, connected by exposure to that act (a.k.a. a public).

Digital life has really screwed with the notion of public, removing traditional situationism (Goffman) that connects strangers. If the Kenyan farmer is connected to the Internet and reads English, he can be a part of Bloomberg’s public via the New York Times. Yet, this does not mean that the New York Times would conceptualize him in their public, nor does it mean that his public acts would be equally visible by other constituents of the Times.

Digital architectures alter the structure of social life and information flow. Persistence, searchability, the collapse of distance and time, copyability… These are not factors that most everyday people consider when living unmediated lives. Yet, they are increasingly becoming normative in society. Throughout the 20th century, mass media forced journalists and “public” figures to come to terms with this, but digital structures force everyone to do so. People’s notion of public radically changes when they have to account for the Kenyan farmer, their lurking boss, and the person who will access their speech months from now. People’s idea of a public is traditionally bounded by space, time and audience – the park is a public that people understand. And, yet, this is all being disrupted.

In talking about “super publics,” I want to get at the altered state of publics – what publics look like when they are infused with the features of digital architectures. What does it mean to speak across time and space to an unknown audience? What happens when you cannot predict who will witness your act because they are not visible now, even though they may be tomorrow? How do people learn to deal with a public larger and more diverse than the one they learned to make sense of as teenagers? How are teenagers affected by growing up in an environment where they can assume super publics? I want to talk about what it means to speak for all time and space, to audiences you cannot conceptualize.

A reporter recently asked me why kids today have no shame. I told her it was her fault. Media is obsessed with revealing the backstage of people in the public eye – celebrities, politicians, etc. More recently, they’ve created a public eye to put people into – Survivor, Real World, etc. Open digital expression systems coupled with global networks took it one step farther by saying that anyone could operate as media and expose anyone else. What’s juicy is what people want to hide and thus, the media (all media) goes after this like hawks. Add the post-9/11 attitude that if you hide something, you are clearly a terrorist. Should it surprise anyone that teenagers have responded by exposing everything with pride? What better way to react to a super public where everyone is working as paparazzi? There’s nothing juicy about exposing what’s already exposed. Do it yourself and you have nothing to worry about. These are the kinds of things that are emerging as people face life in super publics.

I want to demarcate super publics as distinct from publics because i think that they need some theorizing. In other words, i think that we need to understand the dynamics of super publics, the architectures that enable them, and the behaviors and cultures that emerge because of them.

Friendster lost steam. Is MySpace just a fad?

People keep asking me “What went wrong with Friendster? Why is MySpace any different?” Although i’ve danced around this issue in every talk i’ve given, i guess i’ve never addressed the question directly. So i sat down to do so tonite. I meant to write a short blog post, but a full-length essay came out. Rather than make you read this essay in blog form (or via your RSS reader), i partitioned it off to a printable webpage. If you are building social technologies or online communities, please read this. I think it’s really important to understand the history of these sites, how users engaged with them, how the architects engaged with users, and how design decisions had social consequences. Hopefully, my essay can help with this.

Friendster lost steam. Is MySpace just a fad?

I do want to highlight a section towards the end because i think that it’s quite problematic that folks aren’t thinking about the repercussions of the moral panic around MySpace.

If MySpace falters in the next 1-2 years, it will be because of this moral panic. Before all of you competitors get motivated to exacerbate the moral panic, think again. If the moral panic succeeds:

  1. Youth will lose (even more) freedom of speech. How far will the curtailment of the First Amendment go?
  2. All users will lose the safety and opportunities of pseudonymity, particularly around political speech and particularly internationally.
  3. Internet companies will be required to confirm the real life identity of all users. At their own cost.
  4. International growth on social communities will be massively curtailed because it is much harder to confirm non-US populations.
  5. Internet companies will lose the protections of common carrier which will have ramifications in all sorts of directions.
  6. Internet companies will see a massive increase in subpoenas and will be forced to turn over data on their users which will in turn destroy the trust relationship between companies and users.
  7. There will be a much greater barrier for new communities to form and for startups to build out new social environments.
  8. International companies will be far better positioned to create new social technologies because they won’t have to abide by American laws even if American citizens use their technology (assuming the servers are hosted outside of the US). Unless, of course, we decide to block sites on a nation-wide basis….

Cognition, cults and ethnography

One of the goals of ethnography is to understand cultures on their own terms, from the perspectives of the people living them. Spending so much time thinking this way makes me really good at making sense of two people fighting – i’m able to see both sides of an argument and how different psychological frames lead to different impressions of a situation. (Of course, playing relationship therapist is not one of my favorite roles.) Over time, i’ve also gotten a lot better at understanding disparate political ideologies and other systems differences. Of course, it often bugs me that i can easily see the world from a conservative frame or from the position of big business. I prefer to stay meta where i think those frames are culturally devastating. But it is useful to be able to see the world from a different POV. And then there’s religions and cults.

In trying to analyze religion and cults, i find that i can never truly understand the experience from the POV of the people experiencing them. I am always meta, analyzing the effects and practices from a safe distance. Part of this is that i’m scared of getting too deeply embedded. So then i started thinking about what i’m afraid of.

One of the things that intrigues me about both religion and cults is their use of DMT in their rituals and initiation rites. DMT is produced by your brain when under great stress, during sleep deprivation, fasting and meditation. (It can also be synthetically introduced.) When experiencing heightened DMT production, people are very vulnerable, very open. This is critical for communing with God, but it can also be easily manipulated. Given the practices of many self-help cults, it is not surprising to me that many self-help attendees come out thinking that they’ve found the path to improving their lives. They’ve just gone through an intense experience where they’re stripped of control (must ask to go to the bathroom), sleep depped, food controlled, and pushed to reveal their deeply buried demons to a group of strangers who challenge them and push them further. This tightly bonds you with the strangers, with the ideas. This is coupled with a change in language thought to be needed to help understand the deeper truths, but in fact, used to help mark inside/outside positioning. The moves are brilliant and it’s not surprising that there are different degrees of cult-ness, but that’s a different post.

Both religion and cults change worldviews. One could say the same about politics but i don’t know if it’s the same. I started wondering about the effects of DMT production on this process. Most likely, given its hallucinogenic properties and other research on hallucinogens, DMT production results in an altering of synaptic connections. In other words, when you’re producing a high level of DMT, you can build strong synaptic relationships between previously unrelated ideas (apophenia). Given the rapid language transitions i’ve seen in people, i feel like there has to be a neural effect of cult participants, probably because of DMT. (Is there? Chemists?)

This then puts me into an interesting bind as an ethnographer trying to make sense of these things. If there are changes to the neural processes, are there ways to see practitioners on their own terms? Is it possible to understand the cultures there without experiencing the effects that the rituals are meant to bring on? I have to imagine that anthropologists studying religion and religious practices went through some of this. (Anyone?)

This then cycles back. What are the cognitive/neural pathway differences between different cultures based on their practices and belief systems? We usually get at this through the differences in language with metaphors being a very notable synaptic difference. But what else is going on? Who studies the cognitive/neuro models of culture anyhow? Hmm…

(Caterina: this one is for you.)

youth speak or Web2.0 company?

When did “q” gain the right to replace “k”? Or “ew” sounds be represented with 3+ “o”s? And since when is “z “such a popular letter in English? And why are we dropping “e”s? And how did words get dots in them?!?!

People often complain to me about the youth speak that i stare at on MySpace. Y’know the “suP WIt IT pLAY bOI.” But these are the same people who are rattling on about companies named things like Sxip and Flickr and Revver and Goowy and and Zooomr and Oyogi and Zvents. ::smacking forehead:: Just because you’re making weird words to get domain names doesn’t make your behavior any different than the teens making up words to be unparsable by adults.

If you want to have a laugh, check out Cerado’s Web2.0 or Star Wars Character?. I’m worried about the people who can win at this.

my qualifying exams (and a favor)

I need to ask a favor. My qualifying exam date is set: June 8. From now till then, i will be focused on getting material together for that exam. Please understand that i cannot engage with anyone’s projects or research right now. I’m happy to talk with press who are working to end the culture of fear surrounding MySpace. But i need to embargo requests for advice, consulting, talks, attending things, etc. I can’t even handle the requests from other academics right now. 🙁 I also cannot handle introductions to new people. I know that this is terrible timing considering that i met so many amazing people in the last two weeks, but i simply cannot engage and i feel guilty about all of the saying no that i’m doing. I really appreciate that my work has been useful to so many (and i hope that it will continue to be relevant), but i desperately need to focus for a while.

I will still be blogging, more to keep my sanity than anything else. But i probably won’t read other blogs unless people send me links that are relevant to my exams/MySpace/youth. I know everyone is well-meaning and i’m sooo sorry that i’m so overcommitted.

what do you fear to be wrong about most?

Late one night at Etech, Matt Webb asked a bunch of us what we would be most afraid to be wrong about. In other words, what are we most invested in and would have our realities shattered if we were wrong. This question blew me away and got me thinking.

After thinking for a while, i gave my answer: that freedom is not the answer. All of my work, all of the work of those around me is deeply invested in the belief that freedom brings happiness and all sorts of goodness. What if freedom causes more harm than good? What it freedom brings social misery? What if people are better off being controlled? If so, i would be at a complete loss.

So i then decided to turn the question around to others and i now want to turn it around to you. What are you most afraid to be wrong about?